Two great horror stories were born during a few wet days in Switzerland. Kevin Jackson retells the story of what happenedby Kevin Jackson / May 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: A love of desolation and ruins
Around two hundred years ago, in May 1816, a small group of English travellers checked into the Hotel d’Angleterre, a large three-storey stone building facing the Alps on the north side of Lake Geneva. In the group was the 23-year-old poet Percy Shelley, his mistress, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, still only 18 years old, and their four-month-old son William. (Mary was to marry Percy in December that year, just two weeks after hearing about the suicide of his abandoned wife Harriet.) The final member of the company was Mary’s step-sister Clare Clairmont, eight months her junior—“the type of young woman who today would be known as ‘arty,’” in Muriel Spark’s tart summary.
Exhausted after ten days of travel from London, during which Mary had suffered terribly from travel sickness, the friends were more like refugees than tourists. Shelley had been so tormented by emotional and financial difficulties that he had become dangerously ill. Mary was troubled by memories and dreams about the loss of her baby girl, who was born prematurely in February 1815 and died shortly after. A few weeks earlier, Clare Clairmont had set her cap at Lord Byron, who found her annoying but had sex with her anyway. It was Claire who had suggested that they should rendezvous with Byron in Geneva, and it’s possible that Shelley agreed with her plans partly because he wanted to meet the older poet.
Byron had also fled London in February, expecting at any moment to be arrested by bailiffs. He brought along his new personal physician John Polidori, who had qualified as a doctor the year before, at the precocious age of 19. Unknown to Byron, Polidori was also something of a spy: Byron’s publisher, John Murray, had slipped him £500 to keep a diary of his employer’s adventures, which might form the basis of a racy best-seller.
Shelley and Byron were both a little shy on their first meeting by the lakeside, but an agreeable…