September 27, 2011
Researchers Confirm When ‘Frankenstein’ Was Written
While the story of how Victor Frankenstein created his fictional monster has never been in doubt, the inspiration for the literary work that tells their tale has frequently been called into question. Now, an astronomy professor at Texas State University in San Marcos has used his scientific knowledge in an attempt to vindicate author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
According to Tim Radford of the Guardian, Shelley was one of those in attendance at a June 1816 villa party, and while there had accepted a challenge to write a ghost story from Lord Byron. In the preface to the 1831 edition of her masterpiece, she wrote that she had struggled to come up with an idea until she had been inspired by "a waking dream" and had woken up to moonlight beaming through the window.
The question that had long bothered scholars, though, was whether or not she had started writing immediately, on June 16, or if she had spent several days wrestling with her writing before becoming inspired on June 22? That issue was addressed by a team of researchers, led by Texas State University professor Donald Olson, in the November issue of Sky & Telescope.
"The chronology that´s in most books says Byron suggested they come up with ghost stories on June 16, and by June 17 she´s writing a scary story," Olson said in a statement. "But Shelley has a very definite memory of several days passing where she couldn´t come up with an idea. If this chronology is correct, then she embellished and maybe fabricated her account of how it all happened."
"There´s another, different version of the chronology in which Byron makes his suggestion on June 16, and Shelley didn't come up with her idea until June 22, which gives a gap of five or six days for conceiving a story," he added. "But our calculations show that can´t be right, because there wouldn´t be any moonlight on the night that she says the moon was shining."
The timing of the events was based off diary entries from British physician John Polidori, who wrote on June 16 that he had attended a gathering at Bryon's villa, and the next day wrote that everyone but him had already begun on their ghost stories. However, according to a University press release, the diary never explicitly mentions the ghost-story challenge, and that other sources have established that Polidori and Bryon arrived that the villa in question on June 10.
"To further refine the dates, Shelley´s reference of moonlight on the night of her inspirational dream provided an astronomical clue for the Texas State researchers," the University press release said. "To determine which nights in June 1816 bright moonlight could´ve shone through Shelley´s window after midnight, the team of Texas State researchers traveled in Aug. 2010 to Switzerland, where Villa Diodati still stands above Lake Geneva."
"The research team made extensive topographic measurements of the terrain and Villa Diodati, then combed through weather records from June of 1816. The Texas State researchers then calculated that a bright, gibbous moon would have cleared the hillside to shine into Shelley´s bedroom window just before 2 a.m. on June 16. This calculated time is in agreement with Shelley´s witching hour reference. Furthermore, a Polidori diary entry backs up Shelley´s claim of a late-night philosophical 'conversation about principles' of life taking place June 15," it added.
According to the evidence they discovered, Olson and his colleague now believe that the idea for the ghost-story challenge was suggested by Byron somewhere between June 10 and 13, not June 16 as previously believed. Furthermore, they now assert that Shelley's "waking dream" happened sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on June 16, 1816.
"Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night," Olson concluded. "We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clue."
This is not the first time Olson has applied his astronomical knowledge to the historical and artistic world, claims Jim Forsyth of Reuters. By studying the tided of the English Channel, he successfully convinced historians to change the accepted date of Julius Caesar's 55 BC invasion of Britain, and also managed to use astronomical tables to discern where and when Van Gogh painted his famous work of art known both as "Moonrise" and "Sunrise over Saint-Remy."
Image Caption: A promotional photo of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster. Credit: Universal Studios
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