Frankenstein, Newman and the Year Without Sun

Springtime can come only as the fruit of Newman’s perception of the Risen One, not Mary Shelley’s nightmare of a resuscitated corpse.

LEFT: Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840. RIGHT: John Henry Newman, by John Everett Millais, 1881.
LEFT: Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840. RIGHT: John Henry Newman, by John Everett Millais, 1881. (photo: Register Files)

At a remote location on the banks of Lake Geneva a horror-creation formed in the imagination of a teenage girl. It is a creation that still haunts the world.

The nightmare vision was incarnated in a novel, then a play, followed by countless depictions, not least on screen. The horror came to be known as “Frankenstein.”

In that same summer of 1816, when the darkened skies were a canopy to this strange awakening, there was an awakening of a different sort taking place in England. It was a religious kindling that was profoundly to affect the young man who experienced it — namely, John Henry Newman — and one to have a more profound and long-lasting effect than that taking place in Switzerland.

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The year 1816 was to become known as the year without sun. The cause of this phenomenon began on the evening of April 10, 1815, when on the Pacific island of Sumbawa volcanic Mount Tambora erupted. The explosion was heard as far as 900 miles away in the Maluku Islands. Some 746 miles away from Mount Tambora, in Java, British military stationed there mistook the sound of the eruption for cannon fire — so much so that troops were dispatched to repel an imagined invasion.

It is estimated that 12,000 people were immediately killed by the eruption of Tambora. The death toll increased as the eruption generated a huge tsunami that struck several Indonesian islands. Needless to say, the volcanic fallout ruined agriculture throughout the region, which, in turn, led to widespread famine and disease, causing yet more deaths. The final death toll of Mount Tambora’s eruption varies, but some estimate that as many as 71,000 perished.

Like some Angel of Death the volcanic debris of Tambora continued to fall on countries and peoples many miles away. The eruption began to plunge the world into darkness, firstly in southeast Asia and then as far away as Europe, before precipitating a fall in global temperatures. This cooling continued into 1816. The Northern Hemisphere was hardest hit with crops ruined throughout North America. In the years that followed Tambora’s eruption, a typhus epidemic swept through the Eastern Mediterranean; as harvests failed across the British Isles and elsewhere, in northern European cities hungry mobs rioted and looted as several countries experienced famine. Some estimate that 100,000 died in Europe alone on account of these natural disasters.

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In May 1816 Mary Shelley, as she would later be known, and the poet, philosopher and radical thinker Percy Shelley traveled with their newborn son to Lake Geneva, hoping to escape the unusual gloom of the English summer and to spend time with Lord Byron, who awaited them at a lakeside villa.

The weather in Switzerland proved equally bad, however. The party was forced to seek cover inside from the storms and rains that lashed the lake’s surface and all around. “It proved a wet, ungenial summer,” Mary Shelley remembered in 1831, “and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” The party was obliged to sit by log fires and tell ghost stories. Byron suggested they compose their own ghost tales. Later, at night, a dream came to Mary and from that experience she would later write:

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.

The short story was expanded into a novel and on Jan. 1, 1818, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published.

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Early in 1816 a young Englishman called John Henry Newman had his secure school and family existence shattered when, in the aftermath of the ending of the Napoleonic wars, his father’s business failed. As a result, that summer it was decided that the 15-year-old John Henry should remain over the holidays at his school in Ealing. During that summer without sun, the boy fell seriously ill. A great change, however, came over him during his illness. It would, lead to a deep appreciation of the Christian faith that would remain with him over his whole lifetime.

Brought up as an Anglican, and conventionally observant in his religion, the young Newman, in truth, was at a critical stage in his spiritual development. Writing in February 1885, the older Newman would observe: “Of course I cannot myself be the judge of myself; but, speaking with this reserve, I should say that it is difficult to realise or imagine the identity of the boy before and after August 1816 ... I can look back at the end of seventy years as if on another person.” He then went on to recollect that in 1815 his thinking was that he “should like to be virtuous, but not religious.” While so doing he had been toying with the sceptical literature of the time, speculating about the immortality of the soul. Now, however, the unexpected blow to his family fortunes, and his own subsequent illness, led him into completely new and uncharted territory where he believed God had “mercifully touched his heart,” to be afterward transformed in a radical way.

Many years later, in 1864, when as a Catholic Newman wrote Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the magnificent account of his religious development, he spoke of the 1816 experience as an “inward conversion,” one that took place over the final five months of that year. Unlike Shelley’s vision of a resuscitated corpse as dark as the then summer skies beneath which it was conceived, Newman’s vision was one of the Risen One, and, ultimately, of a Light that no darkness — ecological or spiritual — could ever overcome.

The summer of 1816 may be known for its lack of sun and the desolation natural forces caused worldwide, but its dark skies produced other things that endure still in more mysterious ways. One of these was the environment in which a young man was forced to confront suffering and experienced a profound conversion to Christianity. It was a conversion that shaped a mind and heart that would come to lead the work of England’s “Second Spring,” the renewal of England’s ancient Catholic faith. It is a renewal still on going. And, now in the light of Newman’s forthcoming canonization, this Second Spring will quicken yet more.