Historical Context

Frankenstein was written in a Europe reeling from the aftermath of the French Revolution, which arose in the early 1790’s and sparked a series of wars which consumed much of the continent.  By setting Frankenstein at an unspecified point in the late 18th century prior to the revolution, Mary Shelley places her entire novel in its shadow; at the tail end of the 'Age of Enlightenment', as a long period of social and political experimentation came to its cataclysmic fruition.  The various European nations depicted in the book reflect those Shelley visited prior to and during its composition, as chronicled in her 'History of a Six Weeks' Tour' (1817).

The Old Swiss Confederacy

   Modern-day 'Switzerland' was preceded by a loose federation of more or less independent canton states – of which Geneva was one – formed in the late 13th-century by a mixture of German, French, and Italian alpine communities.  The Swiss Alps themselves form the central section of the mountain range, providing the iconic glacial scenery Mary Shelley recorded, both in an account of her European travels and in Frankenstein (See bookmark to page 76).

Despite maintaining international neutrality throughout its history, the Confederacy was temporarily 'liberated' from independence in 1798 by the advancing French Revolutionary armies, which attempted to unite and control its numerous cantons as one nation.  The newly-minted 'Helvetic Republic' was fraught with discord; a battleground for the ensuing wars between France (for whom the Swiss declined to fight) and her enemies, and beset by occasional rebellions against the new regime, it collapsed in 1803.  Napoleon himself intervened to reinstate the federal system, and after his defeat in 1815 Switzerland became something like its old feudal self again, albeit with a new sense of the national unity it might, and ultimately would, possess.

Online edition of 'The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau', (first published 1782)

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Bavaria, Germany
What was once the university of Ingolstadt's Anatomy Building
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeWhat was once the university of Ingolstadt's Anatomy Building - Credit: Brian Clontarf

Established in 1472, the University of Ingolstadt made the Bavarian city an important counter-Reformation presence during the Renaissance, but it underwent a systematic secularization throughout the Enlightenment.  By the late 18th century it had entirely shed its religious associations and, due to the extra-curricular activities of Professor Adam Weishaupt,  had become famous instead as the birthplace of a radical pro-Enlightenment offshoot of the freemasons, an ostensibly "secret" society known as the 'Illuminati'. 

Anticipating the modern multitude of hilarious conspiracy theories it has spawned, some contemporaries feared that this club of bored noblemen and self-professed 'free-thinkers' was in fact a sinister anti-theistic conspiracy, secretly advancing a worldwide revolutionary agenda.  Although the group had dispersed by the end of the 18th century, and financial difficulties had required the university to relocate to Munich in 1800, its history ensures that Frankenstein's education is as laden with sinister implications as the experiments which result.

Online edition of Volume III of Augustin Barruel's 'Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism', (1799), which generously credits a group of masonic societies, including the 'Illuminati', with engineering the French Revolutionread by Mary Shelley

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The Arctic North
The Russian Empire, 1745
Public DomainThe Russian Empire, 1745 - Credit: Russian Academy of Science

  St Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire from the early 18th-century until the revolution of 1917; seat of Catherine the Great during her reign (1762-1796), which saw a great upsurge in Enlightened reform and artistic patronage until checked by the instructive examples of the American and French revolutions.

Walton's long journey along the post road to Arkhangelsk on the northern coast suggests its importance not only as Russia's main trading port, but as a gateway to the Arctic for expeditions seeking a Northeast Passage to the Pacific Ocean (See bookmark to page 6).  Such attempts were frustrated by the shifting surface of the Arctic Ocean; the smallest of the world's oceans, for much of the year it is completely covered by a layer of ice, onto which Frankenstein recklessly pursues his creature. 

Walton has progressed quite far on his voyage when he rescues Victor, most likely at a point north of the sparsely populated wastes of Siberia.


Continuously updated scenes of the Arctic are available from the North Pole Environmental Observatory's webcams

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