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Frankenstein, the Baroness, and the Climate Refugees of 1816

Western Europe’s last famine began 200 years ago this summer when crops failed, causing farms and businesses to fail, which led to hordes of starving refugees wandering across the continent looking for relief. “The Year Without a Summer,” as 1816 is known, was caused by global air pollution in the wake of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora. It was in this gloomy setting that 18-year-old Mary Godwin spent the summer with her lover Percy Shelley and several others at Lake Geneva and wrote Frankenstein. The novel has been analyzed as an amazing cautionary tale about the clash between science and ethics, but it also speaks to the experience of the suffering refugees of the time.    

Shelley’s miserable Creature, in the context of the 1816 worldwide climate shock, appears less like a symbol of technological overreach than a figure for the despised and desperate refugees crowding Switzerland’s market towns that year. Eyewitness accounts frequently refer to how hunger and persecution “turned men into beasts”, how fear of famine and disease-carrying refugees drove middle-class citizens to demonize these suffering masses as sub-human parasites, and turn them away in horror and disgust. Two hundred years on, in a summer of more record temperatures, and worldwide droughts, when refugees once again stream across the borders of German-speaking Europe, can we really afford to ignore this reading of Frankenstein as a climate change novel? The novel is a cultural treasure, but it doesn’t belong behind a glass case. It’s alive, like the monster itself. It’s on the loose in our world and our minds, stoking our darkest terrors. Shelley’s untameable tale of human pathos, suffering, and destruction is headline news: on the TV and internet, in a million images, filling well-fed, well-housed citizens with horror.

To get a taste of what the Year Without a Summer did to everyday folk, author Gillen D’Arcy Wood looks at the account of a very real humanitarian of that era, Baroness Krüdener, and her attempts to feed the refugees, which only angered the locals. Read about the humanitarian crisis that contributed to the creation of Frankenstein at the Public Domain Review.

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