It’s Frankenstein Day, so what better time for Danny Evans to remind us what a remarkable woman the doctor’s creator was.
The real creator of Frankenstein’s monster (and Frankenstein himself) would have celebrated her 219th birthday on 30 August – Frankenstein Day – this year.
Despite the many advances in science since Mary Shelley was born in 1797, her vision of being able to reanimate a long-dead corpse has still not come true, and so she will be staying in her Bournemouth grave and not coming out to party like it’s 1799.
Frankenstein is the story of the young student, Victor Frankenstein, who discovers the secret of creating life. He conducts an unorthodox scientific experiment and brings a monster into the world. It’s a ripping yarn that comes in at under 300 pages and is well worth a read.
There are many great books that are arguably a lot greater than Frankenstein, but (with the exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) few that have spawned quite so many offshoots, dramatisations and tributes.
And how many book titles have become an instantly recognisable word in the English language? Say “Frankenstein” to someone and they will instantly conjure up an image of a boxy green monster with a bolt through his neck. It may be more Hammer Horror than Mary Shelley, but it never would have existed if the Italian summer of 1816 hadn’t been quite so rainy (more on that later).
Mary Shelley was radical, she was unconventional. She was a woman who made the choices she wanted to make, despite what her father and the society she lived in might think. She hung around with a coterie of Romantic poets, but she wasn’t a muse. She was a brilliant artist in her own right.
Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on 30 August 1797 in London, she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, both writers, philosophers and political activists. Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which radically argued that women weren’t naturally inferior to men (you should probably give a shit about her too, but that’s another story).
Mary’s mother died shortly after her birth, but her father made sure she had a good, if informal education, and brought her into contact with a wide circle of poets and artists. In a world where women were expected to look nice, sing a bit and bear children without making too much fuss, it was unusual to be as well educated as Mary was.
At age 16 she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married. They eloped. She got knocked up and her dad and respectable members of society wouldn’t have anything to do with her. They were also broke and regularly had to hide from creditors.
Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in 1818. It received mixed reviews, but readers lapped it up. It was translated into French in 1821 and adapted for the stage two years later. But that was just the beginning of the monster’s many manifestations.
During the next four years, the couple lived in Italy and Percy became one of the most feted poets of the English language. They eventually married and had more children (of whom only one survived), and Mary published several other books, including novels, prose and short stories. She was always billed as ‘The author of Frankenstein’, but nothing she ever wrote had the same monstrous success. Percy drowned in 1822, leaving his wife again without means. She died of a brain tumour in 1851.
Sooner or later the story of how Frankenstein was created finds its way to every English literature undergraduate. Mary Shelley was on hols hanging out in Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati in Lake Geneva, with Byron, Shelley and some other literary types.
The June weather was terrible, so as thunder and lightning crashed outside, the group talked late into the night, about life and literature, and to amuse themselves they all agreed to write ghost stories, which they would take in turns to read to each other. Mary struggled to think of a topic for her story, until one night she had a dream, about a man who created a monster.
Frankenstein’s monster (Victor Frankenstein is the name of his creator; the monster is given no name in the book) is part of our cultural consciousness. But the Frankenstein’s monster that springs to most people’s minds is quite different from Mary Shelley’s creature, who in spite of his physical monstrosity develops into a sensitive, articulate being, albeit one with murderous impulses towards the man who created and abandoned him.
Shelley’s monstrous creation has been adapted countless times for stage, screen and comic book. From Carry on Screaming to The Addams Family, and the Frankenstein-like creations in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons and Scooby-Doo, he is a gothic staple. Boris Karloff nailed him in Bride of Frankenstein, he came back again and again in the guise of Peter Cushing in the Hammer Horror series, and who can forget Kenneth Branagh wrestling with Robert De Niro’s monster in whatever that fluid is, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?
So why is Frankenstein still with us? The reanimated monster in which life itself is created is a brilliant concept. As children we all dream of being brilliant inventors (or was that just me?) and the ultimate invention is the creation of life itself. It’s coupled with the idea of man playing God, and as flawed as humankind is, when man does decide to play God it’s pretty inevitable that he’s going to mess it up in a big way, creating a grotesque monster.
Frankenstein’s monster is hideous to look at – fashioned from the executed corpse of a hardened criminal. But when he begins life he is as innocent as any newborn.
Victor Frankenstein is the father who brings a child into the world and rejects it, with the result that the child/monster turns dangerous, and kills the people his father/creator loves the most. It’s a tale of ambition, revenge and failed parenting, that somehow encapsulates the great brilliance of human thought, our soaring ambition and our tragic frailties. The thought that science could create a terrible monster has more, not less resonance with us today. Remember Robocop? Mary Shelley said it first.
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Danny Evans is a single mother with a young daughter. As Rude Nasty Girl, she blogs about feminism and what it means to be a woman in the UK today. She has a PhD in Victorian literature and works as a website editor.