On August 30, 1797, English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) was born in Somers Town, London, England. Despite all of her other writings, Mary Shelley is best known for having written the Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus which happens to be 200 years old this year, having been published on January 1, 1818. She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. Last year’s Halloween ASAD article concentrated on the movie portrayals of Frankenstein’s monster while today’s blog deals with the character’s original creator and her most famous book.
Mary Shelley was the second child of the feminist philosopher, educator, and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and the first child of the political philosopher, novelist, and journalist William Godwin. Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever shortly after Mary was born leaving Godwin to bring up Mary, along with her older half-sister, Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft’s child by the American speculator Gilbert Imlay. A year after Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), which he intended as a sincere and compassionate tribute. However, because the Memoirs revealed Wollstonecraft’s affairs and her illegitimate child, they were seen as shocking. Mary Godwin read these memoirs and her mother’s books, and was brought up to cherish her mother’s memory.
Godwin was able to provide his daughters with a rich, if informal, education, encouraging them to adhere to his own liberal political theories. When Mary was four, her father married a neighbor, with whom, as her stepmother, Mary came to have a troubled relationship.
In 1814, Mary began a romance with one of her father’s political followers, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was already married. Mary and Percy began meeting each other secretly at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard, and they fell in love — she was nearly 17, he nearly 22. On June 26, 1814, Shelley and Godwin declared their love for one another as Shelley announced he could not hide his “ardent passion”, leading her in a “sublime and rapturous moment” to say she felt the same way; on either that day or the next, Godwin lost her virginity to Shelley, which tradition claims happened in the cemetery.Together with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, Mary and Shelley left for France and travelled through Europe. Upon their return to England, Mary was pregnant with Percy’s child. Over the next two years, she and Percy faced ostracism, constant debt, and the death of their prematurely born daughter. They married in late 1816, after the suicide of Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet.
In May 1816, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, with Claire Clairmont. They planned to spend the summer with the poet Lord Byron, whose recent affair with Claire had left her pregnant. The party arrived at Geneva on May 14, where Mary called herself “Mrs. Shelley”. Byron joined them on May 25, with his young physician, John William Polidori, and rented the Villa Diodati, close to Lake Geneva at the village of Cologny; Percy Shelley rented a smaller building called Maison Chapuis on the waterfront nearby. They spent their time writing, boating on the lake, and talking late into the night.
That year is known as “the Year Without a Summer” because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.7–1.3 °F (0.4–0.7 °C), resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. Evidence suggests that the anomaly was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (the largest eruption in at least 1,300 years after the extreme weather events of 535–536), perhaps exacerbated by the 1814 eruption of Mayon in the Philippines.
The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so the group in Geneva retired indoors until dawn. “It proved a wet, ungenial summer”, Mary Shelley remembered in 1831, “and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house”. Sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, the company amused themselves with German ghost stories translated into French from the book Fantasmagoriana, which prompted Byron to propose that they “each write a ghost story”. Unable to think of a story, young Mary Godwin became anxious: “Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” During one mid-June evening, the discussions turned to the nature of the principle of life. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated”, Mary noted, “galvanism had given token of such things”. It was after midnight before they retired, and unable to sleep, she became possessed by her imagination as she beheld the grim terrors of her “waking dream”, her ghost story:
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
She began writing what she assumed would be a short story. With Percy Shelley’s encouragement, she expanded this tale into her first novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818. She later described that summer in Switzerland as the moment “when I first stepped out from childhood into life”. The story of the writing of Frankenstein has been fictionalized several times and formed the basis for a number of films.
In September 2011, the astronomer Donald Olson, after a visit to the Lake Geneva villa the previous year, and inspecting data about the motion of the moon and stars, concluded that her waking dream took place “between 2am and 3am” June 16, 1816, several days after the initial idea by Lord Byron that they each write a ghost story.
Byron managed to write just a fragment based on the vampire legends he heard while travelling the Balkans, and from this John Polidori created The Vampyre (1819), the progenitor of the romantic vampire literary genre. Thus, two seminal horror tales originated from the conclave.
Shelley wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister Fanny. This was one of many personal tragedies that impacted Shelley’s work. Shelley’s first child died in infancy, and when she began composing Frankenstein in 1816, she was likely nursing her second child, who would also be dead at Frankenstein‘s publication.
Shelley and her husband collaborated on the story but the extent of Percy’s contribution to the novel is unknown and has been argued over by readers and critics. There are differences in the 1818, 1823 and 1831 editions and Mary Shelley wrote, “I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.” She wrote that the preface to the first edition was Percy’s work “as far as I can recollect.” James Rieger concluded Percy’s “assistance at every point in the book’s manufacture was so extensive that one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator”, while Anne K. Mellor later argued Percy only “made many technical corrections and several times clarified the narrative and thematic continuity of the text.” Charles E. Robinson, editor of a facsimile edition of the Frankenstein manuscripts, concluded that Percy’s contributions to the book “were no more than what most publishers’ editors have provided new (or old) authors or, in fact, what colleagues have provided to each other after reading each other’s works in progress.”
