The Writing Spaces: Villa Diodati & Mary Shelley

Today marks the beginning of a new series of articles here at Fuel Your Writing. The Writing Spaces will profile some of the amazing, decadent, strange and sometimes surprisingly normal places where your favourite authors have written their works. To kick us off, Robert Smedley with the incredible Villa Diodati.


Some writer’s spaces are all about intimacy; private little nooks in which to sit and write, kept company simply by your ideas and a few books and mementos, and almost hermetically sealed away from the distractions of the world. But Mary Shelley wrote in the age of the Romantics, when Pantheism (the belief that Nature was infused with God’s presence) was all the rage. For people like Coleridge, Wordsworth and Byron, Nature was a direct source of creativity because it was a step closer to God and his grand inspiration. Consequently the outdoors became one big writing space to look upon or roam in and draw inspiration from. For the first time in history, the writing space was more about what was going on around it, than within it.

So imagine what effect a massive – and I mean truly massive – volcanic explosion seven and a half thousand miles away had on dear Mary Shelley’s writing space in the foothills of Switzerland.

Holiday Ruined(?)

In 1815 a mountain in Indonesia called Tambora detonated with a bang sixty thousand times bigger than the Hiroshima atom bomb. So vast was the eruption that the planet’s atmosphere was filled with a fine ash. The Sun’s ray’s were diffused by volcanic dust, Earth got cooler, and in the following year of 1816 summer never came to Europe. It just remained winter. And on the shores of the picturesque Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in the majestic Villa Diodati, a group of legendary writers – Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Mary Shelley (née Godwin) – sat indoors and wondered what to do with their holiday.

Just think about that for a second: four wordsmiths keeping company in the same house. It adds a whole new dimension to a writer’s space; brilliant people sharing and enthusing about ideas and immortalising them on paper. After all, who said that a writer’s space had to only have one writer in it at a time? Why couldn’t it be a community space where stories are shared; a true writers’ space? For one week, their holiday home was a collective womb of creativity, and what a home it was.

Villa Diodati

The place they were holidaying, Villa Diodati, is classically European in design and carries the bold elegance of a building that will never look anything less than glorious, no matter how many years live through it. It sits on the gentle hills of Cologny, looking onto the vast crystal expanse of Lake Geneva, which on a clear day reflects the lush slopes and the distant French Alps. It is, in short, the sort of place a writer dreams of retiring to so that they may sit on the sunny veranda with pipe and typewriter, drinking wine and savouring the peace between the ‘clickety-clack’ of keys. Or maybe that’s just my fantasy.
Yet thanks to Mt. Tambora’s effect on the climate there would be none of that for Shelley: it was cold and stormy and the sky was perpetually dark. The splendour of Diodati and its surroundings had been dulled, and given the unnatural inclemency of the weather (and the fact that it would be 93 years before the invention of television) the group had a ghost story competition. What happened next is literary history. Mary Shelley wrote the masterpiece that is ‘Frankenstein’ with, you could argue, a little help from an Indonesian volcano. It’s no wonder she came up with the story that she did, sitting in that stately pile and writing under candlelight as storms lashed outside. ‘Frankenstein’ is soaked with inspiration from her writing space – much of it is set in Switzerland, and the weather often reflects the turbulent emotions of the Monster. Doctor Frankenstein’s home is even named ‘Belrive’ after the Villa Diodati’s former name.


Shelley’s wasn’t the only novel to be born in Diodati. Polidori took Byron’s abandoned fragment of a story and several years later turned it into his own novel, The Vampyre. Though Shelley and her volcano are now only memory, Villa Diodati’s grandeur continues to live on, if not as a writing space (sadly it’s all privately owned now and chopped up into apartments) then as a symbol that has unleashed the imaginations of other authors across the centuries. Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Haunted, Tim Powers’ The Stress of His Regard, and the excellent literary comic book The Unwritten all feature Diodati. Frankly it’s a wonder it hasn’t turned up in more works.

More Than a Room


The incredible view from Villa Diodati

So there you have it: the story of a Mrs, a Monster, and a mighty big volcano. There’s no lesson or moral to it, but there’s one thing I particularly like, and that’s that a writing space is so much more than a room. It’s also a state of mind, one that changes slightly with every moment, every new story, every volcano you encounter, so that each time you sit down with pen and paper, wherever that might be, there’s a new monster of your very own to create.

Hope you enjoyed the first post of The Writing Spaces! Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and check out Fuel Your Writing next Friday for the next installment.

Images courtesy of NNDB, Wikipedia and Paul Hessels.

Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.


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