Frankenstein Author Mary Shelley Loved Ghost Stories

In August 1816, a week before they left Geneva where Frankenstein was concieved in a summer of bad weather and ghost stories, the Shelleys and Byron were visited by  Matthew Gregory Lewis. He was author of a gothic supernatural novel calledThe Monk, a favourite of the young people staying by the lake. Percy Shelley writes in their joint journal, that Lewis told them ghost stories in the evening, of which this is one…..

"This lady, Minna, had been exceedingly attached to her husband, and they had made a vow that the one who died first, should return after death to visit the other as a ghost. She was sitting one day alone in her chamber, when she heard an unusual sound of footsteps on the stairs. The door opened, and her husband's spectre, gashed with a deep wound across the forehead, and in military habiliments, entered. She appeared startled at the apparition; and the ghost told her, that when he should visit her in future, she would hear a passing bell toll, and these words distinctly uttered close to her ear, "Minna, I am here." On inquiry, it was found that her husband had fallen in battle on the very day she was visited by the vision. The intercourse between the ghost and the woman continued for some time, until the latter laid aside all terror, and indulged herself in the affection which she had felt for him while living. One evening she went to a ball, and permitted her thoughts to be alienated by the attentions of a Florentine gentleman, more witty, more graceful, and more gentle, as it appeared to her, than any person she had ever seen. As he was conducting her through the dance, a death bell tolled. Minna, lost in the fascination of the Florentine's attentions, disregarded, or did not hear the sound. A second peal, louder and more deep, startled the whole company, when Minna heard the ghost's accustomed whisper, and raising her eyes, saw in an opposite mirror the reflexion of the ghost, standing over her. She is said to have died of terror."

What Really Inspired Frankenstein?

What really inspired Frankenstein.jpg

I recently read a New York Times article which said that Frankenstein resulted from a cold summer of debauchery on Lake Geneva, fuelled by ghost stories, wine and laudanum. Well it was certainly cold, and there were ghost stories galore, but Mary Godwin and Shelley didn't drink and nor did Byron at the time. Laudanum was commonly used on those days as a medicine and sleeping draft. The debauchery was that eighteen year old Mary was not yet married to Shelley, though they had a four month old baby, and Mary’s step sister, Claire, was having an affair with Byron.

Unconventional for the time but not riotous.

The inspiration for Frankenstein doesn’t need to be salacious to be fascinating.

It was the result of the apocalyptic weather, the dark sky and the storms from the volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. This meant longs days around a fire, with candle lit at noon, in mid July, reading ghost stories and then a challenge from Byron for them each to write one themselves. In her second edition, Mary said the idea came to her in a dream, but as we know, dreams have their source in real life.

First of all there was their obsession with the gothic, and the recent release of Coleridge’s poem, Christabel. Then there was Percy Shelley’s personal love affair with science, and his experiments set up on dining tables. In London there was an atmosphere of science as theatre, with ‘shows’ demonstrating phenomena such as galvanism, the supposedly life giving powers of electricity. They also loved the philosophy of Rousseau, who wrote that man’s ideal state is that of an uncorrupted ‘noble savage’ and Percy Shelley was an atheist whose criticism of religion made it easy for Mary to consider the idea of man playing God.

When Mary and Shelley had first eloped to Switzerland, they returned on a boat along the Rhine through Germany, and passed Castle Frankenstein, once occupied by Jonathan Dippel, an alchemist reputed to have experimented on dead bodies. Polidari, Byron’s doctor who was also living in Byron’s Villa Diodati, also told stories of his the cadavers used in his medical training.

Finally there was Mary’s own need to produce something to justify the heritage of her literary superstar parents. She also had a good commercial sense, always trying to get Shelley to write something with wide appeal - not least to pay the bills!

What Would Mary Shelley Think?

In November there will another representation of the Frankenstein story in cinemas with James McEvoy and Daniel Radcliffe. (Read more in this Q & A with the stars )  Since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein there have been more than 100 performances, adaptions. parodies and satires on stage and large and small screen. In 1931 Boris Karloff created the iconic image of the monster in the Universal Pictures production of Frankenstein. One of the most recent acclaimed stagings was in 2012, with the National Theatre’s Frankenstein starring Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating roles as the monster and the scientist. ­­

I think Mary would have enjoyed the varied performances on their merits and would not have been precious about interpretations. She certainly was very tolerant of the stage production that she saw in 1823.  After Shelley died in Italy, Mary went back to London and on August 29th saw a performance of ‘Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein’ at the English Opera House. It was very successful, and although Mary thought they had taken liberties with the story, she enjoyed the performance and found it amusing. As well, even 200 years ago new media exposure had benefits in reinvigorating the book sales! These are her comments to Leigh Hunt after seeing it.

