Year without a Summer – Its effect on Art and Literature

26 Aug

Year 1816. is known as the Year without a Summer due to an eruption of a great Mount Tambora volcano in East India (today’s Indonesia). The volcano eruption which lasted from 5th to 15th April 1815. caused a volcanic winter; a reduction in global temperatures caused by vast amounts of volcanic ash obscuring the Sun. However, this very summer proved to be inspirational for Mary Shelley and her circle of friends.

1828. Chichester Canal's vivid colours may have been influenced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. - Turner1828. Chichester Canal’s vivid colours may have been influenced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. – J. M.W. Turner

It rained heavily in April 1816, and in May too and that’s when Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, along with his lover Claire Clairmont and his physician John William Polidori headed to Switzerland, planning to spend their summer by the beautiful Lake Geneva. Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, who just turned eighteen in April, was a lively, voluptuous brunette who caught Lord Byron’s eye, and was already pregnant with his child. The party arrived at Geneva on 14th May 1816. and Lord Byron joined them on the 25th May. They rented neighbouring houses on the shores of Lake Geneva. Lord Byron and his physician settled themselves in Villa Diodati; mysterious place hidden in the trees, in the darkness of the large pines, while the Shelleys rented a smaller, less sumptuous villa nearby.

‘It proved a wet, ungenial summer’, remembered Mary in 1831, ‘and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house’. Memorable tranquil, bleak and desolate atmosphere proved to be inspirational despite the long rainy afternoons without a glimpse of sun. The landscapes, frightening and lonely, only added to the atmosphere, and even after many years Mary remembered them clearly, as she later recorded in her work ‘Never was a scene more awefully 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’.

The group amused themselves by reading German horror stories and discussing, among other things, galvanism, by a log fire in Byron’s villa where the group usually gathered. There, on the lake Geneva, in the dreary May, Percy Shelley first met Lord Byron and the two were having endless discussions; they needed nobody else, nor did they noticed the other guests. It was in one of these long, tranquil, rainy afternoons that the idea of a ghost story arose. The tension in the villa hadn’t helped; Polidori was becoming more and more interested in Mary who showed no accept of his affection, and, at the same time, Claire was pretty much relentlessly fixated on Lord Byron whereas to him she has became dull a long time ago. This claustrophobic atmosphere proved to be hard for Percy who found himself slipping into a mood of oppression and morbidity. One rainy night, as the guest were all sitting by the fire in the great room, Lord Byron read a few verses from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Christabel’. It the poem, a character Geraldine (who appears as a women but is in fact Lamia, a disguised serpent) seeks not only the physical but also the spiritual possessions of Christabel who is innocent and beautiful. Percy seemed to be very impressed, perhaps with the poem itself, perhaps with the hypnotic way Lord Byron recited it, still, he fled the room screaming, in horror. He later explained his sudden departure by the sudden mental of a woman who had eyes instead of nipples on her breasts. Polinori later used this event in his novel Vampyre, written originally as a short story during the same holiday in Geneva. In only six years time, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Polidori would all be death.

Some verses from Christabel:

‘(…) There she sees a damsel bright,
Dressed in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandaled were;
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ‘t was frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she-
Beautiful exceedingly!’

Later that night Mary had a mental vision too, in the darkness and tranquility of a stormy night, her heightened consciousness of terror created something that would later be known as a novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.

‘Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion …’ Frankenstein’s monster and Frankenstein the book had both been born.’

A Year Without a Sun proved to be inspirational not only to poetic group of Romanticists who made up ghost stories for fun but also to J.M.W. Turner, famous landscape painter who studied the sky with a great flair. His painting shown above, Chichester Canal was inspired by the sky as it appeared in that infamous Summer Without a Sun. The painting depicts the Chichester Canal in Sussex and its brilliant, vivid colours were influenced by atmospheric ash from the previously mentioned volcano eruption.

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3 Responses to “Year without a Summer – Its effect on Art and Literature”

  1. Claudia Suzan Carley 27th August 2014 at 9:13 pm #

    Very interesting background on both literature and painting!

    Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Mary and Percy Shelley – ‘A Gothic Romance’ | Byron's muse - 9th May 2015

    […] In 1815 Mary faced the loss of her first child, a girl named Clara who died thirteen days after birth. In May 1816, Mary, Percy and their son William, born the same year, traveled to Geneva where they spent the infamous ‘summer without sun‘ in the company of Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori, Byron’s physician. I have already written a post about this event, ‘Year without a Summer – Its effect on Art and literature‘ in detail, here. […]

    Like

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