Celebrating the 200 Year Anniversary of Frankenstein

On this day in 1818, Frankenstein was first published to a bemused public.

Mainstream serious publishers had refused to take it as it was felt to be impious and immoral, but was eventually taken by Lackington, a more populist bookseller, whose massive store was known as the Temple of the Muses.

It was published anonymously in a three volume edition, as was usual at the time, and 500 copies were printed. Mary Shelley’s share was one-third of the profits, which came to £41.13.10 which would be about £10,000 in today’s money.

Many reviews were damning…

‘The creator, terrified at his own work, flies into one wood, and the work, terrified at itself, flies into another. Here the monster, by the easy process of listening at the window of a cottage, acquires a complete education…– it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; ……leaving the wearied reader, after a struggle between laughter and loathing, in doubt whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased.’ -The Quarterly Review

‘We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror which abounds in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime. The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment’..-The British Critic

But a few saw the the literary merit…

‘…this extraordinary tale, in which the author seems to us to disclose uncommon powers of poetic imagination. Upon the whole, the work impresses us with a high idea of the author’s original genius and happy power of expression’ – Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine

‘….it has an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times. .……there is much power and beauty……. ………..some of our highest and most reverential feelings receive a shock from the conception on which it turns’ – The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany

Luckily the public loved it!

Read the full story of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and her turbulent relationship with the poet Percy Shelley and her jealous step-sister Claire in Almost Invincible.

The Evolution of The Mummy!

As another Mummy movie hits the big screen it is interesting to look back at the first iteration of the genre. The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century is an 1827 novel written by a 20 year old – Jane Webb. As with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which partly inspired Jane, It was unusual for such topics to be tackled by women. At that time in London there had also been a fashion for everything Egyptian as well as an exhibition of mummies in the capital after the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt.

Jane’s father had been a wealthy manufacturer, but when she was in her teens he lost his fortune and died when she was seventeen. There was a pressing need to earn money, so she turned to writing to support herself and her family.

While Frankenstein has a pessimistic outlook about society and human behaviour, The Mummy! has a more optimistic tone and some satirical digs at London society. Cheops, the Mummy that comes to life by means of galvanism, is more benign than Mary Shelley’s monster, and readily gives advice on politics and life. The twenty second century in which the novel is set is full of creative ideas such as women wearing trousers, automated surgeons, moon colonisation and a form of internet.

It also has an surprising invention, the steam mower, which was sufficiently revolutionary for The Gardener’s Magazine to positively review the book. John Louden, the most famous horticulturalist of the day then asked to meet the author. Louden was forty seven, crippled with arthritis and had lost an arm after a botched operation. As the book had been published anonymously, he was amazed and impressed to find that the author was a woman and he promptly married her.

Jane abandoned her science fiction career and worked with her husband on his gardening projects with spectacular success. She realised there were no gardening books for ordinary people who were not professionals in the field, so she wrote the hugely successful The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden in 1821, which she illustrated herself and which sold over 20,000 copies.

Their marriage lasted sixteen years until Loudon’s death from lung cancer, and Jane went on to support herself and her ten year old daughter by writing and editing a woman’s magazine.

I’m not sure how Jane Louden Webb would have enjoyed the latest version of The Mummy, with a its villainous resurrected female princess, but then in the fourteen or so Mummy movies, none of the eponymous characters have ever been benign. Time for a rethink?

Suzanne Burdon is author of Almost Invincible, A Biographical Novel of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. She is currently working on a novel about Lord Byron.

Protest, Poetry & Song

As Bob Dylan has finally accepted his Nobel Prize, (though not yet given his Nobel performance) I was reminded of the essay In Defence of Poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in which he claimed that:

“poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Shelley saw it as his mission to redress political and social evils through poetry. In the early nineteenth century, poetry was part of pop culture, albeit a sophisticated culture only available to the intelligentsia and upper classes.

His poem The Mask of Anarchy, for instance, is a response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester, when solders fired into a peaceful protest which was calling for democratic reform.

