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Mary Shelley: the 200th Anniversary of a Rebel Girl and Her Creature

This year is the 200thanniversary of the first publication of Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1797-1851). In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the Titan credited with creating human-kind from clay and who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. Zeus, the king of the gods, sentenced the Titan to eternal torment for his transgression. The immortal Prometheus was bound to a rock, where each day an eagle was sent to feed on his liver, which would then grow back only to be eaten again the following day. The tragic story of Prometheus was very much on the minds of Mary and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who began writing, Prometheus Unbound, a four-act lyrical drama based on the myth, the same year Frankensteinwas published.

Mary Shelley was the daughter of the radical, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, one of the earliest works of feminism. As Charlotte Gordon points out in her excellent introduction to Penguin Classic’s 2018 reissue of the original 1818 text of Frankenstein, although Wollstonecraft died only ten days after Mary was born, the child was still profoundly influenced her mother’s ideas. A large portrait of Wollstonecraft hung on the wall of the family home. As a young girl, Mary studied it intensely, comparing herself to her mother and trying to find similarities. Mary’s father, William Godwin (1756-1836) was one of the first exponents of utilitarianism and is also considered the founder of philosophical anarchism. Godwin held up Wollstonecraft as an ideal in every respect. He even taught young Mary how to read by tracing the letters on her mother’s gravestone.

Here we should remind ourselves just how repressed women were two hundred years ago and how hard they had to fight for rights taken for granted today, though there is still much work to do. Gordon tells us:

“Experts declared that women were inferior to men in all areas of human development and could not be educated beyond a certain rudimentary level. Whereas men possessed the capacity for reason and ethical rectitude, women were considered foolish, fickle, selfish, gullible, sly, untrustworthy and childish. Wives could not own property or initiate divorces. Children were the father’s property. Not only was it legal for a man to beat his wife but men were encouraged to punish any woman they regarded as unruly. If a woman tried to escape from a cruel or violent husband, she was considered an outlaw and her husband had the legal right to imprison her.”

As she grew older, Mary read and reread her mother’s Vindication and also studied Wollstonecraft’s other books, including her celebration of the French Revolution, often learning the words by heart.

When she was sixteen Mary met twenty-one-year-old, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was another political radical who had become estranged from his wealthy, aristocratic family because of his redistributionist economic views, which were influenced by Godwin, whom he visited regularly. Mary and Percy began meeting secretly at her mother’s grave in St. Pancras Churchyard, described by Gordon in her book, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, as “more like a pasture than a burial ground.” Though Shelley was already married they soon eloped and ran away to Europe, along with Mary’s stepsister, Jane Clairmont, who changed her name to Claire and never returned to the bourgeois life her own mother had tried to force on her back in England.

Given his criticism of the institution of marriage, Mary and Percy assumed her father would support their relationship but when they returned to England, Godwin refused to speak to his daughter. Society was merciless. Mary was called a whore and Percy a scoundrel. Claire Clairmont remained true to them but that was a mixed blessing, as Clair and Shelley had also grown so close Mary suspected they were having an affair.

In January 1816, Mary gave birth to a boy she named William, after her father, who she guarded carefully, fearing the child might be taken away from her. It was a wet spring and William developed a stubborn cough. Claire suggested they vacation in Geneva, where the air was supposed to be healthy. There was also the benefit of being near Lord Byron, the most notorious poet of the era, with whom Claire was having an affair. Byron had rented a grand home, the Villa Diodati and the Shelleys took a smaller house nearby. When the press got wind of this, they branded them the “League of Incest.”

The only problem was the weather. 1816 was known as the “year without a summer.” The preceding year, a volcano had erupted in Indonesia, spewing thick ash into the atmosphere, disrupting weather patterns in Europe, Asia and even North America.

In Switzerland, the weather was unseasonably cold and stormy. After weeks of rain, the little group was restless. Byron challenged his friends to see who could write the scariest ghost story. He was bored with the old German tales they had been telling one another for amusement. Surely, one of them could do better.

Byron and Shelley gave it a try but soon went back to other projects. Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, wrote the draft of a story that would become The Vampyre, one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In her introduction to the 1831 revised edition of Frankenstein, Mary claimed she had trouble coming up with an idea too until one evening the discussion turned to the nature and principle of life. “Perhaps a corpse could be reanimated,” she recalled thinking, “galvanism had given a token of such things.” It was after midnight before they retired. Unable to sleep Mary became possessed by what she called her “waking dream”:

“I saw a pale student of the 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. Frightening it must be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human behavior to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the World.”

Frankensteinwas first published anonymously. When people found out Mary was the author they were shocked beyond belief. As Gordon points out, “women weren’t supposed to write novels, let alone a novel like Frankenstein. Critics muttered that Mary Shelley must be as monstrous and immoral as her story.” This is the most likely reason why she fictionalized her account of difficulty in coming up with the idea for Frankenstein.Gordon notes there is no evidence to suggest this was true:

“At no point had she or any of her friends or family mentioned any difficulties in the composition of the novel. Indeed, from the records of those who were there and from reviewing notebooks in which Mary wrote the novel, all evidence suggests that she composed with an uncommon fluency and speed.”

The most likely answer for this discrepancy is that Mary sought to distance herself from her own work because of society’s disapproval. By 1831, both Shelley and Byron were dead and Mary faced enormous financial and social pressures as a single mother. If she could improve her sales by claiming to have struggled to come up with the monstrous idea for Frankenstein so be it.

After Frankenstein, Mary Shelley went on to write five more novels including The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic tale set in the 21stCentury, as well as many short stories and works of non-fiction. Frankenstein, was first adapted for the theater in an 1823 performance in London seen by Mary Shelley and William Godwin. It was at this early stage that people began to refer to the monster itself as “Frankenstein.” Frankensteinwent on to become one of the greatest horror franchises in history, spawning countless plays, films, tv shows, comics, toys, games and even an 80s health club chain called “Frankenstein’s Gym,” its motto: “We build monsters!”

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City. He can be reached at acjr0122@gmail.com

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