Literary Landmark: Mary Shelley & Frankenstein

Mary Shelley – the creator of Frankenstein – was born on this day in 1797.

“It was a dark and stormy night …” Many a spooky story begins with that line. But not many people know that it was on such a dark and stormy night that two of the most enduring creations in horror fiction were born. On one extraordinary night in 1816, in the Villa Diadoti in Geneva, two authors created the vampire and Frankenstein’s monster. (I use the phrase “Frankenstein’s monster” here because the creature is often erroneously referred to as Frankenstein. Frankenstein is, in fact, the name of the doctor who creates the creature. Throughout the novel the creature is unnamed.)

The summer of 1816 became known as the “Year without a Summer” (itself adding to the eerie quality of the background story). Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted and spewed volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere, causing temperatures to drop. Lord Byron and his guests, Percy and Mary Shelley, were staying at the Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley had recently suffered a miscarriage and lost a child. Many critics see this as the basis for the story of the doctor who brings the dead back to life. Due to the inclement weather, the group was unable to go outside to do many of the things that they had planned. So instead, they amused themselves by reading each other ghost stories from the German ghost story collection, Fantasmagoriana. Inspired by these stories – and equally inspired by copious amounts of laudanum – they decided to try to write their own ghost stories.

Mary Shelley began her story with a similar sentence to the one that begins this post. “It was on a dreary night in November …” she wrote. There are any numbers of suggestions as to how Mary Shelley conceived the idea of writing about bringing a creature back from the dead. Some point to her grief over the loss of her child. She herself said the idea came to her in a waking dream:

“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.”

The group had also been discussing whether or not a corpse could be brought back to life and the work of the 18th century philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin. Still, it is astonishing that an eighteen-year-old at that time should come up with such a ground-breaking and modern idea. She herself said this in the preface to the 1831 edition of the book:

“How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”

There are others who believe one of her models for Frankenstein was Percy Shelley himself, who while at college at Eton carried out numerous experiments with electricity and gunpowder. Recently, critics have claimed that Mary and Percy Shelley visited Castle Frankenstein on their way to Geneva and that an alchemist had experimented on dead bodies there. These critics claim that Mary never mentioned this so as not to detract from the fact that she had written Frankenstein.

Interestingly, when Frankenstein was initially published, the critical reaction to the book was unfavourable. Part of this may be due to the fact that the book had been written by a woman in days when women were not taken very seriously as writers, especially as the writer of something so disturbing and grotesque.

In the next post, I’ll take a look at the creator of the first vampire.

(Image: Click on pic for credits)

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10 thoughts on “Literary Landmark: Mary Shelley & Frankenstein

  1. Great stuff! As a teen i used the word… “fantasmagorcal” a lot. I always thought is was a made up word I’d heard somewhere! Must come from Fantasmagoriana tho eh? 🙂

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