Mary Shelley

	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

	Like one who, on a lonely road,
	Doth walk in fear and dread,
	And, having once turned round, walks on,
	And turns no more his head;
	Because he knows a frightful fiend
	Doth close behind him tread.
				-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 
				 The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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. -- Mary Shelley

We will each write a ghost story. -- Lord Byron

	So now my summer task is ended, Mary,
	And I return to thee, my own heart's home;
	As to his Queen some Victor Knight of Faery,
	Earning bright spoils for her enchanted dome ...
					-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

There are two creatures of horror that are known to everyone - Dracula and Frankenstein - though in popular misconception neither bear much resemblance to their original creations.

Both Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have led to a whole genre of horror movies, though none bear much resemblance either to the original characters or to the novels in which they first appear.

Frankenstein was a monster, though strictly speaking Frankenstein's Monster, the result of medical experimentation by Victor Frankenstein, 'a pale student of unhallowed arts', that went badly wrong, using stolen body parts. Frankenstein has become the byword for any monster, especially something artificially created, out of control. It has stood the test of time as a modern parable that man should not attempt to play God, and should he try, his creations will turn upon him.

The Frankenstein parable could not be more appropriate today as we near the end of the Millennium with Man playing God with Nature - genetic engineering, cross-species transplants, and human cloning. Like Victor Frankenstein we tamper at our peril.

Frankenstein was created when Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron were cooped up in a cottage on the shores of Lake Geneva with a storm raging all around. They challenged each other to write a ghost story. The party was so impressed by Mary Shelley's story that she was persuaded to turn it into a full length novel and publish.

Such has been the success of Frankenstein (1818), that it is Mary Shelley who is today well known whereas the then well known poet Percy Bysshe Shelley has sunk into obscurity.

Frankenstein or to give the novel its full, but less well known title, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus was originally published anonymously, with a preface by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was later revised by Mary Shelley and published with a preface under her own name (1831). Modern texts are usually the 1831 version.

There have been more than a hundred Frankenstein movies, the only one to attempt to follow the novel was Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994).

Mary Shelley wrote several other novels including The Last Man (1826), Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), but none repeated the success or came up to the standard of Frankenstein. She also wrote several essays including Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844) based on a continental tour she undertook with her son Percy Florence and his friends.

The Last Man, an apocalyptic tale of disease in the 21st century, deserves to be more widely read today.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), the daughter of literary and radical parents was the second wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Two years before the publication of Frankenstein, the then 16 year old Mary Godwin had eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Mary Shelley's life was surrounded by tragedy. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to Mary. Whilst Mary was working upon the final draft of Frankenstein, her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, the illegitimate daughter of her mother, killed herself with an overdose of laudanum. Only two months after the suicide of her half-sister, Harriet Shelley, the abandoned wife of Shelley, killed herself by drowning. Mary Shelley's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in a boating accident off the coast of Italy (1822). Of her four children, only one survived. Her friend Lord Byron died, leading a revolt by the Greeks against the repressive Turks (1824).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Sir Humphry Davy and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin), were friends of her father and visitors to the family household. Coleridge recited the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem that was to have a great influence on the young Mary Godwin, and was to be a major influence in the writing of Frankenstein.

Frankenstein was written at the time of scientific discovery. Priestly had discovered oxygen, a vital element of life. Galvani had discovered electricity, the vital spark of life. It was a time when it was felt that the peeling back of a few more layers would uncover the source of life itself. Compare with today, two centuries on, genetic research, neurological research, peel back a few more layers and we will discover the secret of life. Shelley and Byron discussed 'the principle of life and whether there was any probability of it's ever being discovered'.

Frankenstein has its roots firmly in the tradition of Gothic horror, whilst at the same time being the forerunner of science fiction.

Following the death of her husband, Mary Shelley continued to write and this included editing her husband's works.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), Mary's mother, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

William Godwin (1756-1836), Mary's father, political agitator and novelist, wrote Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and the novel Caleb Williams (1794). Frankenstein was dedicated to William Godwin.

Lord Byron (1788-1824), poet, instigator of the Villa Diodati ghost stories, Greek national hero due to his revolt against the oppressive Turks which led to the liberation of Greece and the founding of the modern Greek state.

John Polidori (1795-1821), present at the Villa Diodati during the telling of the ghost stories. He went on to write The Vampyre: A Tale (1819), a forerunner of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).

Horace Walpole (1717-1797), fourth Earl of Orford, son of Sir Robert Walpole, introduced and named the genre with The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764). Others in the genre, which were read by Mary Shelley, included Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), M G Lewis (1775-1818) The Monk (1776), and William Beckford (1759-1844) Vathek (1786).

Web Resources

Suggested Reading

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed Maurice Hindle, Penguin Classics, 1992

Literature ~ William Beckford ~ Mathew Lewis ~ Edgar Allan Poe ~ Ann Radcliffe ~ Percy Bysshe Shelley ~ Bram Stoker ~ Horace Walpole
(c) Keith Parkins 1999-2003 -- August 2003 rev 5