Shelley’s Frankenstein has spoken to technological and cultural anxieties from the Enlightenment to #MeToo. But its author’s achievements have too often been dismissed or treated with scepticism
Gallery: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – in facts and figures
I became fascinated by Mary Shelley and her most famous novel because of her husband. Back in 2011, I found myself trying to make sense of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry. It was a tricky assignment. Percy was above all a creature of his own cultural moment, and nothing dates like a zeitgeist. Yet Mary’s Frankenstein comes out of just the same heady cultural and political nexus as her husband’s verse, and her novel has continued to fascinate us. Two hundred years after its publication in January 1818, it still speaks to us directly as a myth about contemporary life. It has inspired film adaptations across genres, from the comedy caper Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the quasi-rock opera The Rocky Horror Picture Show and sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner. Then there’s the apparently endless schlock and kitsch in comics and cosplay (where fans dress up as their favourite fictional characters). It has become the go-to journalistic shorthand for technological interventions in human biology or medical science: Dr Frankenstein and his creature make their way in the mainstream of modern life. They reappear in our fantasies and nightmares more consistently than most fictional or historical characters. Now we can expect a slew of new Frankensteins, as everyone’s favourite scar-faced shuffling giant and his creator are remade for a new time.
How did Shelley create her great work? Some critics have claimed that she didn’t
Mary has been much researched, all too often in terms of whether she was good or bad for Percy. But she hadn’t been placed at the centre of her own story since Miranda Seymour’s magisterial biography in 2000. I wanted to discover a Mary Shelley for our times: to find the girl behind the book, and to reconstruct what writing it must have been like. Her story is every bit as archetypal as that of Mary’s two most famous characters – her life and relationships with men couldn’t be more relevant for our #MeToo era. Mary was just 18 when she had the idea for Frankenstein; 19 when she finished writing the book. How could a teenager come up with not one but two enduring archetypes: the scientist obsessed by blue-sky research and unable to see it has ethical and social consequences, and the near human he creates?
Science and suspenders … Shelley’s vision lives on in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Science and suspenders … Shelley’s themes live on in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Photograph: 20th Century-Fox/Everett /Rex Features
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It’s an astonishing achievement, and even more so when we remember that, being a girl, Mary wasn’t educated in the same way as many of her Romantic writing peers. Unlike Percy, she had no Eton nor Oxford, but had lessons in the home schoolroom and a grim six months at Miss Pettman’s Ladies’ School in Ramsgate, and learned from browsing the books in her father’s library. Her parents were two of the most notorious radicals of her day: her mother, who died of complications 11 days after her birth, was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; her father was the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin. He may have been a proponent of anarchism but he upheld many contemporary conventions at home. Once Mary eloped with Percy at the age of 16, for example, the former apostle of free love cut off his daughter until she was respectably married.
So how on earth did Mary create her precocious masterpiece? One answer given by readers and critics down the years is that she didn’t. On its first, anonymous appearance reviewers surmised that this novel of ideas was written by someone close to Godwin, but not that the author might be his daughter. Percy, as son-in-law, was credited instead. Even in recent years Percy’s corrections, visible in the Frankenstein notebooks held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, have been seized on as evidence that he must have at least co-authored the novel. In fact, when I examined the notebooks myself, I realised that Percy did rather less than any line editor working in publishing today.
A second sceptical response to Mary’s astonishing achievement disparages her more slyly, suggesting that the archetypes of Frankenstein and his creature aren’t in fact original. Such sceptics cite the classical myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who creates a lover for himself, or the half-human figure of Caliban in The Tempest. Both were part of the early 19th-century cultural canon and, growing up in a literary household, Mary will have been aware of them.
But her own creations differ from both, and it’s these different qualities that speak so vividly to us today. Pygmalion, at least in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, doesn’t set out to create a human, he simply falls in love with one of his own creations. The goddess Aphrodite is so touched by this that she brings the sculpture to life for him. George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion retells this parable about artistic vanity. His story about Henry Higgins, the linguist who makes a young lady out of a street flower-seller but does so for his own benefit not hers, remains familiar today in Lerner and Loewe’s version, the musical My Fair Lady.
Kicking up a storm … Michael Clark as the half-human Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s 1991 retelling of The Tempest, Prospero’s Books. Mary Shelley would have been aware of Shakespeare’s play. Photograph: Allstar/Channel Four
Kicking up a storm … Michael Clark as the half-human Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s 1991 retelling of The Tempest, Prospero’s Books. Photograph: Allstar/Channel Four
A statue also turns into a woman in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, when the figure of King Leontes’ much-mourned wife comes to life. Every 16th-century grammar school boy got a smattering of classical education; the young Shakespeare is likely to have encountered the Pygmalion myth in his Stratford-upon-Avon classroom. Thus The Tempest echoes another classical myth in which the Minotaur, like fellow island-dweller Caliban, is the hideous offspring of a human mother and a supernatural father and lords it over his island until subdued by an arriving hero.