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

In The Times they are a-Changin’, Dylan echoed Shelley’s call to the underdog: For the loser now/will be later to win/For the Times they are a-changin’

As I research more into the Romantic period I am continually struck by the plus ca change, plus sa meme chose nature of human and social behaviour. Though poetry is not such a potent force this century, its mission, as Shelley envisaged it, has migrated into mass culture by means of the singer-songwriter. Dylan, is, of course, an exemplar of songwriting as a means of social and political protest. Blowing in the Wind is equally powerful and memorable poetry:

Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too may people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Shelley thought of poetry as instinctive. He spoke of the poetical process as the “… power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature.” Dylan echoed this when he remarked, “Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural.”

Many songwriters have had strong social and political influence in the past fifty years, fighting injustice, begging for peace and calling for help for minorities and the disadvantaged. Some of the more iconic songs that come to mind are Joan Baez: We Shall Overcome; John Lennon: Imagine, Pete Seeger: Where have all the Flowers Gone; Live aid: We are the World; U2: Sunday Bloody Sunday; Michael Jackson: Man in the Mirror; Midnight Oil: Beds are Burning; Lady Gaga: Born This Way; Woody Guthrie: This Land is your Land; Tracy Chapman: Talking about a Revolution.

Everyone has their own list of songs that have pricked their social or political consciousness. It would made Percy Shelley proud, and he would have reeled at the size of the audience!

However, Joan Baez, interviewed recently in Rolling Stone about protest in the Trump era said of protest music ‘ there’s not enough right now. It’s terribly important, because that’s what keeps the spirit. Carping and shouting, much as it gets things off your chest ..you really need something uplifting.The problem right now is that we have no anthem’.

Suzanne Burdon is author of Almost Invincible, A Biographical Novel of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. She is currently working on a novel about Lord Byron.

Mary Shelley and Motherhood

Photo: William Shelley aged  - ‘He gets dearer and sweeter every day’

Mary Shelley had five pregnancies and only one surviving child. She was, though, an instinctive and devoted mother. When I give talks about Mary and the nine years of her relationship with her poet, Shelley, I quite often hear someone automatically dismissing any deep sympathy. “Well, they were used to children dying young in those days, so they didn’t get as emotionally attached” is a typical comment.

Mary’s own words give the lie to that stereotype. Her letters and journals show her deep love for her children and her overwhelming sorrow when tragedy took them from her.

When Mary eloped with Shelley, at sixteen, she almost immediately became pregnant, and was either pregnant or breastfeeding for much of the next nine years. Unusually for the time, Shelley was very keen on Mary breastfeeding their children and even though she usually had a nurse to help with the children she was a very involved mother.

Their first child, who they called Clara was a seven-month baby and though not expected to live, survived eight days. Two weeks after her death, Mary wrote in her journal: “Dream that my little baby came to life again – that it had only been cold and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived – I awake and find no baby – I think about the little thing all day.”

Then, at eighteen she gave birth to William, nicknamed Willmouse. His parents adored William. Mary’s wrote: ‘Blue eyes – gets dearer and sweeter every day – he jumps about like a little squirrel’. William was with his mother in Geneva when she conceived Frankenstein, and then in Bristol as she finished her masterpiece.

The next year Mary gave birth to Clara Everina, and for a time it was a happy, nuclear family in a big old rambling house in the English countryside. Then they decided to move to Italy and Clara became sick and died as they travelled, and Mary writes of their rush to Venice to find a doctor, ‘when nerves were strung to their utmost tension by mental anguish.’

When William also died in Rome nine moths later at the age of three and a half, it nearly broke Mary. She went into a deep depression. As they watched over his last hours, Mary wrote to a friend; ‘The misery of these hours is beyond calculation –The hopes of my life are bound up in him.’ Shelley suffered as much. He wrote a poem: ‘My lost William, thou in whom/Some bright spirit lived/ ….if a thing divine/Like thee can die,/ thy funeral shrine/Is thy mother’s grief and mine.’

After William died, when she was twenty-one, she gave birth to Percy Florence. However, Mary was wracked by concern in case fate would also snatch this child from her. ‘It is a bitter thought that all should be risked on one yet how much sweeter than to be childless as I was for 5 hateful months’, wrote Mary – a strong testament to her devotion to her children.

Percy gave her great pleasure after Shelley’s death: ‘a fine tall boy’ who she thought ‘might have the art of painting in his tiny fingers’ and was ‘amiable and vivacious, and I dare to hope for some comfort from him.’ When his grandfather, Sir Timothy Shelley, offered financial support on condition he take charge of the boy, Mary chose to make her own living through her writing rather than give him up. Percy survived, to marry happily and to take care of his mother in her later years.

