Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein was born August 30, 1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft, novelist and author of the founding document of feminism, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, novelist and liberal political philosopher whose friends included many of England’s leading writers and thinkers.

Mary Shelley. Reginald Easton(d.1893) Courtesy of The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Shelly relics

A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is still commonly read today; more so than the accompanying A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), an essay supporting the principles of the French Revolution, or her husband’s most famous text Political Justice (1793). This pair strongly shared the same principles, including upon the implications of traditional marriage. Ten days after giving birth to Mary, Miss Wollstonecraft died from childbirth complications. Mary remained with William Godwin and his second wife, a woman who brought to the household a previous daughter known as ‘Claire’.

The household became one of the premier salons of Europe, to which poets, painters, actors, and inventors came calling. Mary Godwin, far more flamboyant than Fanny Imlay, escaped the family through rebellion. Upon returning home from Scotland in 1812 she encountered a young poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, accompanied by his wife, Harriet, visiting her father, William Godwin. In July 1814, a month short of Mary’s 17th birthday, Mary ran away with the unhappily married Shelley who considered his marriage as a calamity, a heartless union and a revolting duty. They would marry in December 1816, after his first wife’s suicide.

Together, Mary and Percy would have five children, only one of whom would survive early childhood. This tragedy, along with the early death of her mother influenced Mary Shelley’s theme linking creation with death.

In 1816 on their second visit to the continent, Percy, Mary, their second baby, William, and Mary’s step-sister summered a lakeside villa on Lake Leman near Geneva, Switzerland. Next wasVilla Diodati, the home of Lord Byron, famous for fascinating poetry and delicious scandals, whose guests included his physician and traveling companion, John Polidori. The group wrote, read extensively, sailed on the lake, and gathered at Byron’s Villa Diodati in the evenings

In the introduction for the Standard Novels edition in 1831, Marry wrote:.

In the summer of 1816 we visited Switzerland and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first, we spent our pleasant hours on the lake or wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third canto of Childe Harold, was the only one amongst us who put his thoughts upon paper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all the light and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories of heaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him. But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories translated from the German into the French fell into our hands.

George Gordon Byron, the sixth Lord Byron, was the prototype of the decadent aristocrat. Tales that the English Lord had murdered one of his mistresses and drunk her blood from a cup made of her cranium sound spooky, beside the actual exploits of the man who travelled in the first years of the nineteenth century  to Constantinople and the Turkish courts, rode through the wilds of Albania and climbed the mountains in the Swiss Alps; in the letters from Venice he pretend to have spent in two years half of five thousand pounds on sex ‘of one kind or another’. In The Giaour (1813), the unhappy heroine is sewn into a sack and flung into the sea to drown. The perpetrator is then cursed;

But first on earth as vampire sent
Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent.
Then, ghastly, haunt thy native place
And suck the blood of all thy race.

Byron consciously cultivated his image, until it rebounded on him. In the spring of 1816, his wife left him and he was to all intents and purposes exiled.

So Byron rented up the Villa Diodati, and invited all his English friends to visit; including the notorious Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis.

Shelley, heir to a baronetcy in Sussex,  was the type of vehement reformist and political radical that had become unfashionable after the French Revolution to the point of treason. Shelley had been expelled from Oxford for publishing, under his own name, and furthermore refusing to retract a pamphlet The Necessity Of Atheism in 1811. Gossips delighted in discussing his blatant infidelity to Mary, and his taking up with the definitely lower class daughter of two other infamous intellectual radicals.

Record of their meeting from the journal of Doctor John Polidori. Shortly after, he met Percy Shelley

Getting out L.B. met Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her sister, and Percy Shelley… Dined: PS, the author of Queen Mab came: bashful, shy, consumptive, twenty-six: separated from his wife; keeps the two daughters of Godwin, who practise his theories; one L.B.’s

The story is well known. In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, were residing at the Villa Diodati where they were visited by Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (who become Mary Shelley) and Claire Claremont. The rainy summer left the visitors ensconced in the Villa telling one another Gothic German ghost tales such Fantasmagoria of Jean Baptiste Benoit Eyries, Johann Ludwig Tieck’s Wake Not the Dead. The talent in the Villa drawing room superseded the literature being read so Byron suggested that each member of the party write a story of their own.

