It seems fitting to begin a look at the history of the speculative-fiction genre with the beginnings of a classic: Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Read more books about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.

This book was not the first work of science fiction, but it had captured the public’s imagination like no other, and provides a good starting point for this column. While the book itself is a great read, the origins of the Frankenstein are just as interesting.

Mary Shelley had both a tragic and dramatic childhood. Just 11 days after her birth, her mother died due to childbirth complications, leaving behind an illegitimate daughter, Fanny Imlay, and her husband, William Godwin. He would remarry a couple years later to Mary Jane Clairmont, bringing her own daughter, Claire Clairmont into the family.  

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In 1814, at the age of 17, Mary met her future husband Percy Shelley, the English romantic poet, and quickly fell in love. They married in 1816 shortly after the suicide of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. Their marriage produced a child who died not long after being born, and soon after, a second child, William.

That same year, the family travelled to Switzerland on a summer trip to Geneva to visit Lord Byron, his mistress, Mary’s half-sister, Claire, and fellow author and physician, John William Polidori. On May 17, Mary wrote a letter to her stepsister Fanny, where she recounted her journey into the wilderness:

The next morning, we proceeded, still ascending amongst the ravines and vallies of the mountain. The scenery perceptually 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 vallies, the distorted trees struggling with knotted roots between the most barren clefts...The spring, as the inhabitants informed us, was unusually late, and indeed the cold was excessive, as we ascended the mountains...

1816 was the perfect year for the birth of a dark, gothic story. Mary’s letter sets the perfect tone: a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific disrupted global temperatures, making the summer of the Shelleys’ trip a cold and miserable one. On one fitful evening, while trapped inside by the weather, Lord Byron suggested that the party tell their own ghost stories: " ‘We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron” according to Mary in the introduction to Frankenstein in 1831. Mary struggled for something to write about for a couple of days, before awaking terrified from a nightmare where a man awakened on a machine—a corpse brought back to life. She had her story and began to write.

Her story was published anonymously two years later in 1818 as Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, although she would later attach her name in subsequent editions. Reviews for the new book were largely positive: John Croker of the Quarterly Review in January 1818 called the book “nonsense—but it is nonsense decked out with circumstances and clothed in language highly terrific,” while an anonymous reviewed with the Gentleman’s Magazine in April 1818 hailed the book as “the production of no ordinary Writer; and, though we are shocked at the idea of the event on which the fiction is founded, many parts of it are strikingly good.”

That June without a summer proved to be a remarkable point in the history of the speculative-fiction genre, inspiring readers for the almost two centuries that followed. Mary Shelley’s was not the only story to have come out of the vacation: Polidori likewise began writing a story that eventually became The Vampyre, a story that would inspire much of the existing vampire-fiction genre.  

Shelley’s novel Frankenstein has remained an enduring classic since publication. The novel’s origins are rooted with the troubling events in her own life, as well as the technological changes that were about to come. Frankenstein primed the chamber for a captive audience and helped set the stage for the genre fiction to come.

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found at online his blog and at Twitter at @andrewliptak.