Motherhood was clearly a very strong bond for Mary, and each child was loved and valued. There was no support here for the perception of ‘emotional distance’. They were as much part of her life as her writing and her love for Shelley.

Quotes taken from The Journals of Mary Shelley (Feldman and Scott-Kilvert 1987) and The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Volume I (Betty T. Bennet ed 1980).

Essential Reading Before You Watch the New Mary Shelley Biopic

A new movie will soon be in cinemas which is based on Mary Shelley’s tumultuous and scandalous life when she was a young woman, and wrote the iconic novel Frankenstein.

This first released still shot shows Elle fanning as Mary, sitting by her mother’s grave. The movie also stars Maisie Williams.

Before you watch this much anticipated film, read the full story of Mary Shelley and her turbulent relationship with the poet Percy Shelley and her jealous step-sister Claire in Almost Invincible.

An impressive fictional tale of Mary’s Creative but tragedy scarred life (Yorkshire evening Post).
Afresh and gripping portrayal of this enigmatic literary genius (Lady Magazine)

200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Part 3

200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Notes on July and August 1816 in Cologny, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

3. The light and the dark.

In August the group on lake Geneva were visited by ‘The Monk’ Lewis. His nickname is a reference to his famous scandalous gothic horror story, with bleeding a nun spectre, dungeons, witchcraft torture and seduction. He told them ‘mysteries of his trade’ and they ‘talk of ghosts.’ Lewis told them four ghost stories.

Lord Byron in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers wrote of Monk Lewis: ”Even Satan’s self with thee might dread to dwell, And in thy skull discern a deeper hell.”

Mary Shelley was not always part of the audience, because her ‘little babe’ was not well, though Shelley discussed it all with her later. Mary was a very fond mother and when away on trips would write ‘“I longed to see my pretty babe”. The ‘little babe’ was William, just over six months old. Critics have always found it odd that Mary also named Victor Frankenstein’s young brother William, in her story, especially as she had him strangled by the Creature. A horribly prophetic inclusion.

200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein - Part 2

200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Notes on July and August 1816 in Cologny, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

2. Celebration and secrets.

In that eventful August while Mary was beginning to write ‘her ‘story,’ the others in the group on the lake had a secret. Claire, Mary’s stepsister, told Shelley that she was pregnant to Byron and Shelley tried to negotiate with Byron on her behalf. Byron had already begun to hate Claire and was not prepared to commit to anything, so Shelley quietly made a new will with provision for Claire and her child. He did not tell Mary of the situation immediately because he knew she would be angry, and neither could foresee just how badly it would affect all their lives.

When Shelley had his 24th birthday on 4th August, Mary bought him a telescope and they celebrated with a boat trip on Lake Geneva, during which Mary read to him from Virgil (a 19C Roman poet). Ah, how romantic … before the next bombs landed.

200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein - Part 1

200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Summer 1816 in Cologny, on the shores of Lake Geneva

1. Ghost Story Challenge

It was the ‘Year Without a Summer’. Endlessly dark, stormy and apocalyptic. Byron threw out a ghost story challenge and Mary conceived Frankenstein.

It is some weeks later before Mary first refers to ‘writing her story’. During this time she and Shelley and sometimes Claire were exploring the Swiss mountains. As the weather improved they set off on mules to climb to Montanvert one of the large glaciers that forms the Mer de Glace (the Ice Sea), in the Chamonix Valley. In her journal Mary called it ‘the most desolate place in the world’. Mary used the setting in chapter ten of Frankenstein, where Frankenstein first encounters the Creature, his now independent creation, ‘bounding over the crevices of ice’ with ‘superhuman speed’…

“The ascent is precipitous, but the path is cut into continual and short windings, which enable you to surmount the perpendicularity of the mountain. It is a scene terrifically desolate. In a thousand spots the traces of the winter avalanche may be perceived, where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground, some entirely destroyed, others bent, leaning upon the jutting rocks of the mountain or transversely upon other trees… The surface (of the glacier) was very uneven, rising like the waves of a troubled sea, descending low, and interspersed by rifts that sink deep” – Mary Shelley. Frankenstein.