Shelley completed her writing in April/May 1817, and Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published on January 1, 1818, by the small London publishing house Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones. It was issued anonymously, with a preface written for Mary by Percy Bysshe Shelley and with a dedication to philosopher William Godwin, her father. It was published in an edition of just 500 copies in three volumes, the standard “triple-decker” format for 19th-century first editions.
The second edition of Frankenstein was published on August 11, 1822, in two volumes (by G. and W. B. Whittaker) following the success of the stage play Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake. This edition credited Mary Shelley as the book’s author on its title page. On October 31, 1831, the first “popular” edition in one-volume appeared, published by Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley. This edition was heavily revised by Mary Shelley, partially to make the story less radical. It included a lengthy new preface by the author, presenting a somewhat embellished version of the genesis of the story. This edition is the one most widely published and read now, although a few editions follow the 1818 text. Some scholars prefer the original version, arguing that it preserves the spirit of Mary Shelley’s vision (see Anne K. Mellor’s “Choosing a Text of Frankenstein to Teach” in the W. W. Norton Critical edition).
The Shelleys left Britain in 1818 for Italy, where their second and third children died before Mary Shelley gave birth to her last and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley. In 1822, her husband drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm near Viareggio. A year later, Mary Shelley returned to England and from then on devoted herself to the upbringing of her son and a career as a professional author.
In the mid-1840s, Mary Shelley found herself the target of three separate blackmailers. In 1845, an Italian political exile called Gatteschi, whom she had met in Paris, threatened to publish letters she had sent him. A friend of her son’s bribed a police chief into seizing Gatteschi’s papers, including the letters, which were then destroyed. Shortly afterwards, Mary Shelley bought some letters written by herself and Percy Bysshe Shelley from a man calling himself G. Byron and posing as the illegitimate son of the late Lord Byron. Also in 1845, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s cousin Thomas Medwin approached her claiming to have written a damaging biography of Percy Shelley. He said he would suppress it in return for £250, but Mary Shelley refused.
In 1848, Percy Florence married Jane Gibson St John. The marriage proved a happy one, and Mary Shelley and Jane were fond of each other. Mary lived with her son and daughter-in-law at Field Place, Sussex, the Shelleys’ ancestral home, and at Chester Square, London, and accompanied them on travels abroad.
Mary Shelley’s last years were blighted by illness. From 1839, she suffered from headaches and bouts of paralysis in parts of her body, which sometimes prevented her from reading and writing. On February 1, 1851, at Chester Square, she died at the age of fifty-three from what her physician suspected was a brain tumor. According to Jane Shelley, Mary Shelley had asked to be buried with her mother and father; but Percy and Jane, judging the graveyard at St. Pancras to be “dreadful”, chose to bury her instead at St. Peter’s Church, Bournemouth, near their new home at Boscombe. On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death, the Shelleys opened her box-desk. Inside they found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a copy of his poem Adonaïs with one page folded round a silk parcel containing some of his ashes and the remains of his heart.
Until the 1970s, Mary Shelley was known mainly for her efforts to publish her husband’s works and for her novel Frankenstein, which remains widely read and has inspired many theatrical and film adaptations. Recent scholarship has yielded a more comprehensive view of Mary Shelley’s achievements. Scholars have shown increasing interest in her literary output, particularly in her novels, which include the historical novels Valperga (1823) and Perkin Warbeck (1830), the apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826), and her final two novels, Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837). Studies of her lesser-known works, such as the travel book Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844) and the biographical articles for Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia (1829–46), support the growing view that Mary Shelley remained a political radical throughout her life. Mary Shelley’s works often argue that cooperation and sympathy, particularly as practiced by women in the family, were the ways to reform civil society. This view was a direct challenge to the individualistic Romantic ethos promoted by Percy Shelley and the Enlightenment political theories articulated by her father, William Godwin.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a grotesque, sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Shelley started writing the story when she was 18, and the first edition of the novel was published anonymously in London on January 1, 1818, when she was 20. Her name first appeared on the second edition, published in France in 1823.
Shelley travelled through Europe in 1814, journeying along the river Rhine in Germany with a stop in Gernsheim, which is 11 miles (17 kilometers) away from Frankenstein Castle, where, two centuries before, an alchemist was engaged in experiments. Later, she travelled in the region of Geneva — where much of the story takes place — and the topic of galvanism and occult ideas were themes of conversation among her companions. After thinking for days, Shelley dreamt about a scientist who created life and was horrified by what he had made; her dream later evolved into the novel’s story.