Clearly, neither is a precursor for Mary’s ambitious young doctor who wants to create the perfect human, but fails to do so. In fact, Frankenstein is one of the great novels of failure, taking its place somewhere between Cervantes’s rambling 17th-century masterpiece, Don Quixote (which Mary read while she was working on her novel) and Hemingway’s 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea. In both these books, though, failure is viewed with compassion, in the context of human dignity and ideals. Frankenstein, on the other hand, portrays it as the destructive result of overreaching. Mary’s portrait of failure as the dark heart of hubris is couched in terms so strong they seem almost religious. Sure enough, this idealistic young daughter of a former dissenting minister believed that right and wrong were a matter of fact, not just opinion.
Yet Frankenstein’s passionate appeal for justice is moving, not sermonising. Mary never had the chance to be a prig. Even as she was writing what became her first novel, years of the harsh censure of a woman’s private life that today would be referred to as “slut-shaming” had begun. She had been ostracised by family and friends for running off with Percy, a married man, and was subjected to sniggering speculation by male acquaintances. The couple married after Percy’s first wife, Harriet, took her own life, but were regarded as so disreputable that, in an unprecedented decision, they were refused custody of Percy’s children from his first marriage. In future years, Mary would sit through a sermon preached against her, find her husband viewed as fair game by other women, and her in-laws would campaign to take away her surviving child.
Ostracised for her relationships, held back as a writer … Mary Shelley. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London
Even so, sincere and engaging as it may be, her moral stance is not what makes Frankenstein feel so contemporary. Nor does its early 19th-century technology. Mary imagined first a combination of maths and alchemy – and then electricity in her revised 1832 edition – animating her patchwork corpse. Neither really resonates in today’s age of biochemical breakthroughs and genetic engineering. The laboratory electrocution scene first imagined in James Whale’s classic 1931 film of Frankenstein now seems fabulously kitsch.
But in the novel, myth powers technology and not the other way around. Frankenstein shows us that aspiration and progress are indistinguishable from hubris – until something goes wrong, when suddenly we see all too clearly what was reasonable endeavour and what overreaching. By the time she wrote her classic, Mary was aware that the man she had married was an emotional and philosophical overreacher. For all his family wealth, Percy was often in debt. And his timing was staggeringly poor: even during her first pregnancy he had pressured 17-year-old Mary to sleep with his best friend in pursuit of free love, while his own long-running romantic involvement with Mary’s stepsister had started at the time of the couple’s elopement. Moreover, for a soi-disant writer, remarkably little of his work had been published; Mary spent a lot of time fair copying it to send to publishers.
But Frankenstein is no memoir. The question it asks, “How far is too far?”, is at the very heart of modernity. The Romantics, Mary among them, “leaned in” to progress. The great historian Eric Hobsbawm called the period from the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of the first world war “the long 19th century”. Published early in this classical era of modernity, Mary’s novel still helps us define its terms today. Shorthand for the way we experience ourselves within a world of increasing man-made complexity, “modernity” is both positive and negative, signalling hope for progress as well as our fear of change. Frankenstein identifies the mismatch between human experience and what we are expected to become as technology and science advance.
The making of a woman … Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and Wilfrid Hyde-White in My Fair Lady (1964).
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Creating human perfection … Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and Wilfrid Hyde-White in My Fair Lady (1964). Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar
As well as being emotionally expressive, Frankenstein was informed by contemporary intellectual debate. In 1816, when Mary started writing it, the study of natural phenomena wasn’t yet a proper profession; the term “scientist” had yet to be invented. Amateur speculation could be cutting-edge. Those who were professional gave fashionable public lectures, which encouraged more amateur participation. When Mary was in her teens, these lecturers included her father’s friend, the chemist and inventor Sir Humphry Davy; the Italian physicist and philosopher Dr Luigi Galvani and his nephew Giovanni Aldini, each of whom gave demonstrations of how to pass an electric current through the nerves of a dead body.