Australian Society of Authors

I feel privileged to be joining the Board of The Australian Society of Authors at the AGM on Saturday.
It is the peak body which does great work supporting authors in many ways as well as campaigning on their behalf.

Currently they are asking for support to fight the government’s proposal to allow the parallel importation of books.

You can read about the issues and sign the petition HERE


Lovely to be a guest at two bookclubs last week and share my enthusiasm about Mary Shelley with such interested and interesting readers!

Thank you Fran and Sharon, organisers of the clubs in Thirroul and Roseville.

I LOVE visiting bookclubs and am always happy to be asked. (Have even participated via Skype!)

I have been thinking of putting together book club questions…Any readers out there have any ideas? I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to post your ideas in the comments section below.

Have politicians ever got anything right?

Mary Shelley wrote to her pioneering relation Alexander Berry in New South Wales (husband of Mary’s cousin nee Elizabeth Wollstonecraft) on June 30th 1848:

Dear Mr. Berry, You are very good to write me such long and really interesting letters. You live, you say, a hermit life – but your writing has all the vivacity of youth – and shows the deep interest you take in your Country and its welfare. A Colony – where one can at once perceive the operation of the social norms – presents a wide field for inquiry and the acquisition of knowledge. At the same time there is melancholy attached to it – the melancholy spectacle of misgovernment. This is particularly mortifying in the cases such men as Sir George Gipps and Lord Grey – for they mean well, while they do so much mischief. We boast of our improved lights – and our books overflow with philosophical principles, yet our public men perpetually make the grossest mistakes, and all they do, had better be left undone.

Telling a Story

In collaboration with Susan Bell, this article originally posted on sbresearch.com.au

Recently I gave a workshop on turning fact into fiction at a literary festival in Victoria. As I was working on it, Sue pointed out to me that several of my charts about turning ‘fact’ into compelling fiction are relevant to our research communication – where we try to tell a story.

Here are a few examples, focusing on the images above.

1. As a writer, I find I have an overwhelming amount of information, and the process to handle that is similar to my work as a researcher. It is basically: immerse – synthesise – discard – focus on the telling detail. As the diagram shows, the process of synthesis is not linear, but draws on a number of ways of looking at the data to draw out the key issues which will feed into the story. As with a fictional narrative, we need to be able to define the topics and themes to engage our ‘reader’’ (or client).

2. The people we are researching are not uni-dimensional. They have physical characteristics, an internal and an external life, all of which contribute to our understanding of their behaviour, what we measure, and how we communicate their story – exactly as in a novel.

3. As people move towards their goals, our job as ‘author’ or research strategist is to chart their journey. What aspects of their internal or external life move the story along? The more we can understand about each of these aspects of the protagonist (the consumer) the more rounded the story becomes.

Much of this sounds obvious – but think of a novel you have enjoyed, and then compare to a good research presentation. You will see for yourself where the similarities advance the cause of expert research communication!

Valentine’s Day & Love’s Philosophy

Romanticism was at its height from1800 to 1850 and celebrated emotion, individualism and the wonders of nature. For Shelley love was a philosophy and a spiritual calling. The Romantics gave us some of the best love poems, and Shelley wrote this little gem when he was 28 and living in Florence, just after Mary gave birth to their son, Percy Florence. It has often been performed as a song, but here it is beautifully presented by Richard Armitage.

Love’s Philosophy

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the Ocean,
The winds of Heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
in one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?-
See the mountains kiss high Heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

Mary Shelley dies at 53 from a brain tumour.

Mary Shelley died on 1st February 1851 at 53 from a ‘Disease of the Brain Supposed Tumour in left hemisphere.’ She had been suffering from severe headaches for many years. Before her death she had been living with her son, Percy, and daughter in law, Jane, with whom she had a warm and affectionate relationship. Jane wrote to Mary’s cousin in NSW, Australia, Alexander Berry: ‘Heaven knows no words can express what my love for her was.’ That letter started a twenty year correspondence between Jane, Lady Shelley and Alexander Berry, though they never met. Alexander Berry also founded the beautiful town of Berry on the NSW south coast.

Mary was buried on the 8th February with her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft and father, William Godwin in a vault in a churchyard in Bournemouth. Later, Percy and Jane were also buried there. The heart of Mary’s husband Percy Bysshe Shelley which had survived his cremation on an Italian beach and had been cherished by Mary for the past thirty years, was also put into the tomb.

