Posted by: Mish | July 23, 2010

Frankenstein: Ghost Stories and Soap Operas

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life…His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away…hope that…this thing…would subside into dead matter…he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains…”

The “waking nightmare” may have been the inspiration for Mary Shelley to set pen to paper in June of 1816, but other factors also contributed to Frankenstein‘s creation.

It was a dark and stormy night when Mary and Percy Shelley were stranded at Lord Byron’s rented villa along the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary saw the area as a sacred place of enlightenment because its visitors included Milton, Rousseau, and Voltaire. For entertainment they and John Polidori, Byron’s physician, read a collection of German ghost stories titled the Fantasmagoriana. In one of the stories a group of travelers share personal supernatural experiences so Byron then set a challenge for everyone to write a story. Mary was uninspired while Percy wrote “A Fragment of a Ghost Story”, Byron a fragment of an unfinished story, and Polidori began the first vampire story in English, “the Vampyre”. It was based off of Byron’s fragment and for awhile it was thought that Byron had written the story.

The group continued the following evening and Byron recited “Christabel” by Samuel T. Coleridge. Percy perceived Mary as the poem’s villain and ran out of the room, causing a scene and leading Mary to feelings of guilt that were later developed into novel ideas. The poets lost interest in the supernatural stories, but feeling that her ambitions and value were at stake, Mary persisted with Percy’s encouragement.

“My husband was, from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enroll myself on the page of fame. He was forever inciting me to obtain literary reputation.”

Discussion led to Madame de Stael’s De l’Allemagne and “whether the principle of life could be discovered and whether scientists could galvanize a corpse of manufactured humanoid”. When Mary went to bed she had the “waking” nightmare and realized the next morning that she had found her story. She began writing the opening lines of Chapter IV of Frankenstein, “It was on a dreary night in November”.  She was eighteen at the time. The novel was finished in May of 1817 and published January 1, 1818.

Frankenstein‘s themes include abandonment, death, and loss, which Mary learned about at an early age. With the issues of science and playing G-d it’s also philosophical, her parents were intellectual and literary figures of the time. Mary’s and her mother’s lives sound like soap operas. It’s all pretty fascinating so…

Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had an abusive father who forced her to hand over an inheritance to pay his debts. Wollstonecraft slept in front of her mother’s door as protection when her father was drunk. After her mother passed away she left the family and worked as a lady’s companion and then as a teacher and governess before moving to London to try to make a living as a writer.

Wollstonecraft learned French and German and worked as a translator and a book critic. She became an important intellectual through her writing on political theory, women’s education, travel, and history. A Vindication of the Rights of Women made her famous. She traveled to France, participating in the intellectual arguments of the Revolution’s early days. As part of the ongoing debate about the proper position of women in society, Wollstonecraft argued in Vindication that women are not inferior to men, but inferior in their education and that if they could get good educations they would be more capable to make greater contributions to society.

Wollstonecraft fell in love with a married painter while in London. After suggesting to Henry Fuseli’s wife that she move in with them on a platonic basis, Fuseli was to have nothing more to do with her. She later met Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer who was running goods into France at the time and had once swindled Daniel Boone in a land scam in Kentucky. A revolutionary, Wollstonecraft didn’t care that Imlay had no interest in getting married and moved in with him. Imlay left her before their daughter Fanny was born, but she followed him and demanded he return and take responsibility. Frustrated and upset, she tried to commit suicide twice.

When the violent Reign of Terror began in 1793 she went to England. In an attempt to get Imlay back she traveled to Scandinavia to try to recoup some money that was owed to him and wrote a book about her trip, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. She eventually realized Imlay wasn’t coming back and returned to her literary life in London.

William Godwin, a prolific writer, radical, and anarchist philosopher who knew Wollstonecraft began courting her. She became pregnant and they decided to wed so the child would not be illegitimate, but bought separate houses next door to one another so they could maintain their independence. Having written about the abolition of marriage, Godwin was criticized for marrying. It was a happy marriage for the five months it lasted, Wollstoncraft died of fever ten days after giving birth to Mary. Godwin remarried when Mary was 4 so she and Fanny were raised together with their step-siblings, Charles and Claire Claremont.

Although Mary never met her mother she knew all about her and read Wollstoncraft’s works, often while sitting on her gravestone. Her life was shaped by being the daughter of two of the more famous and scandalous intellectuals of the time. Godwin was writing a biography of her mother during much of her early childhood. He intended it as a tribute, but it backfired. The biography not only tanked her reputation, but was also taken as proof that educated and politically aware women lost their morals and became promiscuous.

