Mary Shelley and Climate Change

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein during “the year without a summer”, and the stormy setting she depicts is a reflection of the changing conditions of the climate at that time. When Mary, Bryon, Shelley, Polidori and Mary’s stepsister Clare all gathered at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in June 1816, they had no idea – no one did – that the strange weather was caused by a massive volcanic eruption. Mount Tambora was the most powerful eruption in human recorded history, with the ash dispersing around the world and lowering global temperatures. All that Mary and her friends knew was that it was dark before midday, no birds sang, rain deluged from the darkening skies, there were unseasonal storms, and white lightning cracked above the mountains.

In Byron’s sitting-room they needed candles to see one another, even in “daylight”, and rain lashed the window panes. A strange comet was seen streaking across the sky, and locals warned of the end of the world. Everyone thought it foretold an apocalypse. It was in this atmosphere, in June 1816, that Byron challenged the others to a competition. Who could write the scariest ghost story?

Well, we know who won that one. 18 year-old single teenage mum, Mary.

That same “year without a summer” as it became known, led to failed harvests and famine, which in turn led to the French Revolution. Mary’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, travelled extensively in Norway and Sweden – also as a single mum, completely on her own with a small baby. In her letters she reveals that she is concerned about deforestation. In Mary’s own lifetime the forests were much more resplendent, and the magnificence and girth of individual trees was a familiar sight, in a way that is rare to us nowadays. Councils chop down trees long before they have a chance to reach a ripe and mature old age; but in Mary’s time, trees could be hundreds of years old, and have long memories reaching far back in history. A single oak could see kings and queens come and go, civil wars rage and fade, movements grow and decline. Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters express a deep awareness – even back then, in 1794 – of our own negative impact upon the environment. She was worried about the amount of tree felling she had witnessed in Norway with forests declining.

Frankenstein rejoices in the dark fearsome beauty of the natural world, portraying it as bleak and elemental, wild and stormy. Mary Shelley showed that Nature was a force to be both feared for its power, and loved for its great beauty. This was quite new. Winter was seen back then as too threatening and terrifying to be viewed with an aesthetic eye – because it killed off your loved-ones, carried away your children, and emptied your larder. There was nothing to eat during the winter months and it was a battle to keep warm: fuel was hard work to come by.

So books like Frankenstein have helped to shape the way we think about Nature, the way we see things, they shape our attitudes to the world and our environment, as well as making us question our own assumptions.

The climate crisis we face now in 2020 – unlike “the year without a Summer” of 1816 – is tragically caused by human interference, and the consequences (still yet to be seen) will be devastating. Books like Frankenstein are relevant because they reveal a deep anxiety about the power of Nature, and our own vulnerability in the face of its elemental forces. We need the planet in order to survive, but we often forget that the planet does not need us. It would survive quite happily without us, thank you very much, in fact probably better. It is this terrifying awareness that informs Mary Shelley’s writing, and makes it as relevant today as it ever was.

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