Shelley began something but was soon distracted; Byron wrote a fragment about a dying man, a nobleman named Augustus Darvell who contrives to return from the dead. A fragment which Polidori would expand into a classic novel, “The Vampyre: A Tale” (1819). His journal also gives some indication of the atmosphere in the Villa, during the renowned stormy nights.

Began my ghost story after tea. Twelve o’clock, really began to talk ghostly. L.B. repeated some verses of Coleridge’s Christabel, of the witch’s breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs S., and suddenly thought of a women he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.

Mary is long before inspiration falls on her but what a vision !

In her final revision of Frankenstein in 1831, she describes the revelation:

 I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination unbidden, possessed and guided me.. I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, – the pale student of unhallowed arts standing before 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. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror stricken…. He (the artist) sleeps but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

The next day she began work on her “ghost story,” planning to write a short tale (she began with the creation scene she had envisioned). But Shelley encouraged her to make it a novel. Over the next year, the 18 to 19-year-old Mary made sophisticated use of the then-common expository novel (told through letters) to tell a tale within a tale within a tale. Walton, an explorer, writes letters to his sister (whose initials are M.W.S.), in which he mentions finding a haunted-looking man in the Arctic Circle, north of Russia. The man’s name is Victor Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley read and relied on the most recent findings and theories of science to create her tale. She replaced the mythological theme of “heavenly fire” with the latest experiments of electricity. The concepts of electricity and warmth were theorized by Humphrey Davy whose experiments emphasized the electrical and chemical in a process know as galvanisation which was said to be the key to the animation of life.

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Mr Goulding, an English postgraduate researcher,  believes the Scottish scientist James Lind – a school mentor to Shelley’s husband – was the model for the fictional scientist who gave life to one of the world’s best-known monsters. Lind, a physician and natural philosopher born in 1736, had a lively interest in science and was one of the first to demonstrate electro-medical experiments in England – a process that makes dead muscles twitch with an electric current. Christopher Goulding suggests Shelley might have learned about how to galvanise a corpse into life by listening to her husband – the poet Shelley – reminiscing about his schooldays.

Nevertheless, Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein, in 1816 at Lord Byron’s villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Her interest in Victor Frankenstein’s character lay in the social and moral consequences of his research, not the research itself, Mr Goulding argues in the journal.

Both Frankenstein and “The Vampyre” were initially ascribed to different authors. The fact that the first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously, although dedicated to Charles Godwin, led many readers to assume that it had been written by Percy Shelley.

The first adaptation of Frankenstein was a three-act opera by R. B. Peake titled Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823). It featured an inarticulate monster and an assistant named Fritz, and included the line “It lives! It lives.” In The Frankenstein Legend, Donald F. Glut suggests that no attempt had been made to adapt the novel before this because “Percy Shelley was too controversial to have a novel even suspected of being of his authorship presented on the stage”.

But by 1823, Percy had died and Mary had been acknowledged as the author. When she returned to England and saw the play Presumption, or, The Fate of Frankenstein, she commented that she was “much amused and it appeared to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience” (quoted in Glut, Legend, 32). A second adaptation opened the same year, as did a trio of comedic versions. In 1826, new versions were staged in London and Paris . The sensation surrounding Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus was of a different note to The Vampyre.

That the author of Frankenstein, a ghastly tale of science-sorcery, body-snatching and multiple murders, was a young woman linked to Byron’s, made a scandalous fame in this time. Much was made of the contrast between the strange and beautiful young lady and the horrific book she had conceived of in a dream. This was coined with all apparent sincerity in 1935 when James Whale prefaced to his film The Bride of Frankenstein:

BYRON: Astonishing creature…
MARY: I, Lord Byron?
BYRON: Frightened of thunder — fearful of the dark — and yet you have written a tale that sent my blood into icy creeps. Look at her, Shelley, can you believe that bland and lovely brow conceived a Frankenstein?

In Forbidden Knowledge by Roger Shattuck, Mary Shelley’s background is discussed further. She was swept off her feet by Percy Shelley at the age of seventeen. Without being married she lived in an irregular household of men who were intent upon achieving glory through their genius. Lord Byron was one such individual. “Surrounded by illegitimate births and infant deaths, they subsisted on high ideals to remake the world through liberation and revolution” . It was the hollowness and vanity of these high ideals that Mary Godwin was reacting to when she wrote Frankenstein.