The girl who wrote “Frankenstein” - Mary Shelley

17 February 2008
The girl who wrote “Frankenstein” - Mary Shelley

First, it should be made clear (since nearly everyone gets it wrong)that “Frankenstein” is the name of the man who made the monster and not the name of the monster itself. In the book the monster is only ever referred to as “the monster”. It was audiences watching the 1931 film Frankenstein who thought that the title referred to the monster and people have been getting it wrong ever since. Even today, “Frankenstein” is synonymous with a hideous monster.

This much-filmed story was written in Geneva and the character of Dr Victor Frankenstein was supposed to be a local professor. It was thought that the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had a hand in the writing of the book, and also the even more celebrated and notorious English poet, Lord Byron. But it was actually written by Shelley’s 19-year-old wife Mary at Bellerive, near Geneva, in the summer of 1816.

Since 1812, the handsome young poet Shelley had belonged to the intellectual circle that centred on the English philosopher and political journalist William Godwin. At the end of that year, Shelley met Godwin’s daughter Mary. And in 1813, when she was 16 and he 21, they had run away together to France. Shelley already had a wife and child. His first wife famously committed suicide by drowning herself in the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park. In 1816, when Mary was 19, she married Shelley. Mary’s father expressed disapproval, but this did not stop him begging Shelley, who was relatively wealthy, for money.

Mary Godwin had been born in London on 30 August 1797. In those days, many women died of puerperal fever within a few days of giving birth, and this was exactly the fate of Mary’s mother, herself an outspoken author on women’s rights. When Mary was 4 years old her father married for a second time a widow called Mrs Clairmont, but Mary never learned to like her new mother. However, Mrs Clairmont already had a daughter called Claire—please read on!

Britain had just emerged victorious from twenty-two years of the Napoleonic Wars, during which many industrialists had made fortunes. Now people began to travel to the continent again and it became very fashionable for rich young gentlemen to do the Grand Tour. Thus, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont met Lord Byron at the Hotel d’Angleterre in Geneva. Claire Clairmont had already become Byron’s mistress in London and she had arranged the meeting of these four in Geneva. Byron was very much the centre of attention at the hotel and people flocked from far and wide to catch a glimpse of him. During the course of the summer, the Shelleys moved to a villa at Montal?gre on the lake near Cologny. Before long, looking for peace and quiet, Byron rented the nearby Villa Diodata (which is still there today). Claire Clairmont subsequently gave birth to Byron’s daughter Allegra.

One stormy evening on the shores of Lake Geneva Lord Byron set them all a challenge—to write a ghost story based on German fairy-tales. Here is Byron describing a memorable thunderstorm over the lake:

From peak to peak, the rattling crags among
Leaps the live thunder! Not from one lone cloud,
But every mountain now hath found a tongue,
And Jura answers, through her misty shroud,
Back to the joyous Alps, who call to her aloud!

Byron devoted six verses of his epic poem Childe Harold to a storm over the Lake of Geneva. But only Mary Shelley carried his challenge through to its conclusion, publishing Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818. Conversations at the Villa Diodata that summer concerned the process of galvanism and experiments with electric shocks that made the muscles in a dead frog’s legs twitch. In a later edition of the book Mary Shelley revealed that she was also inspired by a dream of “a hideous phantasm” showing signs of life by “the working of some powerful engine”. What method Dr Frankenstein used to give life to his monster is never divulged in the book. Virtually every Frankenstein film has used lightning. Byron again:

Bear, know, feel, and yet breath—into one word,

And that one word were Lightning

At the end of August 1816 the Shelleys returned to London where Frankenstein was published and became a huge success. No one could believe that a young woman had written such a book, and even today it is a bit hard to believe.

In the original story, Victor Frankenstein, a young Genevan researcher from a wealthy family, intrigued by the idea of exploring the frontiers of death, describes how he created a living being from the assembled parts of dead bodies. He is successful, but becomes disgusted with the monster he has created and abandons it. The monster is rejected by all and, taking revenge on his creator, announces his intention to kill everyone around Frankenstein unless provided with a mate. At first, Frankenstein agrees to create a lady companion for the monster—but then decides that this is a mistake and destroys the female prototype. The monster goes wild. Rather like the Sorceror’s Apprentice, Frankenstein cannot anticipate the outcome of his actions and is punished for what he has done—by the monster itself. Curiously, the book begins and ends in the Arctic!

This is first time in literature that overcoming death is viewed from a scientific angle and not as supernatural black magic.
In 1818, after publication of the book, the Shelleys left England again for Italy. Three children were born to this couple, but only one of them survived. Shelley himself was drowned during a heavy squall on 28 July 1822 while swimming in the Bay of Spezia near Livorno. The following year Mary returned to England and devoted the rest of her life to the upbringing of her surviving son. She did write other books but none of them enjoyed any great success.