“But lo and behold! I found myself famous! – Frankenstein had prodigious success as a drama and was about to be repeated for the 23rd night at the English Opera House. The play bill amused me extremely, for in the list dramatic personae came –-- by Mr T Cook: this nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good. On Friday, August 29th Jane my father William and I went to the theatre to see it. What like looked very well as F – he is at the beginning full of hope and expectation – at the end of the first Act. the stage represents a room with a staircase leading to F workshop – he goes to it and you see his light at a small window, through which a frightened of servant peeps, who runs off in terra when F exclaims “it lives! “– presently F himself rushes in horror and trepidation from the room and while still expressing his agony and terror – throws down the door of the laboratory, makes the staircase and presents his unearthly and monstrous person on stage. The story is not well managed – but Cooke played –-- ‘s part extremely well –is seeking as it were for support – he’s trying to grasp at the sounds he heard – all indeed he does was well executed. I was much amused, and it appeared to excite breathless eagerness in the audience – it was a third piece, A scanty pit filled at half price – and all stayed till it was over. They continue to play it even now”

Sorry, Mary Shelley, I missed your birthday! Belated remembrances for August 30th!

On that day, Tuesday, in 1814, Mary, Shelley and Claire were travelling back to England through Germany, after their elopement, on a boat on the Rhine. Mary turned seventeen. The river was “violent”and “swollen with high waves" Shelley wrote in their joint journal: "It is Marys birth day. we do not solemnize this day in comfort. We expect to be not happier, but more at our ease before the year passes.” In spite of their discomfort on the boat, Shelley writes: A ruined tower with its desolated windows stood on the summit of another hill that jutted into the river. beyond the sunset was illuminating the mountains and the clouds, and casting the reflection of its hues on the agitated river. The brilliance and contrast of the shades and colourings of the circling whirl pools of the stream was an appearance entirely new and most beautiful.” This was not the only castle they saw on that journey. They also passed Castle Frankenstein, where an Alchemist, Dippel, was reputed to have exhumed bodies for anatomical research. Inspiration comes from many sources! This is my picture of the now ruined Castle Frankenstein. I love the way the leaves hang to resemble a bat….

Petition from 150 years ago notes new noun: 'wife-beating'

COAG in the news for communique on reducing violence against women yesterday ... and coincidentally came across this while researching next book.... from a parliamentary petition of 150 years ago.

 'That newspapers constantly detail instances of marital oppression, “wife-beating,” being a new compound noun lately introduced into the English language, and a crime against which English gentlemen have lately enacted stringent regulations'

 Read the full petition from 'The Carlyle Letters' HERE

Mary Shelley grew up in a household in 1814 that might be a social services case study today!

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, grew up as Mary Godwin in a family that was far from conventional. Many of today's concerns - blended families, unconventional living arrangements, single mothers, child support, are all there in the Godwin household of Mary's childhood, two hundred years ago.

There were five children, none of whom had the same two parents!

1. Mary Godwin:   Daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstencraft, feminist author, who married after Wollstoncraft was pregnant  with Mary - in spite of Godwin's advocating the abolition of marriage. For the six months they were married (until Wollstonecraft died in childbirth), they occupied adjoining apartments so they could maintain their independence.

2. Fanny Imlay:  Mary's half-sister, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer, to whom Wollstonecraft was not married and who abandoned her in France, before she met Godwin.

3. Claire Clairmont:  Mary's step-sister, daughter of Mary Jane Godwin, Godwin's second wife, and John Letheridge, a Somerset land-owner with whom Mary Jane had an affair prior to her marriage. We now have letters from Mary Jane demanding support for Claire, well into her marriage.

4. Charles Clairmont:  Mary's step-brother, son of Mary Jane Godwin and a Swiss called Gaulis, from another earlier, mysterious affair.

5. William Godwin: Mary's half brother, son of William Godwin and Mary Jane Godwin.

Does your head hurt? Nothing is new, but imagine the fun Social Services would have today! 

Read all about it in my book 'Almost Invincible'

Vaccination is in the news again

The Australian Government has recently announced 'tough new measures'  to try and ensure that all children are vaccinated. It proposes withholding childcare payments and tax benefits from families who don't get their children vaccinated.

 Vaccination is said to have saved more lives in the past century than any other medical achievement, but since its inception there have always been objectors and scare campaigns about the side effects.

 Mary and Shelley were early users of vaccination. They had their son William vaccinated against smallpox in 1816.


Mary's half-sister, Fanny, had smallpox scars on her face, and Mary herself contracted a dose when she was 32, while she was visiting her lesbian friends in Paris. She was ill for three weeks, and then, when recovered but sill marked and having lost some of her hair, she went briefly into Parisian society. She says: 'It was rather droll to play the part of an ugly person for the first time in my life, yet it was very amusing to be told- or rather not to be told but to find my face was not all my fortune.'

 She was not anxious to repeat the experience though, and retired to the coastal resort of Hastings for two months where the doctors assured her that regular sea bathing would heal her scars.

 'My poor hair it is a wonder I did not lose it all -but it has greatly suffered.'.

 Edward Jenner was the pioneer who discovered that a cowpox vaccination could protect against smallpox. Prior to that, in the 18th century in Europe 400,000 people died every year from smallpox, across all levels of society. If they didn't die, sufferers either went blind or were disfigured with scars. The term vaccination comes from Vacca, the Latin for cow.

