Summary of the story
On the road to Geneva, Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, stop at the battlefield of Waterloo, a year after the defeat of Napleon. The sound of an explosion crosses the plain, as if coming from the far distance, and seems to wake the souls of those who died in the battle. While Byron rides around the fields, Polidori, who has sprained his ankle and is hobbling, waits and guards the luggage. The doctor uses the time to write to his sister about his impressions of their journey and informs her that Byron is back in a good mood after leaving behind England where he was under constant harassment by his wife. On dismounting Byron entrusts to his care a bag of soldiers’ uniform buttons which he had just bought as relics of the battle. The doctor grumbles that the only things that remain from the conflict are the souvenirs that the hungry children try to sell to unsuspecting visitors. Byron in a mocking tone reproaches him for talking so lightly and at the same time damns the figure of Napoleon, the leader that earlier on he had so admired, but who now, after his defeat, is the source of profound deception to Byron. He claims that the same overweening ambition that took Napoleon to the top, later led to his fall. According to the poet, the admiration of Napoleon for all those who adored him led only to the tomb.
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin are in Germany. They, too, are fleeing from London to escape the repressive English society and so be able to live freely their recently discovered love. Travelling with them, the fruit of their passion, is little William, and the step-sister of Mary, Claire Clairmont, a frivolous travelling companion, who is in a curious triangular relationship with the couple. Mary has prepared a surprise excursion for Shelley to Frankenstein’s castle, where in the past the alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel had carried out experiments on cadavers, trying to discover the spark of life. Mary decides to bring Percy to the castle because she knows that he, in his days as a student, was interested in the mysteries of life and had carried out experiments with kites trying to absorb the energy of lightning. All the way up to the castle Percy has been in a strange state of intellectual ecstasy in communion with nature. On seeing the castle he seems to come back down to earth for the first time and thanks Mary for her efforts with words of love. On seeing the castle, Claire remembers the most shocking connected with it: profaned cemeteries, children who had disappeared… Mary reproaches her that she has recounted the history of Dippel as if it were a story and her stepsister replies that the fact that little William has fallen asleep in her arms proves that it really was a story that she was telling. Mary claims that children fall asleep with scary stories because they only understand the music, the beauty of the sounds; adults, on the other hand, understand the words and these always rob them of hours of sleep.
(III) The terrace of the Hôtel d’Angleterre, on the banks of Lake Leman.
Lord Byron and Doctor Polidori, before checking in, are admiring the majestic Mont Blanc which is reflected in the waters of Lake Leman. Byron, however, to avoid any possible contact with English tourists, would prefer to spend the summer in one of the villas on the shores of the lake. Polidori tells Byron that Villa Diodati, where Milton, Voltaire and Rousseau once lived, is free and for rent, and adds that amongst the tourist there could be an acquaintance, a man… or even a woman. Just then Claire appears before Byron by surprise and reminds him of the verses that he had dedicated to her in London. “There be none of Beauty’s daughters with a magic like Thee…” The poet asks her why she has followed him to Geneva and reminds her that he feels no love for her. Claire replies that she knows that she can expect nothing from him. Despite that, she has prepared a surprise for him: thanks to her he at last is going to be able to meet Percy Bysshe Shelley, something that Byron has for a long time expressed a desire to do. Polidori cannot help but comment with a rather macabre admiration that Shelley, the defender of free love, is travelling accompanied by two women, Claire, and his official partner, Mary. When the two poets meet face to face, an instant complicity is born between them. Polidori takes advantage of the occasion to present himself to Shelley as an admirer of his poetry… and as a poet himself. Byron, who is tired of the literary pretensions of the doctor, tells Percy that it is a pleasure to at last have someone with whom he can have an interesting conversation. Distant thunder announces the arrival of a tempest. Before those in the party scurry for cover in the hotel, Byron invites the Shelleys to visit him in Villa Diodati, where he has decided to stay for the moment. While Mary sings a lullaby to baby William, Lord Byron seems to recognize in the sound of the tempest the same disturbing sound that he heard on the Waterloo battlefield. Once on his own he lets himself be carried away by the desolate atmosphere and falls into an introspective mood, as if the clouds were never to clear and an eternal night had fallen on everything.
(IV) Villa Diodati, different interior spaces
The great storms have trapped the English tourists inside the Villa Diodati. Polidori explains this confinement to his sister in a new letter and, with incredulity, comments on the news that is appearing in the European newspapers: the wave of storms that are cruelly thrashing the continent are the consequence of the eruption of a volcano in the Pacific, the Tambora volcano, a year previously. Polidori sees, with a certain resentment, how Byron now only has time for Shelley. He has relegated Polidori to the background and is making him the butt of his jokes. To amuse themselves in the long hours of reclusion, Mary and the doctor play draughts. They use the buttons bought at the Waterloo battlefield. While these are falling victim to one side or the other in the game, Byron admires how these pieces, once in battle at Waterloo, are now doing battle on the wooden draughts board. Byron and Percy inspired by the buttons, talk of the limits between life and death, and this leads them to remember the experiments that Dippel carried out in Frankenstein’s castle, and even defend experiments to create life from inert matter. All these comments are heresy in the opinion of gullible Doctor Polidori, whose attention to the game is badly distracted by the conversation. Polidori tries to beat Percy in a dialectical battle, rebutting his libertine ideas and even his defense of free love, but it is the doctor who is easily defeated and mocked at. Meanwhile Mary insists that Claire explain to Byron the real reason for their visit, but she replies that she will do so at the time she thinks most suitable. At nightfall Claire reads the last story from a collection that she has been reading out over the previous nights. Once the book is finished they are left without evening entertainment. Polodori proposes to read them one of his pieces for theatre but Byron mocks him yet once again. The doctor accuses him of being insensitive and reproaches him saying that he is not God, but just one man facing another. The poet, however, laughs at Polidori’s clumsy attempts to put forward theories on the equality of man and brings up as an example the fact that Polidori, unlike himself, will never be capable of selling thousands of copies of a poem in a single day. Byron then decides, however, to stop attacking the doctor so viciously and suggests, to pass the time, that they shut themselves away each to write a horror story and thus see who can do this best. All present accept the challenge.
(V) The garden of the Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Leman
After long weeks of rain, the sun finally comes out and Byron and Percy plan to go out to sail on the lake for a few days. While making their plans, they discuss the future of toe child to be born to Claire. Byron wants nothing to do with the young woman, but agrees that the child can bear his name as long as Percy takes responsibility for Clare and takes her off to England to “free him from this nuisance of a baggage”. The two poets inform the women of the decisions taken: that the Shelleys will set out on the return trip to England once the two have returned from their boat trip. The women, above all Mary, are indignant because they have not been consulted. Polidori also asks what next destination will be to awaiting them. Byron responds that no one knows what their destiny will be, and the only thing he knows for sure is that the doctor is a free man and that, as far as he knows, there is nothing tying him to the poet. In fact, this is a subtle manner to tell the doctor that his services are no longer needed.
(VI) Later dates , in different locations around Europe
Years have passed and Claire and Mary are living together in London, taking care of their children. Mary remembers with certain wistfulness the days spent at Villa Diodati and, when Claire arrives, coming back from a bookshop, she asks her if she has seen any copy of Frankenstein. The book is not selling and neither is it receiving any reviews in the press.