Her times seem so right for Mary’s novel that I was briefly tempted by a third response to the puzzle of how Frankenstein came into being: a very young woman simply, rather artlessly, channelled whatever was going on in her social and cultural milieu into her book. Of course this reduces cultural history to the folk wisdom that “everyone’s got a book in them”, and ignores the labour and technique entailed in producing a work that is publishable – not to mention a great one. Yet it’s fascinating how frequently female writers do incur this reaction. Think of the widespread reception of that towering 20th-century writer Sylvia Plath – no less a transformative poet than her husband Ted Hughes – as simply expressing her feelings. Indeed, think today of the US poet Sharon Olds, forced for years to equivocate over whether material in her Pulitzer prize-winning work is autobiographical lest she be similarly dismissed. The question is not how did Mary write Frankenstein, but why is it so hard to believe that she did? After all, she herself left a portrait of the kind of thinking she enjoyed: the leaping, near-intuitive intellect she gives her Dr Frankenstein. Just the sort of “aha!” that can suddenly, and brilliantly, synthesise a number of apparently unrelated ideas, exactly as Mary’s story does.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom Shelley resembled a ‘surrendered wife’. Photograph: The Bodleian Libraries of the Un/PA
Everything we know about her writing process – and we know a lot, thanks to her journal and letters – tells us it was consciously literary, painstakingly crafted. Even its famous trigger was literary. After they had spent an evening in June 1816 reading ghost stories together, Lord Byron set a group of his guests at Villa Diodati, on the banks of Lake Geneva, a writing competition. As Mary recalled: “‘We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron … I busied myself to think of a story, a story to rival those which had excited us to this task.” Meanwhile the men in the room – Percy, and either Byron or Byron’s doctor John William Polidori – were having a serious talk about “the principles of life”. It seems to have occurred to no one that Mary, having already given birth twice and lost her first child at 12 days old, probably knew more about such “principles” than anyone else present.
But everything the teenage mother didn’t feel entitled to mention in Byron’s salon fuels her novel. Mary completed much of Frankenstein while living in Bath, at a time when Percy was often absent. It was a tempestuous year in which both her half-sister Fanny and Harriet Shelley killed themselves, her stepsister’s daughter with Byron was born, Mary got married and was pregnant for the third time. It’s no surprise the novel is so full of human insight and understanding: maternal anxieties about creating a perfect human; fears of ugliness, lovelessness and rejection; an analysis of what it is to be unmothered and alone in the world.
Shelley’s monster embodies her fears about giving birth to the perfect human
These are universal themes and, by August 1818, the book “seems to be universally read”, as their writer friend Thomas Love Peacock reported to Mary and Percy. But Mary wasn’t basking in this success. She had already followed Percy into political exile in Europe, and within a year she would suffer the deaths of both her children. Dragged from pillar to post by the charismatic, unreliable man to whom she was committed, even while he became increasingly unfaithful to her, she would, until Percy’s death in 1822, resemble nothing so much as a “surrendered wife”.
It’s impossible to tell the story of her life without at every turn being aware of the fact that Mary was a female writer. Widowed just before turning 25, she discovered that most friends would have nothing to do with someone they saw as a cross between a mere poet’s mistress and the killjoy who cramped his style. She returned to London and spent the next two decades eking out an allowance for her surviving child that her father-in-law loaned her. Sir Timothy Shelley’s own eldest child was illegitimate, but he never accepted Mary – who had lived and had two children with Percy before she married him – into the Shelley family.
Karloff in The Bride of Frankenstein.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Chain reaction … Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
Still, a dogged survivor and a consummate professional, Mary supported herself, and saw her son through Harrow and Oxford, by her writing, the great bulk of which had to be done anonymously. The archives are full of her unsuccessful attempts to pitch to publishers. It’s hard to imagine a male author who had experienced similar popular and critical success being so consistently knocked back. But Mary had the bad luck not to have started her writing life under a masculine pseudonym. Notorious in literary circles because of her relationship with Percy, she never enjoyed the freedoms of her slightly younger contemporaries, the Brontës and George Eliot. After Frankenstein, she was not read purely as a writer, but always judged as a woman.
What Frankenstein means now
In a revealing journal entry from 21 October 1838, when she was 41, Mary tried to reconcile the feeling that “To be something great and good was the precept given me” with her failure to write radical philosophy in “the good cause”. “My total friendlessness, my horror of pushing, and inability to put myself forward unless led, cherished and supported, all this has sunk me.” Forced to feel inferior by the double standards stacked against her, yet ashamed of her failure to achieve all a man could without those handicaps: Mary feels absolutely contemporary. We find her today in debates about the Women’s prize for fiction, in magazine articles comparing the fortunes of male and female writers, in the horrors of the casting couch.
Frankenstein shows us how failure and hubris are two sides of the same coin. Mary’s life reveals the tremendous hubris it took for this teenaged girl to give birth to two of the most enduring and influential myths of our time.
Published on 18 January, Fiona Sampson’s In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein (Profile, £18.99) is a Guardian Bookshop One to Watch. To order a copy for £13.99 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. It is also serialised on Radio 4’s Book of the Week from 15-19 January.
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