Doctor Who: the real story of Shelley, Byron and the Villa Diodati

As Doctor Who heads back to 1816, we ask: what really happened the night that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein?

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The eighth episode of Doctor Who series 12 transports Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and her friends back in time to 1816, specifically into the midst of real-life literary figures Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley on the night that Mary came up with classic sci-fi novel Frankenstein.

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But just how true to life is the spooky new episode? As with many historical Doctor Who stories, there’s a mix of real facts and invention. To keep it simple, yes all those people were there, and yes it was a significant time – but no, there wasn’t actually any haunting going on.

“Maxine Alderton, who’s written that episode, is an absolute Mary Shelley and Byron… not a buff, she’s an expert in that,” series showrunner Chris Chibnall told RadioTimes.com.

“She studied them, she loves them, she knew all about them, she came with a great idea. And it was completely irresistible, and I think to spend a night with them, in a haunted house, feels absolutely prime Doctor Who territory.”

The basic set-up of the episode is certainly true to the historical fact. In the summer of 1816 Byron was living in the rented Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, having been forced to leave England after a collection of scandals (leaving his wife, ever-increasing debts, possibly sleeping with his half-sister – the usual) in April of the same year.

Byron (played by Jacob Collins-Levy in Who) stayed there from June to November of that year, taking his personal physician John Polidori (Maxim Baldry in the episode) with him and soon befriending poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Lewis Rainer) and the future Mary Shelley (Lilli Miller), then Mary Godwin, when they happened to be staying nearby in the Maison Chapuis.

Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont (Nadia Parkes) was also a part of the group, and apparently intended to pursue Byron after previously having an affair with him in London (it’s possible that at this stage Clairmont knew she was pregnant with Byron’s daughter Allegra).

But of course, the Villa Diodati isn’t just famous because a few writers hung out there once. The summer of 1816 was unseasonably wet and stormy (due to a volcanic eruption elsewhere, though the Shelley/Byron party wouldn’t have known that), and so the five ended up avoiding the incessant rain by reading scary and fantastical stories, including ghost story anthology Fantasmagoriana.

Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh in Doctor Who (BBC)
Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh in Doctor Who (BBC)

Soon, this turned to writing their own stories, and the group had a competition to create (in the Doctor’s words) “the most gruesome, spine-chilling ghost story of all time.” In real life this was over the course of three days, though in Doctor Who this is somewhat compressed into one night specifically.

The fruits of these labours were twofold: the first version of what would become Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the seminal sci-fi novel, and Dr John Polidori’s short story the Vampyre which, while not nearly as beloved, essentially invented how we see vampires today (suave, charming and dangerous noblemen), and was a big influence on books like Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In other words, two of the most famous monsters in history had their origin over three days in that small Swiss villa. Is it any wonder the Doctor would fancy paying a visit?

Of course, in The Haunting of Villa Diodati numerous liberties are taken with the real historical fact to include science fiction and supernatural elements, but it’s remarkable just how much truth there is behind the interpersonal drama of the characters.

Again though, probably no secret Time Lord dinner guests in real life. Otherwise, we imagine that would have popped up in Byron or Shelley’s letters at some point.

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Doctor Who continues on BBC One at 7:10pm on Sundays