by Maximiliaan van Woudenberg
Greetings Fellow Romanticists and Print Culturists,
I am excited about my first blog-posting for Romantic Textualities. Thanks to the editors for the opportunity and their assistance.
Like many of us, ever since first reading Frankenstein (1818), I have been intrigued by the famous ghost-storytelling contest at the Villa Diodati. On a rainy Swiss night in June 1816 at the Villa Diodati, the reading of some German ghost stories inspired Byron to suggest to the Shelleys and Polidori that they try writing their own ghost tale.
In 1831, Mary Shelley herself recollected the events of that evening that led to her conceiving the character and novel, Frankenstein:
In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became neighbours of Lord Byron. [….] But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. [….] I have not seen these stories since then; but their incidents are as fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.
“We will each write a ghost story,” said Lord Byron, and his proposition was acceded to.
(Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (London, 1818), ed. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf, 2nd edn (Peterborough, 2000), 354–55.)
I’ve often wondered what specific stories the Byron–Shelley circle read that evening. And, in particular, how, if at all, did these stories influence Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein? What scenes in these stories inspired Mary Shelley to conjure up her plot? The character of Frankenstein? The Monster?
It is well-known that the French translation read at the Villa Diodati was the two-volume Fantasmagoriana (1812) by Jean-Baptiste-Benoît Eyriès—itself a translation from the German Gespensterbuch (1810–15) by Johann Apel and Friedrich Laun (pseud. for Friedrich Schulze). Fantasmagoriana was translated into English a year later by Sarah Elizabeth Brown Utterson as Tales of the Dead (1813). However, Utterson’s edition only translated five of the eight stories included in the French volumes, and only three of the original Gespensterbuch stories were included in the English volume. You may find this short digital narrative tracing the travels and transformations of the text interesting: Fantasmagoriana: A Digital Narrative.
The eight stories in Fantasmagoriana actually read by the Byron–Shelley circle are:
1. L’Amour muet
2. Les Portraits du famille
3. La Tête de mort
4. La Morte Fiancée
5. L’Heure fatale
6. Le Revenant
7. La Chambre grise
8. La Chambre noir
Since Fantasmagoriana is chiefly remembered for its inspirational force in sparking the ghost-storytelling contest, most of these stories have largely been forgotten. We simply do not know many details about these stories because they have been out of print for almost two-hundred years. Only recently have all eight stories been translated into English by A. J. Day in his Fantasmagoriana (Tales of the Dead) (2005).
So, I am planning a series of blogs on each of the specific ghost stories with the aim to explore if any events, imagery, themes, characters or specific passages in these stories can be traced as an influence on Mary Shelley’s famous novel.
I’m going to start by reading the first two stories—’L’Amour muet’ and ‘Les Portraits du famille’—and in my next blog will return, I hope, with some intriguing discoveries!
Seasons Greetings, and see you in the New Year,