The summer of 1816 was a washout. After the cataclysmic April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, part of what is now Indonesia, the world's weather turned cold, wet and miserable. In a holiday villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, a young English poet and his lover, the guests of another poet, discouraged from outdoor pursuits, sat discussing the hideousness of nature and speculating about the fashionable subject of "galvanism". Was it possible to reanimate a corpse?
The villa was Byron's. The other poet was Shelley. His future wife, 19-year-old Mary Shelley (nee Godwin), who had recently lost a premature baby, was in distress. When Byron, inspired by some fireside readings of supernatural tales, suggested that each member of the party should write a ghost story to pass the time, there could scarcely have been a more propitious set of circumstances for the creation of the gothic and romantic classic called Frankenstein, the novel that some claim as the beginnings of science fiction and others as a masterpiece of horror and the macabre. Actually, it's both more and less than such labels might suggest.
At first, Mary Shelley fretted about meeting Byron's challenge. Then, she said, she had a dream about a scientist who "galvanises" life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses: "I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – 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."
The scientist Victor Frankenstein, then, is the author of the monster that has come in popular culture to bear his name. Frankenstein's story – immortalised in theatre and cinema – is framed by the correspondence of Captain Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer who, having rescued the unhappy scientist from the polar wastes, begins to record his extraordinary story. We hear how the young student Victor Frankenstein tries to create life: "By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light," he says, "I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."
Unforgettably, Frankenstein has unleashed forces beyond his control, setting in motion a long and tragic chain of events that brings him to the brink of madness. Finally, Victor tries to destroy his creation, as it destroys everything he loves, and the tale becomes a story of friendship, hubris and horror. Frankenstein's narration, the core of Shelley's tale, culminates in the scientist's desperate pursuit of his monstrous creation to the North Pole. The novel ends with the destruction of both Frankenstein and his creature, "lost in darkness".
The subtitle of Frankenstein is "the modern Prometheus", a reference to the Titan of Greek mythology who was first instructed by Zeus to create mankind. This is the dominant source in a book that is also heavily influenced by Paradise Lost and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Mary Shelley, whose mother was the champion of women's rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, also makes frequent reference to ideas of motherhood and creation. The main theme of the book, however, is the ways in which man manipulates his power, through science, to pervert his own destiny.
Plainly, Frankenstein is rather different from, and much more complex than, its subsequent reinterpretations. The first reviews were mixed, attacking what one called a "disgusting absurdity". But the archetypal story of a monstrous, supernatural creation (cf Bram Stoker's Dracula, Wilde's Dorian Gray and Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde) instantly caught readers' imaginations. The novel was adapted for the stage as early as 1822 and Walter Scott saluted "the author's original genius and happy power of expression". It has never been out of print; a new audiobook version, read by Dan Stevens, has just been released by Audible Inc, a subsidiary of Amazon.
A Note on the Text:
The first edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in three volumes by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones on 1 January 1818. A second edition appeared in 1822 to cash in on the success of a stage version, Presumption. A third edition, extensively revised, came out in 1831. Here, Mary Shelley pays touching tribute to her late husband, "my companion who, in this world, I shall never see more", and reveals that the first preface to the novel was actually written by Shelley himself. This is the text that is usually followed today.
Other Mary Shelley titles: The Last Man, a dystopia, published in 1826, describes England as a republic and has the human race being destroyed by plague. Shelley also explores the theme of the noble savage in Lodore (1835). Her children's story Maurice, written in 1820, was rediscovered in 1997 and republished in 1998.
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