At Villa Diodati

 June 19: On this day in 1816, the Shelleys, Lord Byron, and entourage gathered at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva to tell the ghost stories that would trigger Frankenstein. This most legendary of storm-tossed evenings may or may not have been a literary lightning bolt, as there are conflicting accounts of how Mary Shelley arrived at the idea for her novel, and how long she mulled it over. On the other hand, the June 19th evening and the lazy days at Byron's villa that summer inspired more than Frankenstein; and the byways of literature being what they are, the occasion has connections backwards to John Milton, and forwards to the language of computer programming.


Frankenstein is connected to Paradise Lost by Shelley's opening quotation and by theme, but Milton had been a Cambridge friend of Charles Diodati, and while touring Europe as a thirty-year-old he had visited Charles at the family villa. By Byron's time, the villa had become a rental, the region a famous resort area—and of course, with Byron and the Shelleys there, it became an infamous resort area. One enterprising hotelier had a telescope installed in order that his guests might get a close-up of the "League of Incest"—Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont (half-sister to Mary, pregnant with Byron's child), John Polidori (Byron's physician)—in action.


Whatever the distractions at Villa Diodati, Polidori was able to concentrate on what would become the short story "The Vampyre," and Byron himself would write the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage there. This opens with a reference to Ada, his newly-born daughter; their parting had been caused by the rumors of incest surrounding Byron's relationship with his half-sister, and it would prove to be permanent. Ada grew up estranged from both parents, and to be a mathematical genius. She worked with Charles Babbage, whose "Analytical Engine" is widely considered to have been the world's first computer, and her contributions were such that the programming language ADA is named in her honor. She died at the age of thirty-six, the same as her father; in her last years she was like her father in other ways, her difficulties including several romantic scandals, problems with alcohol and opium, and gambling debts.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.