On this day in 1816, the Shelleys, Lord Byron, and entourage gathered at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva to tell the ghost stories that would trigger Frankenstein. This most legendary of storm-tossed evenings may or may not have been a literary lightning bolt, as there are conflicting accounts of how Mary Shelley arrived at the idea for her novel, and how long she mulled it over. On the other hand, the June 19th evening and the lazy days at Byron’s villa that summer inspired more than Frankenstein; and the byways of literature being what they are, the occasion has connections backwards to John Milton, and forwards to the language of computer programming.
Frankenstein is connected to Paradise Lost by Shelley’s opening quotation and by theme, but Milton had been a Cambridge friend of Charles Diodati, and while touring Europe as a thirty-year-old he had visited Charles at the family villa. By Byron’s time, the villa had become a rental, the region a famous resort area—and of course, with Byron and the Shelleys there, it became an infamous resort area. One enterprising hotelier had a telescope installed in order that his guests might get a close-up of the “League of Incest” — Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont (half sister to Mary, pregnant with Byron’s child), John Polidori (Byron’s physician) — in action.
Whatever the distractions at Villa Diodati, Polidori was able to concentrate on what would become the short story “The Vampyre,” and Byron himself would write the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage there. This opens with a reference to Ada, his newborn daughter; their parting had been caused by the rumors of incest surrounding Byron’s relationship with his half sister, and it would prove to be permanent. Ada grew up estranged from both parents and to be a mathematical genius. She worked with Charles Babbage, whose Analytical Engine is widely considered to have been the world’s first computer, and her contributions were such that the programming language ADA is named in her honor. She died at the age of thirty-six, the same as her father; in her last years she was like her father in other ways, her difficulties including several romantic scandals, problems with alcohol and opium, and gambling debts.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.