Recently Gillen D’Arcy Wood gave a lecture about the Tambora Volcano eruption of 1816 and the “year without a summer” that ensued. His lecture was unique for two reasons. First; it connected the science of volcano studies and climatology to what is probably his first love, English literature in a cross-disciplinary way that we don’t often see in our studies. Second; it introduced this idea of dynamic “teleconnection” that I have not come across before that essentially means one event in one part of the world influences an event in a separate region of the world.
Typically, teleconnection focuses only on environmental and meteorological events. Prof. Wood took it a step further. He made the claim that an environmental event (i.e. Tambora) not only caused meteorological phenomena (the year without a summer) but it also influenced human events beyond just a recognition of it being cloudy that day. In his book, Wood made a lot of claims about this more dynamic teleconnection, but in his lecture, he stuck with two primary ones – the creation of the story Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and the refugee crisis that the aftereffects of Tambora caused.
Here is why I have some problems with this line of thinking. While I do think there is value in parsing out what the inspiration for a novel might be (as someone who reads plenty of novels I am intrigued by that) I think it is a bit simple and maybe inaccurate to say “Mary Shelley would not have written Frankenstein had Tambora not erupted.” I am sure you would find many English literature professors or classical professors who would point toward the mythology Prometheus as the the guiding influence behind the theme for Frankenstein (titan given life and power by the gods), not the refugees or the weather. Any attempts to pick through Mary Shelley’s mind to find her motivation is just psychological guesswork and some rash jumping to conclusions. The refugee crisis being teleconnected to Tambora is much more plausible. The lack of a typical summer devastated the harvest and caused farmers to lose their jobs and caused a massive food shortage. That all makes sense. My concerns are that some of that information is incomplete. The economic and political climates weren’t structurally set to endure a crisis like in 1816. To be fair to Prof. Wood, he did do his best to cover that and show how Tambora exposed those already present issues. I just think sometimes when studying interrelationships of events we need to be careful we don’t fall into the “A leads to B and B leads to C” formulaic understanding of these relationships when there is so much more to these events to analyze from multiple angles. It would be like saying (for comparisons sake) Moby Dick was inspired by the growing whaling industry in the 19th century when there is clearly allusions to the bible and Shakespeare in the story that inspired it just as much if not more.