‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Nature and the Meaning of Happiness
“Coming to this delightful spot during this divine weather, I feel as happy as a new-fledged bird, and hardly care what twig I fly to, so that I may try my new-found wings.”
By Maria Popova
In the early summer of 1816, weeks before her nineteenth birthday, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) — then still Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin — dreamt up Frankenstein on the shores of Lake Geneva in a creative challenge she and her companions, her stepsister Claire and the twenty-something poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, devised to pass the time. Her book would go on to influence generations of writers and presage pressing questions of science and social responsibility.
Like most Romantic writers, Shelley saw no divide between her literary art for the public and the private prose of her diaries and letters — rather, the latter served as a sandbox for developing and refining the former. In fact, it was during her difficult journey to Switzerland, after her elopement with Percy Shelley, that she first began composing letters of exquisite literary splendor. While her early love letters to the poet exude a teenage girl’s exuberant steam-of-consciousness outpouring, her letters to friends and family from this self-elected exile take on the tone of a literary travelogue, made all the more dramatic by the unusual state of nature at the time. The eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora the previous spring — to this day the largest eruption in recorded history — sent a cloud of volcanic ash around the globe, enveloping the northern hemisphere in a cool sheath of gloom. While the summer of 1816 became the summer of love for the four young people traveling together, the world came to know it as “the year without a summer.”
In a particularly beautiful letter to her sister Fanny from the spring of 1816, included in Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (public library), Shelley describes the perilous but almost unbearably breathtaking journey from France to Lake Geneva in Switzerland — the largest and deepest of the Swiss lakes, where she would soon compose Frankenstein. What emerges is a lyrical travelogue of both body and spirit — describing nature’s striking costume changes in exquisite detail, Shelley chronicles her journey toward her destination across microclimates and terrains, not only toward her physical destination but toward a new psychic summit of happiness, harmony, and self-actualization.
More than a century before trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd gave her stunning account of the living mountain, Shelley writes:
The road was serpentine and exceedingly steep, and was overhung on the side by half distinguished precipices, whilst the other was a gulf, filled by the darkness of the driving clouds. The dashing of the invisible mountain streams announced to us that we had quitted the plains of France, as we slowly ascended, amidst a violent storm of wind and rain, to Champagnolles, where we arrived at twelve o’clock, the fourth night after our departure from Paris.
The next morning we proceeded, still ascending among the ravines and valleys of the mountain. The scenery perpetually grows more wonderful and sublime: pine forests of impenetrable thickness, and untrodden, nay, inaccessible expanse spread on every side. Sometimes the dark woods descending, follow the route into the valleys, the distorted trees struggling which knotted roots between the most barren clefts; sometimes the road winds high into the regions of frost, and then the forests become scattered, and the branches of the trees are loaded with snow, and and half of the enormous pines themselves buried in the wavy drifts. The spring, as the inhabitants informed us, was unusually late, and indeed the cold was excessive; as we ascended the mountains, the same clouds which rained on us in the valleys poured forth large flakes of snow thick and fast. The sun occasionally shone through these showers, and illuminated the magnificent ravines of the mountains, whose gigantic pines were some laden with snow, some wreathed round by the lines of scattered and lingering vapour; others darting their dark spires into the sunny sky, brilliantly clear azure.
As the evening advanced, and we ascended higher, the snow, which we had beheld whitening the overhanging rocks, now encroached upon our road, and it snowed fast as we entered the village of Les Rousses, where we were threatened by the apparent necessity of passing the night in a bad inn and dirty beds. For from that place there are two roads to Geneva; one by Nion, in the Swiss territory, where the mountain route is shorter, and comparatively easy at that time of the year, when the road is for several leagues covered with snow of an enormous depth; the other road lay through Gex, and was too circuitous and dangerous to be attempted at so late an hour in the day. Our passport, however, was for Gex, and we were told that we could not change its destination; but all these police laws, so severe in themselves, are to be softened by bribery, and this difficulty was at length overcome. We hired four horses, and ten men to support the carriage, and departed from Les Rousses at six in the evening, when the sun had already far descended, and the snow pelting against the windows of our carriage, assisted the coming darkness to deprive us of the view of the lake of Geneva and the far-distant Alps.
With an eye to “the natural silence of that uninhabited desert,” she adds:
Never was [a] scene more awfully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime.
Upon finally arriving at Lake Geneva — the waters of which she would laud as “blue as the heavens which it reflects,” adding to the chromatic canon of literature’s most beautiful celebrations of blue — Shelley finds a wholly different manifestation of nature:
We arrived… to the warm sunshine and to the humming of sun-loving insects. From the windows of our hotel we see the lovely lake, blue as the heavens which it reflects, and sparkling with golden beams. The opposite shore is sloping and covered with vines, which however do not so early in the season add to the beauty of the prospect. Gentlemen’s seats are scattered over these banks, behind which rise the various ridges of black mountains, and towering far above, in the midst of its snowy Alps, the majestic Mont Blanc, the highest and queen of all. Such is the view reflected by the lake; it is a bright summer scene without any of that sacred solitude and deep seclusion that delighted us at Lucerne.
Against this backdrop of ecstatic serenity, Shelley arrives at a state of contentment that calls to mind Walt Whitman’s most direct articulation of happiness. She writes:
Twilight here is of short duration, but we at present enjoy the benefit of an increasing moon, and seldom return until ten o’clock, when, as we approach the shore, we are saluted by the delightful scent of flowers and new mown grass, the chirp of the grasshoppers, and the song of the evening birds… Coming to this delightful spot during this divine weather, I feel as happy as a new-fledged bird, and hardly care what twig I fly to, so that I may try my new-found wings.
A year later, now married to Percy and working on completing her manuscript of Frankenstein, she would adapt her letters and the joint travel journal the couple kept into a slim book titled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (public library), modeled on the popular Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark by her mother — the pioneering feminist and political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died of childbed fever after giving birth to her.
Shelley published her travelogue under her new husband’s name, hoping that his nascent prominence as a poet would lend it more credibility than exposing the author as a woman. (Three months later, she would publish Frankenstein anonymously.)
Complement with Vita Sackville-West’s beautiful letter to Virginia Woolf about rock climbing and the meaning of life and an arresting account of climbing Mount Vesuvius during an eruption by Shelley’s contemporary Hans Christian Andersen, then revisit Shelley on creativity.
Published October 23, 2018