Many didn’t know that she had not been married to Imlay and Fanny was illegitimate or that she didn’t marry Godwin until after she was pregnant with Mary, traveled without chaperonage, and was mad and bad. Godwin may simply have been naive about the times, not realizing that the revolutionary years’ intellectual adventurousness was giving way to Victorian respectability. The end result was that Wollstonecraft’s works were judged not safe for decent women to read because her immodesty might communicate itself. She and her writing fell out of favor for several generations.

Mary grew up surrounded by discussions advocating free love and condemning the institution of marriage and private ownership of property. As a young teenager, she didn’t get along with her stepmother and was frequently shipped off to homes of other political dissenters where she learned to disregard the period’s social conventions.

Around the age of 16, Mary was introduced to Percy Bysshe Shelley, a radical acolyte of Godwin’s. Percy had been expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet called the Necessity of Atheism. After a short stay at home, the 19-year old eloped to Scotland with 16-year old Harriet Westbrook. After she declined to let him bring into their household his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, he abandoned his wife and child for London.

He found his way to Godwin’s bookstore where his radical politics found a match and he frequently visited the house. Percy’s welcome wore thin when his family tied up his inheritance and he couldn’t make good his offer of paying Godwin’s debts. By then Mary and Percy had been meeting secretly at her mother’s grave and they were in love. It was rumored that Percy may have been involved first with Fanny and that she was sent to visit relatives to get her away from him, which is when his attentions fell on Mary. For Mary, he was the the embodiment of her parents liberal ideals, including free love and open marriage. Acting on hypocrisy, Godwin tried to end the relationship and salvage his daughter’s reputation.

Godwin described Mary at fifteen as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind” and a month before her 17th birthday, she eloped to Europe with her 16-year old stepsister and 22-year old Percy. The runaways left behind Mary’s sister, unhappy parents, and Percy’s pregnant wife, but returned a few months later and rented a house in London. Fanny was ordered to stay away, but she visited them and tried to persuade Claire to come back. Mary and Percy were angry with Fanny for trying to get Claire to leave, the parents for not obeying them and staying away, and everybody was mad at everybody.

Mary in 1815 gave birth to a premature daughter who died after two months. Mary and Fanny reconciled for a time, despite the parents. With home relations worsening, Fanny begged to live with the Shelleys, but she was refused and eventually another big fight ensued.

Mary gave birth in January of 1816 and in May the three runaways with baby William traveled to Geneva to spend the summer on Lake Geneva with Byron and Polidori. The invitation came through Claire, who was a mistress to Byron, who was rumored to have had affairs with various women, men, and his half sister.

The tempestuous weather that brought about ghost stories and Frankenstein was due to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. It was the largest since 180 AD, causing the highest fatality recorded of at least 71,000, and releasing such massive amounts of sulfur it created a climate anomaly world-wide. 1816 became the Year Without a Summer, northern Europe saw heavy rains and low temperatures while Maine saw snow in July and glaciers advanced in Switzerland. Sunsets took on an unusual colour from all the airborne dust and crops failed and livestock died, resulting in the 19th century’s worst famine. After losing his crops in Vermont, Joseph Smith moved to New York where he reported seeing an angel named Mormon.

Mary and Percy Shelley married in late 1816 after the suicide of Percy’s first wife. In 1818, they moved to Italy, where their second and third children died before Mary gave birth to her last and only surviving child, Percy Florence. In 1822, Percy drowned with his sailboat during a storm. A year later, Mary returned to England where she devoted herself to parenthood, getting Percy’s works published, and a career as a professional author.

Aside from the infamous Gothic horror, Mary’s works include the historical novels Valperga and Perkin Warbeck, the apocalyptic the Last Man, Lodore, Falkner, and several short stories. She also wrote biographical articles for Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia and a travel book titled Rambles in Germany and Italy.

Like many people in her life, Mary was an intellectual and political radical. However, her opinions on social reformation differed from those of her parents or Percy. She argued the need for cooperation and sympathy, particularly as practiced by women in the family. She believed people should exercise political power, but feared that irresponsibility would lead to chaos, Victor Frankenstein and his creation being an example.

Mary was often ill during the last decade of her life, probably because of the brain tumor that took her life on February 1, 1851 when she was 53.


Seldom do I find a writer or a book’s background so fascinatingly interesting as Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. I’d have finished the book’s 200 odd pages now if it weren’t for the fact that I left my copy at a friend’s. Argh! So annoying!! One, it minimizes my participation in a read-along and two, I’ve been wanting to read the novel. Instead I’m stuck reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is also interesting, but that’s another topic.


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