On March 11, 1818, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It was one of the first science fiction novels and remains one of the most influential pieces of literature of all time. For many years, scholars have doubted Mary’s account of how she wrote the book. Now, thanks to modern science, we may finally know the truth about her famous “waking dream.”
Mary Shelley’s Waking Dream of Frankenstein?
According to the third edition of Mary’s Frankenstein book, Lord Byron challenged her, her husband Percy Shelley, and a physician named Polidori to each write a ghost story in mid-June 1816 during the so-called Year without a Summer. Byron and Percy, to the best of my knowledge, never followed through on the challenge. Polidori launched the romantic vampire genre with his short story, The Vampyre. Meanwhile, Shelley tossed and turned until she finally found her inspiration for Frankenstein on June 16 “during a sleepless night in her dark room, behind closed shutters ‘with the moonlight struggling to get through.'”
“I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of 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 …” ~ Mary Shelley
Mary claimed that she saw a “bright and shining moon” over Lake Geneva and that she proceeded to write the novel about Frankenstein while in a “waking dream.” However, scholars have long doubted her account, considering it a tall tale designed to sell more books. And indeed, certain entries in Polidori’s diary have cast doubt upon Mary’s version of the events. Did she really see moonlight on June 16 and begin writing her novel shortly afterward? Or was the moon impossible to see that early morning?
Does Mary Shelley’s Story fit the Facts?
Enter Professor Donald Olson, an astronomer from Texas State University. Olson specializes in using astronomical tables and geographic reference points to solve some of the world’s most famous historical mysteries such as “the time, date and location of paintings by Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh…the Battle of Marathon in 490BC and Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC; and even…a freak Breton tide mentioned in Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale.”
In August 2010, a team led by Professor Olson visited the Switzerland villa where Mary had her vision. They made “extensive topographic measurements of the terrain” and analyzed “weather records for June of 1816.”After a thorough investigation, Olson “determined that a bright, gibbous moon would have cleared the hillside to shine right into Shelley’s bedroom window just before 2 a.m. on June 16.” However, by June 22, it was a “waning crescent, masked by a hillside.”
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Thus, it appears that Mary’s version of events is supported by the evidence. Olson believes that Byron made his challenge between June 10-13. A few days later, Mary woke up in the early morning of June 16, between 2am and 3am, and started to write about Frankenstein.
“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night. We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account.” ~ Professor Olson
And the rest, as they say, is history.