Housed in Horsham District Council’s Horsham Museum is a unique letter written on 6 June 1816.
It describes the disgust that an English gentleman had on finding Byron and his friends – the poet Shelley and his teenage girlfriend Mary – arriving in Geneva.
It was after a dinner party held by Byron in June 200 years ago, that Mary would dream the creation of Dr Frankenstein and his monster, and Byron’s doctor, Polidori, would create the vampire genre.
As a result, 1816 is known as ‘the year horror was born’.
This amazing letter was bought some 18 years ago by the Friends of Horsham Museum from top London book dealers Jarndyce, as part of the museums internationally renowned Shelley collection.
It gives a fascinating and revealing insight into what Geneva was like for English émigrés and why Byron would rent a villa there.
The letter, written by someone who signs himself ‘JS’, describes the literary and intellectual colony that had established itself around Lake Geneva, writing amongst other things that: “There are three or four societies, medical, physical, agricultural, etc. where they regularly meet, and to which strangers are admitted with great facility, and treated with great kindness.”
However it is the following comment about the questionable nature of Lord Byron and his choice of friends that makes the letter particularly interesting: “Our English colony thrives apace, and every country house on this side of the lake is taken.
“Lord Euston and his friend Mary are here, but our late great arrival is Lord Byron, with the actress and another family of very suspicious appearance. How many he has at his disposal out of the whole set I know not, but different houses have been taken for both establishments.
“They very nearly drowned the other day, which may furnish an interesting episode in a poem on Switzerland, or an address to Lake Leman, or a farewell to Geneva.
“His Lordship was at Pictet’s the other evening, but made no impression.
“He was insolent and repulsive, and his countenance is much disliked.”
The suspicion that Byron might have enjoyed the favours of his guests is clear, with a strong hint of sexual scandal; yet, for future generations it would not be that which fascinated them, but the creation of the story by Mary of Frankenstein - or the Modern Prometheus.
Having grown bored during a rather wet summer, Byron suggested that the guests should come up with ghost stories.
But Mary had difficulty creating one.
To her dismay each day she was asked, until having discussed one evening the nature of life and re-animation, Mary imagined a story that, with her boyfriend/later husband’s help, would in 1818 become Frankenstein - a literary sensation.
Amongst the museum’s collections is the third edition of the story, published in 1831, and is the first edition to include a picture of Frankenstein’s monster without a bolt in his neck.
The museum also holds a first edition of Six Weeks Tour written by Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, published in 1817, which recounts the tour of Europe completed by the couple in 1814 and includes material written in 1816.
It is however the letter - that unique record written by a disgusted Englishman - which brings to life the culture of Geneva, a city which saw the birth of horror.
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