In April 1815, a volcano erupted in Indonesia. Mount Tambora released an estimated 53–58 billion kilograms (tetragrams) of sulfur dioxide into the air, which spread across the entire northern hemisphere.
Mount Tambora’s eruption is the largest known volcanic eruption in recorded history. The sheer magnitude of sulfate aerosols entering the stratosphere temporarily cooled the world in what was already proving to be a cold decade.
The effects of Mount Tambora caused the following year, 1816, to become known as the “year without summer.” In the United Kingdom, average temperatures dropped more than ten degrees. In the eastern United States, snow fell in July.
That dark year proved to be the setting for many celebrated authors, such as Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and our beloved Jane Austen.
The Year Without Summer’s Influence on Jane Austen
1816 was a unique year for Jane Austen, both in her personal and professional life. Unfortunately for her, the year without summer would be the last complete summer she would experience before her death the following year.
There were many events in the beginning of the year that set the scene for the year without summer’s disastrous effects on the world.
A second edition of Mansfield Park was published, but it did not do very well. That ended up consuming the earnings she had gained from the success of Emma, which was published in 1815.
Also in 1816, Jane’s brother, Henry Austen, was able to regain the copyright of Northanger Abbey (which was called Susan at the time it was sold). It had been sold in 1802 to a publisher who never did anything with it.
One of the most difficult experiences of 1816 occurred in March, when Henry Austen’s bank failed and thrust the Austen family into financial uncertainty. Additionally, her brothers Edward, James, and Frank also lost investments in a joint venture.
This financial ruin delayed the publication of Persuasion (which was called The Elliots at the time) and Northanger Abbey (then called Catherine).
In May of 1816, Jane fell ill, but she ignored it in order to continue writing. A short time later, her sister Cassandra took her to Cheltenham to receive medical care. They returned him in June, which is about the time that the year without summer began.
The lack of sunshine and increase of cold weather (about 6-8 weeks of nonstop cold rain) affected Jane’s health to the point that everyone began to worry about her. She was only able to work a little bit at a time, but she was able to finish the last two chapters of Persuasion.
Due to her health, Jane wouldn’t be able to continue working until the beginning 1817, when she started on Sanditon (then called The Brothers). In April, she became bedridden, and she passed away on July 18th, 1817.
The Year Without Summer’s Influence on Other Authors
Mary Shelley – born Mary Godwin – was vacationing in a chalet on Lake Geneva, Switzerland during the year without summer with her husband Percy Shelley and their young son, William. They arrived in May 1816 and were subjected to months of cold rain and lack of sunshine.
Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont joined them on their vacation. The reason this is applicable is because Claire was one of Lord Byron’s lovers, and her presence on Lake Geneva soon brought Byron himself.
Lord Byron took up residence in a nearby mansion called Villa Diodati. Accompanying him was his personal physician, Dr. John William Polidori. The four adults engaged frequently in discussions about philosophy and read books together.
In the introduction to “Frankenstein,” Mary spoke of those days by saying:
“Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered communicated.
“They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
After reading a collection of German ghost stories called “Fantasmagoriana,” Lord Byron issued a challenge to see who could write the scariest story. Mary wrote “Frankenstein,” which is well-known today as one of the classic gothic horror stories.
Byron wrote “A Fragment of a Novel,” which was an unfinished vampire story. In addition to that story, however, he wrote the poem “Darkness” which described what life was like that entire summer. Here are the first lines:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day
Dr. Polidori later used “A Fragment” as the basis for his work “The Vampyre.” It’s said that “The Vampyre” was the precursor of and inspiration for “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, which was published in 1897.
When I first began writing my Pride & Prejudice variation “When Summer Never Came,” I wanted to explore what Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship would be like if the eruption had occurred the year prior to their meeting. This meant that when they met at Netherfield, they had just experienced a summer where crops didn’t grow.
I’d heard about Mount Tambora and its effects before, but I had no idea just how much it had affected the authors and poets who lived through it until I began to dig into the research.
It’s clear that the year without summer had significant influence on Regency authors, including the indirect consequence of Jane Austen’s early illness and death.