Her step sister Claire, however, always the biggest thorn in Mary’s side throughout her life, continued her self absorbed narrative after Mary’s death.’It was most unkind in you never to let me know she was ill. Most unkind. Now I can never see her more’ she wrote to Percy (read the full letter here)

Frankenstein’s monster reimagined?

Reference to Frankenstein’s monster has become code for bringing someone back from the dead. There is a new Fox drama called Second Chance starting next week, which plays fast and loose with Mary Shelley’s famous concept.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle (January 8, 2016) ‘it is Frankenstein’s monster meets … Cinderella? Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is repurposed for contemporary times as an elderly man is murdered, but, thanks to some weird science by a pair of billionaire twins, he comes back as a much younger version of himself and sets out to avenge his own death.’

They even have a Mary character. One of the twins is called Mary Goodwin. (Nearly right, Mary Godwin being Mary Shelley’s maiden name). Tolerant as Mary was of the reimagining of her story, (see blog What Would Mary Shelley Think) I’m not sure how she would have felt about being a protagonist. Dilshad Vadsaria, who plays the Mary character, says she is a strong woman, intelligent, caring and compassionate.
Well, that’s OK then.

But really, reanimation misses the point of Frankenstein. The book is subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’, which is a clue that Mary was writing about man creating a whole new living being rather than regurgitating an existing one, even if he does come out forty years younger. Prometheus was the Greek deity tasked with creating man out of mud.

Mary had certainly been inspired by the possibility of reanimation. From 1803, Giovanni Aldini had a gruesome roadshow in which he took the corpses of executed felons and made parts of their body twitch by the new magical use of electricity. Mary, though, extended the debate. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was morally and intellectually unformed and the novel is about the moral responsibility of a creator. Not sure how ‘Mary Goodwin’ handles the moral issues in Second Chance!

Footnote: In Greek mythology, Prometheus was tasked with creating man, and Epimetheus, his brother, with creating the animals. Epimetheus was given a wife by Zeus who was called Pandora – she of Pandora’s Box, who was too curious and let suffering out into the world. Coincidentally, I have written a poem with Epimetheus and Pandora as characters that you can read here if you are interested.

Why is Good News Rarely in the Headlines? Lord Byron Contemplates:

We often complain that death and disaster dominates the news. Why is good news rarely in the headlines?

I am working on a book about Byron and am fascinated that, 200 years ago, he had the same complaint. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

“Mankind have so many blessings in their lives that they never make their Calendars from them, being too common. For instance, you see ‘the great drought’, ‘the Thames frozen over,’ ‘the Seven years war broke out,’ the E. or F. or S. ‘Revolution commenced,’ ‘The Lisbon Earthquake,’ ‘the Lima Earthquake,’ ‘The earthquake of Calabria,’ plague of London, ditto of Constantinople,’ ‘the Sweating Sickness, ‘The yellow fever of Philadelphia,’ etc., etc., etc.; but you don’t see ‘the abundant harvest,’ ‘the fine Summer,’ ‘the long peace,’ ‘the wealthy speculation,’ ‘the wreckless voyage,’recorded so emphatically?

By the way, there has been thirty years war, and a Seventy years war: was there ever a Seventy or a thirty years Peace? Or was there ever even a day’s Universal peace,? And all this, because Nature is niggard or savage? or Mankind ungrateful? Let philosophers decide. I am none.”

From: The Ravenna Journal, 51, by George Gordon Byron, 6th Lord Byron.
Compiled in 1822, Published by The First Edition Club 27 Bedford Square, London 1928.

FRANKENSTEIN: Mary Shelley’s Inspiration

Writing on her inspiration for Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote, in an introduction to her book…

It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. There was the History of the Inconstant Lover, who, when he thought to clasp the bride to whom he had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of his race, whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age of promise. His gigantic, shadowy form, clothed like the ghost in Hamlet, in complete armour, but with the beaver up, was seen at midnight, by the moon's fitful beams, to advance slowly along the gloomy avenue. The shape was lost beneath the shadow of the castle walls; but soon a gate swung back, a step was heard, the door of the chamber opened, and he advanced to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep. Eternal sorrow sat upon his face as he bent down and kissed the forehead of the boys, who from that hour withered like flowers snapt upon the stalk. I have not seen these stories since then; but their incidents are as fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.