March 12, 2021   7 mins

In April 1815, just two months before the Battle of Waterloo, a British East India Company’s Cruiser, the Benares, was sailing close to the Dutch East Indies when it reported hearing “a firing of cannon”. 500 miles to the East, a British resident on Ternate island recalled “several very distinct” shudders that sounded like “heavy cannon”.

Another company ship was sent to investigate, but neither vessel could find any pirates, and if this were a cinematic recreation, it’s at this point that someone would say: “That was no cannon”.

Indeed it wasn’t a cannon. Hundreds of miles away a volcanic eruption of earth-shattering proportions had begun on Mount Tambora, an explosion so large as to be rated as “super-colossal” on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. The consequences for those in the vicinity were truly catastrophic. But the impact on the wider world and history would also be enormous.

For obvious reasons, when we think of historical disruptions and their cultural impact we tend to the think of plagues. Everyone now knows that Boccaccio wrote The Decameron following the Black Death and Shakespeare composed Lear during a plague lockdown, while 19-year-old Isaac Newton came up with the theory of gravity on a similar “lost” plague year.

Yet the volcano is a little-appreciated driver of history, and bumper explosions can have truly dramatic effects too. An eruption in AD536 brought about the coldest period in recorded history and sealed the final fate of Rome, while most likely playing a part (along with the Plague) in the rise of Islam; an Indonesian volcano in 1257 led to a famine in England that spurred baronial unrest and the development of Parliament. The explosion of Laki in Iceland in 1783 was followed by the French Revolution. And one of the most influential novels in human history came about from a lost year caused by Mount Tambora.

The Tambora eruption was 1,000 times as big as that of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, and the sound could be heard 2,000 miles away — which is like an explosion in Cyprus or Lebanon being heard in Swindon. It left a crater 4 miles wide, and produced enough ash to cover Britain up to its knees; within 24 hours, the ash cloud covered an area the size of the continental United States.

Some 12,000 people had lived in the province of Tambora; only 26 survived, the rest killed by liquified rock at temperatures reaching 1,000 degrees. One village had simply sunk, and where it once stood was a lake 18ft deep. Almost all animal and plant life was killed, and geologist Charles Lyell wrote that “the darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night”.

As the ash floated up into the atmosphere, it blocked out the sun, so that when spring arrived in the northern hemisphere the sun’s rays appeared alarmingly feeble. The rains came down in May and June 1816 at twice the normal rate. In Geneva, it was said to be so dark that candles were needed at midday.

Brown snow fell in central Europe; in Italy it was red. In England, the strangely-coloured skies were observed by JMW Turner, and would help to influence his characteristic style. The crops failed across Europe, the worst affected area being Germany, France, Switzerland and Ireland. In Wales, too, small armies of hungry people began to be seen, an echo of a previous time.

In the United States, still an infant nation nestled on the coast, people observed a strange “dry fog”, which made the sunlight red. There was snow in New England in the middle of summer, and widespread harvest failure, spurring rapid colonisation of the interior.

Some coastal states lost up to a third of their population to this exodus, one of the worst affected being Vermont. From the small town of Norwich, on the border with New Hampshire, the Smith family left for the better pastures of western New York, a region known as the Burned-over district because it had been so heavily affected by recent religious revivals. This new environment particularly affected their 11-year-old son, Joseph, who subsequently went through a series of religious experiences that would a decade later culminate with the Book of Mormon.

The worst affected region of Europe was around the Alps, with desperate hunger suffered in France, Germany and Switzerland. In the Rhineland, one man became so frustrated with the problem of feeding horses that he began work on a horse-less form of transport. The result was Karl Drais’s velocipede, the prototype of the bicycle. (A few years later he also invented the typewriter.)

But the terrible conditions in the Alps failed to deter Britain’s leading romantic poet from heading to Switzerland on summer holiday.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a precocious young man, filled with great talent, self-confidence and terrible political opinions. Of all dead celebrities, Shelley would probably be the most popular — and annoying — on social media. He once suggested an alliance of “enlightened, unprejudiced members” to resist “the coalition of the enemies of liberty” (🔁 963 ❤ 2.2K ) and declared of his fellow radicals that “You are many, they are few” (🔁 10K ❤ 21K ).

Like many political idealists, Shelley was an awful human being, especially to his first wife, and at this point had run off with the 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, a talent in her own right, hardly surprising when she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, two great left-wing political philosophers of their day.

Sailing along the Rhine during their elopement, Shelley and Godwin had both been inspired by the “monstrous, inhuman appearance of several of the huge German labourers on board”, as Richard Holmes put it, as well as the schlosses they drifted by, one of which was a Castle Frankenstein. That summer their journey to stay at Lord Byron’s rented villa in Switzerland was marked by difficult weather, and impassible roads. Then, upon reaching their destination, they couldn’t row on Lake Geneva because of the rain and wind.

Byron, increasingly gloomy with the weather, was writing a rather downbeat poem at the time, called “Darkness”:

“All earth was but one thought—and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails—men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured.”

And they were going to be stuck with him for weeks.

The freakishly cold weather forced the group, along with Byron’s doctor John William Polidori, indoors where they sat around a fire night after night and began to read German ghost stories. Then Byron suggested they each write one themselves.

Godwin agonised over her subject. The group had previously discussed the ideas of galvanism and Erasmus Darwin’s speculation on the generation of life. There was great excitement, and anxiety, at the time at the deeper questions of life and death, in particular the Vitalism debate, and the question of how life starts. Scientists such as Luigi Galvani in Italy and Franz Anton in France had experimented on animating dead animals with electricity.

Mary Godwin was fascinated by all this and its uncomfortable potential. When she was 14 her father had taken her to see the brilliant scientists Humphry Davy give a lecture on chemistry. Davy spoke of future experiments in which man would “interrogate Nature with Power… as a master, active, with his own instruments.”

A few days after the competition began she had what she described as a “waking dream” in the middle of the night in which “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Godwin began to write her story.

All the men dashed theirs off relatively quickly. Godwin, though, took 14 months. Three weeks before the birth of her daughter, in August 1817, the now-married Mary Shelley handed in the manuscript – Frankenstein. And when the book came out, almost nobody noticed. It sold just 500 copies, and most people thought it had been written by a man – most likely Shelley’s husband or father.

What a waste of her lockdown — or so she thought.

Among the other stories written in this competition, The Vampyre would have a huge cultural impact on the birth of horror. It was written by neither of the famous poets but by Dr Polidari — and yet when it was published, the magazine incorrectly attributed it to Byron. Eventually Frankenstein, too, would have a huge influence on culture, in this case in the realm of science fiction.

Although the book initially failed to have an impact, over the course of the 1820s, Mary Shelley’s creation grew more and more famous, pushed by often scandalous stage adaptations. One censorious newspaper begged its readers: “DO not take your wives, do not take your daughters, do not take your families!!! – The novel itself is of a decidedly immoral tendency” and called it “PREGNANT with mischief.” Obviously exactly the sort of publicity that will guarantee seats.

Shelley’s lockdown story would become one of the most influential novels in history, encapsulating mankind’s Promethean dilemma, our fears of boundless control over nature (not coincidentally, the novel used weather as a mood-setter). The plays, however, took huge liberties with the story, which came to have more of an influence on our idea of Frankenstein due to subsequent film adaptations. Frankenstein went from being an obsessive but idealistic figure, representative of the radical optimism of the age, into the prototype mad scientist muttering “the fools, the fools” in his lab while thunder and lightning raged outside. Likewise the Monster, an articulate and thoughtful figure in the novel who ruminates on man’s great inhumanity, became a sort of mindless Munster character with bolts on the side of his head.

Two hundred years later, this story in all its incarnations still exercises a powerful grip on the popular imagination, still informs our fears about “playing God” in areas such as genetics and bioscience, and even our concerns about the things we do to nature in the wake of the coronavirus.

The explosion of 1815, and the lost year it caused, brought about all sorts of unintended consequences; just as our lost year will, too. How we live, how we work, how we treat our sick and old. Almost certainly, the huge focus on medical technology necessitated by Covid-19 will have beneficial knock-off on effects.

Millions of lives have been altered in ways we had no control over because of powers beyond on control, and pushed us to explore, and to think, and to write. And out there somewhere is the man or woman who has written the next Frankenstein.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable