Even back in the 19th century, people wanted to know how authors got their ideas. Except, back then, not everyone believed the answers.
Case in point: Mary Shelley’s account of where she got the idea for Frankenstein has long been disputed by literary scholars. In the preface to the 1831 edition of the novel, Shelley wrote that she had the idea for the monster tale in the summer of 1816, when she stayed in a manor on Lake Geneva with Percy Bysshe Shelley (her future husband) and the writers Lord Byron and John Polidori. After Byron had suggested that they each write a ghost story, Shelly claimed she struggled with writer’s block.
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One night, Shelley said she had a dream about a monstrous man coming to life through a machine and, upon waking, saw moonlight streaming through her window’s shutters. She was instantly inspired to write the tale.
However, many scholars have dismissed Shelley’s moonlit inspiration story as overly dramatic, believing instead that she didn’t struggle at all with the inspiration. The Christian Science Monitor reports that many believed other accounts that “have Byron issuing the ghost story challenge on June 16, 1816, and then have Shelley already at work on her story the following day.”
However, Mary Shelley might finally have some vindication for her inspiration tale. A research team from Texas State University set out to determine whether Shelley’s claim was possible, traveling to Lake Geneva in Switzerland to study the manor. Based on weather reports, geography and the mansion’s layout the team was able to determine that “a bright, gibbous moon would have shone into Mary Shelley’s room between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on June 16,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.
“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night,” said Donald Olson, a physics professor on the team, in a press release. “We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clues.”
It may have taken 170 years, but at last the question of whether Shelley was exaggerating can be put to rest. No wonder authors say they hate being asked where they get their ideas.