The Cold Summer of 1816: How a volcano gave life to Frankenstein’s Monster…

Mary Shelley’s most famous character may be firmly established in the literary canon, but his origins are said to owe much to a significant volcanic event which occurred almost 7,000 miles from, and over 12 months before, his inception.

In April 1815, Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) experienced a vast eruption, thought to be the largest on Earth since 180 AD.

The huge amounts of volcanic ash released into the atmosphere, in combination with a long period of global cooling (the Little Ice Age), resulted in a drop in average global temperatures of between 0.4°C and 0.7°C in 1816. There were reports of frosts, snow and frozen lakes in the Eastern USA during the summer months; red and brown coloured snow reportedly fell in Europe, caused by the quantity of ash in the atmosphere. The ash also produced a haze in the sky, which dimmed the sunlight and created spectacular sunsets. In Asia, the eruption disrupted the monsoon season in China, causing disastrous floods.

In June 1816, the 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft (later to become Mary Shelley), Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori were staying at Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The persistent rain and cold weather caused by the volcanic winter forced the group to spend many hours indoors and, at the suggestion of Lord Byron, they each came up with an idea for a ghost story.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s contribution was the tale of a scientist who generated life in a laboratory. This idea later developed into Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818.

Read on for a selection of articles that explore the genesis of the now familiar story and its most famous character, and their subsequent impact on the literary field throughout the last 200 years. The articles will be free to access via this page only until the end of October 2016.