FRANKENSTEIN: Or, the modern Prometheus was published anonymously 200 years ago. A small London publisher produced only 500 copies of the three-volume novel, which was dedicated to the free-thinking philosopher and novelist William Godwin.
The first reviews were negative. “A tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity,” spluttered the true blue John Wilson Croker, who thought that it must have been written by one of the “out-pensioners of Bedlam” who formed the Godwin school. Croker had in mind Godwin’s son-in-law, the radical atheist Percy Bysshe Shelley. In fact, the book was by Godwin’s daughter, whose name appeared on the title page of the second edition in 1823, a year after Shelley’s death.
Eight years later, Mary Shelley made extensive revisions for the third edition: the version followed in most editions today. The novel that was to be hailed as the first work of science fiction was now firmly hers.
THE fact that Frankenstein offers a radical reworking of such fundamental themes as the origins of life, the origins of evil, and the nature/nurture debate can be explained partly by Mary Shelley’s own origins. Her father’s trajectory from dissenting minister to Deist utopian philosopher and author of Caleb Williams had intersected with that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the bestselling Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who died ten days after Mary’s birth in 1797.
Four years later, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont, who proved to be an ill-tempered stepmother. A voracious reader, the young Mary Shelley emulated the mother she never knew by “inventing herself” in the midst of family life and surrounded by books.
In 1812, the poet Shelley offered Godwin both adulation and the promise of financial support; by 1814, he and Mary had begun a relationship. In July that year, following Napoleon’s exile to Elba, they eloped to the Continent, taking Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont with them. They returned to England in September.
After the birth of a second child to Shelley’s wife, Harriet, the 17-year old Mary herself gave premature birth to a daughter who died, unnamed, in February 1815. In January 1816, her son William was born, and the family set off for Geneva — again with Claire — to meet Byron, Claire’s lover.
It was against this complex relational background that Mary began to write Frankenstein in June, following the famous night on which Byron suggested that they amuse themselves by reading a French translation of some German fantasy tales, several of which seem to have influenced Mary’s novel.
THE title of the work is often misapplied, when the name Frankenstein is taken to be that of the creature rather than his creator — an error that tells us much about the demonisation of “the other”. The popular Frankenstein myth sprang from the numerous stage versions of the story — usually farcical — which made it famous: Miranda Seymour records that, by the end of 1823, five versions had appeared in London.
As the horrors of Frankenstein’s narration unfold in the novel, his nameless “creature” becomes “the wretch”, “the daemon”, “vile insect”, and “the monster”. On stage, and later in film, we often cut to “monster” more quickly.
Similarly, in the novel the actual process of creation is itself unexplained, or unnamed: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning . . . when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dully yellow eye of the creature open: it breathed hard, and convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
On stage and film, the vacuum was filled with electrical “instruments of life”, of the kind that Percy Shelley had played with in his rooms at Oxford, or that Giovanni Aldini had used on the body of a hanged murderer in 1803, when it appeared to bystanders that the wretched man was on the point of being “restored to life”.
THE novel’s subtitle is less ambiguous: The modern Prometheus. The creator of man from clay, who stole fire from the gods as a gift to his creation, is a crafty transgressor. Some feminist interpreters of Frankenstein have read it as a critique of the hubris displayed by male Romantic poets whose desire to create, or recreate the world through the power of the imagination represented an invasion of the feminine domain of giving birth.
More obviously, the novel offers a Gothic reading of the work of male “natural philosophers” — later to be labelled “scientists” — in the Romantic “age of wonder”. Frankenstein speaks of his “secret toil” among the “unhallowed damps of the grave”, and of William and Justine as the first hapless victims of his “unhallowed arts”.
In her author’s introduction to the 1831 edition, Mary Shelley picks up this theme when recalling the evening on which she was a “devout but nearly silent listener” during a conversation between Byron and her husband (they had married in 1816) on galvinism and Erasmus Darwin’s experiments. That night, her imagination, “unbidden”, possessed her: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.”
For the sceptical author who, in 1831, was taking her son Percy to the Temple Church on a Sunday (largely to improve his chances with his grandfather), the effect of “any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” was “supremely frightful”.
FOR those coming to Frankenstein for the first time, or perhaps rereading the novel in its bicentenary year, it is worth attending to the frequent references to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner: powerful Christian narratives, written by men, on the subject of transgression. Then move on to re-reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and you will see the strong influence that Frankenstein had on a later modern classic.
Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and chairman of Gladstone’s Library. His books include English Fiction of the Victorian Period, 1830-1890 and St John and the Victorians.
Read our feature on Frankenstein, 200 years afters its publication
You can also read our film review of Mary Shelley here.