Nevertheless there were many objectors to the practice. Some parents were worried about the scar, some thought it unchristian, and some speculated on terrible side effects. The 1802 cartoon below shows how some people thought of the disastrous outcomes - cows emerging from patients. Others suggested that the children vaccinated might grow horns.

It wasn't until 1853 in the UK that vaccination was made compulsory for children under 3 months, and in 1867, for up to fourteen years old.

Smallpox was finally declared eradicated in 1979... But human nature doesn't change.

A Letter from Claire Clairemont

Almost Invincible is the story of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) and how her life was coloured by the poisonous influence of a step-sister, Claire. Mary died in February 1851. This is the letter Claire sent to Mary’s son Percy, after she heard of the tragedy, and it illustrates her character well.

Source: The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Vol III Ed. Betty T Bennet, John Hopkins University press


Halloween – Frankenstein Reborn!

October 30 2014

Halloween – ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night. Whatever the early pagan or Christian origins of All Hallows’ Eve, the creatures of the netherworld are now thoroughly celebrated or lampooned, depending on your perspective, on October 31st. These are the creatures of the ‘natural’ world, but on a stormy night in 1816, Mary Shelley conceived a man-made monster that was to capture the imagination of generations and spawn many ‘hideous progeny’.

On All Hallows’ Eve in 1831, the Frankenstein novel that most people read today, was reprinted and published in a one volume popular format instead of the three volumes usual for the time, which gave it an even wider audience. The novel had already had considerable success since it was originally released in 1818 and almost immediately captured the popular imagination. Its fame was boosted by stage adaptations, notably Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which played at the Royal Opera House in London in 1823. Mary went to see the production and though she admitted that they had not followed the story closely, she thought it was well done. There were thunderstorms and a collapsing glacier and the monster was so suitably scary that women in the audience fainted.

It is lucky that Mary was not precious about the representation of her work or she would surely be endlessly rotating in her grave. The themes and imagery from the novel have been recast into cartoons, music, plays, comedies, TV series and almost a hundred movies. The most iconic representation was of course Boris Karloff as the monster in the 1931 Hammer Horror movie adaption, with the monobrow and bolts through his neck. Frankenstein’s screen history started in 1910 in the first silent film from Edison studios and continues with new 2015 movie with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe.

The story has been analysed and intellectualised endlessly, but the common, horror aspect of most incarnations has been the creation of an animated monster by human agency, and the failure to control it thereafter. Victor Frankenstein is a mad scientist who plays God and then refuses to take responsibility for his creation. The vulnerabilities of the characters and the moral and social implications of the original story are mostly marginalized. The abiding horror is contemplating human vanity and frailty.

Mary Shelley was only eighteen when she started her story and it was composed on a wild and stormy night in mid summer in Lord Byron’s villa on the lake at Geneva. That year, 1816, was known as The Year Without a Summer. Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted spectacularly – it was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history – and Europe was blanketed in dust. People thought the end of the world had come. It was a suitable backdrop to the creation of a gothic story as Byron, Mary and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire and Byron’s doctor, Polidori, huddled around the fire reading ghost stories. Byron then threw out the challenge for each of the company to try their hand at the creation of something frightening.

Mary had felt enormous pressure to validate her genes and produce a literary work of value, but until Frankenstein she had struggled to find the right outlet for her creativity. So Mary’s response to the challenge was inevitably more than a simple scary story. Her parents were both radical authors; her mother wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and is considered an early feminist and her father, William Godwin, wrote a groundbreaking anti-establishment book called Political Justice. So writing something that had social meaning was not surprising.

The scientific context of Frankenstein is more unexpected but was a result of her relationship with Shelley, the poet. When she eloped with him, Mary hadn’t realised the depth of his passion for chemical experiments, nor the potentially lethal impact of his obsession on working papers, tabletops or cushion covers, as smoke rose and glasses full of foul-coloured liquid shattered. Wires and crucibles of liquids would appear on the parlour table alongside the solar microscope and the extremely thumbed and stained copy of The Elements of Chemical Philosophy by Humphrey Davy. It didn’t add to their acceptability to landladies, but it did add to her inspiration for the science in Frankenstein.

In the 1931 edition, published on October 31st 1831, Mary added a new preface where she explained the circumstances in which the novel had been conceived. By that time, Shelley was dead and she was largely supporting herself with her writing. Her other novels were ‘by the Author of Frankenstein’. Frankenstein and his monster have passed into popular culture and show no signs of diminishing impact. Indeed with current forays into gene modification and limb replacement, it is still, potentially, very much a modern horror story.

National Theatre Frankenstein

October 14th 2014

Parramatta Riverside Theatres is showing the National Theatre Live production of Frankenstein, over two days, with Benedict Cumerbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternately playing Victor Frankenstein and his creation.

I will being giving a post screening talk on 29th November and 4th December, focusing on Mary Shelley and  her ground breaking novel.

Click HERE for more info