There’s nothing more depressing than a holiday washout. Yet one infamous summer 200 years ago inspired some of the century’s greatest works of art
To witness true despair, observe the British public on a rainy weekend in June, when the sun is hidden by cloud, the drizzle refuses to desist, blue skies are an unlikely prospect and the promised delights of a long-awaited summer – picnics, bare legs, prosecco in the park – remain maddeningly out of reach.
Now imagine that weekend stretching into months and you’ll have a glimpse into what summer was like for the world’s entire population in 1816, when a volcanic eruption disrupted global weather patterns, causing excessive rain, frost and snowfall. Millions across the globe went hungry as crops failed and famine-friendly diseases stalked the globe. But The Year Without A Summer, as it came to be known, had a more positive consequence, too. The aberrant weather was responsible for sparking one of the most extraordinary waves of cultural creativity the world has ever seen. Romantic painters JMW Turner and John Constable, and composers Beethoven and Schubert, all produced some of their finest works in a surge of artistic output inspired by the bleak, sunless conditions. And in the world of literature, an entirely new genre was born, thanks to a radical new novel that still shocks and inspires today. Its name? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Frankenstein was perhaps the most famous work to be inspired by the peculiar weather event. That June, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his 19-year-old lover Mary Godwin (literati royalty as the daughter of feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin) and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, travelled to Lake Geneva with the aim of spending their summer sailing in the sunshine with poet Lord Byron. Percy Bysshe Shelley had fled to Villa Diodati to escape the lingering disgrace of his much-publicised divorce, beset with scandalous rumours of incest, insanity and violence. Clairmont was desperate to see Byron, with whom she’d had a brief, doomed affair. Shelley and Godwin were not yet married – that would have to wait until his first wife, Harriet Westbrook, drowned herself in London’s Serpentine a few months later.
The trio’s journey to Switzerland proved to be inexplicably treacherous as wild storms raged. The group were forced to stay inside Byron’s rented house on the shore of Lake Geneva, where they passed the time taking [morphine-based opiate] laudanum (liberally dispensed by Byron’s personal physician, John William Polidori), drinking claret and reading German ghost stories. Then, one evening, Byron suggested they each write their own – sparking one of the most incredible nights of creativity in literary history.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the poem A Fragment of A Ghost Story. Byron’s scribblings inspired physician and writer Polidori to pen The Vampyre, the first modern vampire story ever published, paving the way for everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Interview With The Vampire, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, True Blood and the Twilight trilogy. But it was Mary Godwin’s story that had the most cultural impact, a landmark work of gothic fiction and arguably the first science fiction novel. Since its publication in 1818, under her married name Mary Shelley, Frankenstein has been adapted over 30 times for the cinema, TV and stage and is continually reinterpreted; this spring’s hot-ticket dance production was a full-length original Frankenstein ballet by choreographer Liam Scarlett at London’s Royal Opera House. Many recognisable tropes of the horror genre – the mad scientist, the young friends trapped by a storm, galvanism and reanimation – can all be traced back to Frankenstein.
That one stormy weekend gave rise to two of the most enduring and bankable pillars of the horror genre, which has intrigued cultural historians for centuries. But it wasn’t just the literary world that saw an explosion of talent due to the adverse weather. Take the work of English romantic painters JMW Turner and John Constable, whose paintings from that time not only document dramatic weather conditions, but evolve stylistically in response to the changing light and natural scenery. Turner’s famed skyscapes carry new colours from 1816 onwards, while Constable’s skies fill with darker clouds, as the result of volcanic ashes entering the atmosphere. Both these artists were fascinated by the skies, light and atmospheric changes that were occurring after that summer.
“Turner was glad to paint in England because the effects of mist and light were infinitely mobile, even more so than in Italy,” adds Professor Alexandra Harris, author of Weatherland: Writers And Artists Under English Skies.
Ian Ritchie, curator of 1816: The Year Without A Summer festival, also detects the dark notes of the weather in the work of both Beethoven and Schubert, who lived in Vienna in 1816. “There’s a remarkable consistency of mood throughout Schubert’s output that summer – very beautiful songs, very romantic, very passionate – but also containing that darkness,” he says. “Schubert was like so many people in feeling different in mood, perhaps even in creative behaviour, in response to darkness and lack of sunlight.”
It extended beyond the arts too – the prototype of the bicycle was developed in Germany by Karl Drais in reaction to thousands of horses perishing from lack of food.
Climate of change
It is hard to imagine that one volcano’s eruption could create such extensive impact. “Nobody at the time, not eventhe well-educated, understood what was happening to the climate,” says Ritchie. “But the story actually began in April 1815, with the catastrophic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.”
Catastrophic is an understatement. Tambora was in fact the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, a thousand times more powerful than the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010, which blanketed Europe in a dust cloud and caused widespread travel disruption. The sulphur dioxide which Tambora spewed into the stratosphere effectively veiled the Earth from the sun’s rays, cooling temperatures and disrupting global weather patterns for months.
But despite word of Tambora’s destruction travelling the globe – as many as 90,000 people died – no link was made at the time between the eruption and the subsequent dismal weather; reliable forecasts were still 140 years off.
“No-one who lived through the extreme climate of 1816 knew what caused the months of endless rain in Europe, the June snowstorms that hit New England and the Ohio Valley, or the prolonged drought in the eastern US that convinced farmers to sell their land and migrate west. All they knew was that the weather was against them,” says meteorologist Nick Klingaman of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading.
Not least the Romantics, who were inspired by their changing circumstances. But could the huge wealth of groundbreaking work produced during this period simply be a coincidence? Not so, say experts, who claim it’s a clear example of ‘creative sympathy’, where people channel their feelings and reactions to an adverse event into tangible work. “Creative sympathy can be a positive outcome of dire social stress,” says Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood, author of Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World.
The real message of Tambora is just how delicately balanced our climate system is and how closely linked our lives are to it – often in surprising ways. “Our livelihoods are finely tuned to the climate, so even what appears to be a relatively small change in temperature or rainfall can throw whole societies out of balance,” says Klingaman.
He points out that Tambora cooled global temperatures by about one degree Celsius for several years; human activity has since warmed the planet by a little less than one degree, and our effects on the climate are increasing every year. He also warns that another eruption on the scale of Tambora remains a possibility. “A volcano erupting like Tambora takes place roughly every thousand years, so while we know it will happen again, we will have almost no warning,” he says.
Perhaps then, an overcast weekend in June will seem more bearable. And if we use the time to hole up indoors and put our imagination to good use just as Mary Shelley did, who knows what we might achieve...
1816: The Year Without A Summer is a two-day festival of talks and workshops at Kings Place, London, on 17-18 June (kingsplace.co.uk)
Photography: Camera Press, Rex Artwork: Weymouth Bay, 1816 (oil on canvas), John Constable (1776-1837) / private collection / The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman images