Despite being a social outcast in traditional society, Shelley found a home among other literary-minded lights of Europe. He was part of a generation of Romantics who shared ideas and poetic allusions, and he felt close to kindred spirits, not just on the page but in real life. It was easier in some ways to live an expatriate life outside of England.
Shelley’s wife, Mary Shelley, wrote her incredible gothic tale Frankenstein in this milieu. Frankenstein is arguably the Romantic period’s most famous novel. In 1816, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s half-sister, set out for Geneva to meet and stay with exiled English poet Lord Byron. At a villa called Diodati, near Geneva, in mid June of 1816, Lord Byron proposed that the group (which included John William Polidori, Byron’s doctor) have a ghost-story contest. Each person would deliver a ghost story to the other three.
Inspired by a conversation she overheard between Shelley and Byron about a new scientific theory that set out to prove that single-cell organisms could regenerate through the electrical reanimation of a corpse, Mary dreamed of such an experiment going horribly wrong. The idea that humans could manipulate nature for both good or evil, and with potentially terrible unintended consequences, was not new, but the Romantic respect for nature was strong, and it must have been especially thrilling to imagine the spirit of nature striking back against prideful humans trying to reverse what had been caused by nature, followed by frantic human efforts to undo the damage.
The result was the story of Victor Frankenstein and his manmade monster. It is fair to speculate that Mary won the contest.