Frankenstein is infused with elements of the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement. At the same time, it is an early example of science fiction. Brian Aldiss has argued that it should be considered the first true science fiction story because, in contrast to previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character “makes a deliberate decision” and “turns to modern experiments in the laboratory” to achieve fantastic results. It has had a considerable influence in literature and popular culture and spawned a complete genre of horror stories, films and plays.
Since the novel’s publication, the name “Frankenstein” has often been used to refer to the monster itself. This usage is sometimes considered erroneous, but usage commentators regard it as well-established and acceptable. In the novel, the monster is identified by words such as “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “wretch”, “abortion”, “fiend” and “it”. Speaking to Victor Frankenstein, the monster says “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel” (which ties to Lucifer in Paradise Lost, which the monster reads, and which relates to the disobedience of Prometheus in the book’s subtitle).
Mary Shelley’s manuscripts for the first three-volume edition in 1818 (written 1816–1817), as well as the fair copy for her publisher, are now housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Bodleian acquired the papers in 2004, and they belong now to the Abinger Collection. In 2008, the Bodleian published a new edition of Frankenstein, edited by Charles E. Robinson, that contains comparisons of Mary Shelley’s original text with Percy Shelley’s additions and interventions alongside.
The creature has often been mistakenly called “Frankenstein”. In 1908, one author said “It is strange to note how well-nigh universally the term “Frankenstein” is misused, even by intelligent people, as describing some hideous monster”. In the original book, part of Victor Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation is the fact that he does not give it a name, which causes a lack of identity. Instead it is referred to by words such as “wretch”, “monster”, “creature”, “demon”, “devil”, “fiend”, and “it”. When Frankenstein converses with the creature in Chapter 10, he addresses it as “vile insect”, “abhorred monster”, “fiend”, “wretched devil”, and “abhorred devil”. During a telling of Frankenstein, Shelley referred to the creature as “Adam”. Shelley was referring to the first man in the Garden of Eden, as in her epigraph:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
John Milton, Paradise Lost (X. 743–5)
Edith Wharton’s The Reef (1916) describes an unruly child as an “infant Frankenstein.” David Lindsay’s “The Bridal Ornament”, published in The Rover on June 12, 1844, mentioned “the maker of poor Frankenstein.” After the release of Whale’s cinematic Frankenstein, the public at large began speaking of the creature itself as “Frankenstein”. This also occurs in Frankenstein films, including Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and several subsequent films, as well as in film titles such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Furthermore, future renditions and adaptations of the story include an evil laboratory assistant Igor or Ygor, who does not actually exist within the original narrative.
Although the creature would be described in later works as a composite of whole body parts grafted together from cadavers and reanimated by the use of electricity, this description is not entirely consistent with Shelley’s work; both the use of electricity and the cobbled-together image of Frankenstein’s monster were more the result of James Whale’s popular 1931 film adaptation of the story, and other early motion-picture works based upon the creature. In Shelley’s original work, Dr. Frankenstein discovers a previously unknown but elemental principle of life, and that insight allows him to develop a method to imbue vitality into inanimate matter, though the exact nature of the process is left largely ambiguous. After a great deal of hesitation in exercising this power, Frankenstein spends two years painstakingly constructing the creature’s body (one anatomical feature at a time, from raw materials supplied by “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house”), which he then brings to life using his unspecified process.
Mary Shelley maintained that she derived the name Frankenstein from a dream-vision. Despite her public claims of originality, however, a number of other sources have been suggested as Shelley’s actual inspiration. The German name Frankenstein means “stone of the Franks”, and it is associated with various places in Germany, including Frankenstein Castle (Burg Frankenstein) in Darmstadt, Hesse, and Frankenstein Castle in Frankenstein, a town in the Palatinate. There is also a castle called Frankenstein in Bad Salzungen, Thuringia, and a municipality called Frankenstein in Saxony. Until 1945, Ząbkowice Śląskie, now a city in Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland, was mainly populated by Germans and named Frankenstein in German, and was the site of a scandal involving gravediggers in 1606, which has been suggested as an inspiration to the author. Finally, the name is borne by the aristocratic House of Franckenstein from Franconia.
Radu Florescu argues that Mary and Percy Shelley visited Frankenstein Castle near Darmstadt in 1814 during their return to England from their elopement to Switzerland. It was at this castle that a notorious alchemist, Conrad Dippel, had experimented with human bodies, and Florescu reasons that Mary suppressed mention of her visit in order to maintain her public claim of originality. A literary essay by A. J. Day supports Florescu’s position that Mary Shelley knew of and visited Frankenstein Castle before writing her debut novel. Day includes details of an alleged description of the Frankenstein castle that exists in Mary Shelley’s ‘lost’ journals. According to Jörg Heléne, the ‘lost journals’, as well as Florescu’s claims, cannot be verified.
A possible interpretation of the name Victor is derived from Paradise Lost by John Milton, a great influence on Shelley (a quotation from Paradise Lost is on the opening page of Frankenstein and Shelley even has the monster himself read it). Milton frequently refers to God as “the Victor” in Paradise Lost, and Shelley sees Victor as playing God by creating life. In addition, Shelley’s portrayal of the monster owes much to the character of Satan in Paradise Lost; indeed, the monster says, after reading the epic poem, that he empathizes with Satan’s role in the story.
There are many similarities between Victor and Percy Shelley, Mary’s husband. Victor was a pen name of Percy Shelley’s, as in the collection of poetry he wrote with his sister Elizabeth, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. There is speculation that one of Mary Shelley’s models for Victor Frankenstein was Percy, who at Eton had “experimented with electricity and magnetism as well as with gunpowder and numerous chemical reactions”, and whose rooms at Oxford were filled with scientific equipment. Percy Shelley was the first-born son of a wealthy country squire with strong political connections and a descendant of Sir Bysshe Shelley, 1st Baronet of Castle Goring, and Richard Fitzalan, 10th Earl of Arundel. Victor’s family is one of the most distinguished of that republic and his ancestors were counselors and syndics. Percy had a sister named Elizabeth; Victor had an adopted sister named Elizabeth.
Frankenstein has been both well received and disregarded since its anonymous publication in 1818. Critical reviews of that time demonstrate these two views, along with confused speculation as to the identity of the author. The Belle Assemblée described the novel as “very bold fiction”. The Quarterly Review stated that “the author has the power of both conception and language”. Sir Walter Scott, writing in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, congratulated “the author’s original genius and happy power of expression” (620), although he is less convinced about the way in which the monster gains knowledge about the world and language. The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany hoped to see “more productions from this author”. On the other hand, the Quarterly Review described it “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity”.
In two other reviews where the author is known as the daughter of William Godwin, the criticism of the novel makes reference to the feminine nature of Mary Shelley. The British Critic attacks the novel’s flaws as the fault of the author: “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment”. The Literary Panorama and National Register attacks the novel as a “feeble imitation of Mr. Godwin’s novels” produced by the “daughter of a celebrated living novelist”. Despite the reviews, Frankenstein achieved an almost immediate popular success. It became widely known especially through melodramatic theatrical adaptations — Mary Shelley saw a production of Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, a play by Richard Brinsley Peake, in 1823. A French translation appeared as early as 1821 (Frankenstein: ou le Prométhée Moderne, translated by Jules Saladin).
Critical reception of Frankenstein has been largely positive since the mid-20th century. Major critics such as M. A. Goldberg and Harold Bloom have praised the “aesthetic and moral” relevance of the novel, although there are also critics such as Germaine Greer, who criticized the novel as terrible due to technical and narrative defects (such as it featuring three narrators that speak in the same way). In more recent years, the novel has become a popular subject for psychoanalytic and feminist criticism: Lawrence Lipking states: “[E]ven the Lacanian subgroup of psychoanalytic criticism, for instance, has produced at least half a dozen discrete readings of the novel”. The novel today is generally considered to be a landmark work of romantic and gothic literature, as well as science fiction.
Film director Guillermo del Toro describes Frankenstein as “the quintessential teenage book”, adding “You don’t belong. You were brought to this world by people that don’t care for you and you are thrown into a world of pain and suffering, and tears and hunger. It’s an amazing book written by a teenage girl. It’s mind-blowing.” Professor of philosophy Patricia MacCormack says the creature, brought to life by Victor Frankenstein, addresses the most fundamental human questions: “It’s the idea of asking your maker what your purpose is. Why are we here, what can we do?”
How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?
— Mary Shelley
On May 13, 1997, Great Britain released a four-stamp set entitled, “Tales of Terror” (Scott #1754-1757). Designed by Ian Pollock and printed by Walsall Security Printers using the photogravure process, the stamps were sold in sheets of 100, perforated 15×14. The 26-pence denomination pictures Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster is on the 31-pence value, the 37-pence stamp features Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while the terrifying beast from The House of the Baskervilles appears on the 43-pence denomination. According to the insert in the official first day cover produced by Royal Mail,
The great horror stories of the nineteenth century — Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles — are the most significant contribution by British writers of the last century to the mass culture of this one, and I mean mass: films, videos, toys, games, computer software, advertisements, everything from novels to breakfast cereal packets. Frankenstein’s creation and Dracula possess every high street. But their routes lie in the high culture of the Regency period. With Mary Shelley’s birth in 1797 and Dracula’s publication in 1897, these Tales of Terror are a fitting contribution to the European stamp theme of “Tales and Legends”.