Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed ? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery ; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our enquiries.
From Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Whilst April was the month of unseasonal heat and an absence of rain, May has become the month of drizzle and damp. The rain soughs from the eaves onto sodden lawns. We can spend days not seeing the hills.
The year is seeming to follow the pattern of previous ones: a summer-like spell of weather arrives earlier than usual, followed by a dark and wet July and August. They have become a season of cancelled picnics and cricket matches, lending a sense that the world is changing in ways too subtle and complex for us to understand.
It was on one of these damp summer days that I first visited the Jerwood Centre in Grasmere. The hills disappeared into formless mist above the viridian woods. One of the centre staff showed us round, pointing out some of the treasures and oddities of this remarkable collection. The building is beautiful: light, airy and calm. Of that day, however, I remember little except for the slim and unassuming first edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
In my memory, the air in the room chilled as the book was opened. The silence seem palpable, laden with memory and meaning. I could smell the nutmeg-and-sawdust odour of old books. I imagined all those words pressed inside for years like antique butterflies; of how they would take flight when the pages were opened, rising dizzily into the damp summer air.
I like to imagine Mary Shelley delivering the manuscript to her publisher with that mixture of fear and pride. I imagine her checking the proofs, which would have looked just like the edition laid on the polished ash table in front of us; the same typeface, the same paper. The most famous child of that famous summer.
The birth of the novel is well-known: the Shelleys are trapped inside the Villa Diodati with Byron and Polidori during the long, cold summer of 1816. It became known as the ‘year without a summer’ following the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year. In the words of Mary Shelley, ‘in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands.’ Those stories spawned Frankenstein, which was first published anonymously in 1818.
It is interesting to me how the promethean myth runs through the book; the unleashing of the terrible knowledge which cannot be un-known. It is a parable for our age; the scientific advances which seem to make our lives easier, cleaner, safer, whilst the invidious chemicals, the carbon from which our fragile lives are constructed, accumulates in the atmosphere.
The romatic poets were writing at the end of the beginning, in the period between the enlightenment and the industrial revolution; after the knowledge, but before its application. The fire had been handed down from the gods, but they were not yet burned by it.
Perhaps Byron understood this. Torn between the traditional demands of his title and status, and his bohemian attachment to the romantic movement, poems of his from the dark summer echo similar themes. It is said that he finished The Prisoner of Chillon in one single night, its insistent rhythm eerily predicting the story of our destructive relationship with scientific progress:
‘My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are: - even I
Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.’
We become inured to the strange weather events which bring us drought and floods, cold winters and wet summers. We try to make sense of the patterns, but they are too big for us, they will only be understood in hindsight, like the crop failures and summer hailstorms of 1816. We believe we are making progress, but like Prometheus we are chained to the rocks, thoughtlessly pecking out our own eyes.