How Frankenstein became a monster – and what he means to us today

Mosntrous Progeny invites us to reflect on two hundred years of a prolific, and horrific, creation.

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There was once a shy and studious young woman who wrote a story about a parentless innocent, cast out by those who should have protected him. She added to this brew a dose of magic, a peppering of philosophy and all the myths she had ever read. It became the most popular story in the English-speaking world; it spawned other stories, it took over stage and screen; obsessive readers reworked the plot, setting her characters free in stories of their own. The woman watched, bewildered, as her creation went forth and multiplied. What sort of monster, she wondered, had she unleashed? I am describing, of course, the inception of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone but it might as well be the birth of Frankenstein. The two books share the same creation myth.

J K Rowling and Mary Shelley were both young mothers when they produced their “hideous progeny”, as Shelley called Frankenstein, and they, too, were motherless. Plus each woman had a father from whom she was estranged. They even look weirdly alike, Rowling and Shelley, with their handsome foreheads, long noses, thin lips and wary expressions. As though to cement their sisterhood, Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter in the film series, stars in a howling dog of a movie called Victor Frankenstein (2015), the latest take on Mary Shelley’s fragile novel.

In each case the story came to the writer as a waking vision. “All of a sudden,” Rowling has said, “the idea for Harry just appeared in my mind’s eye. I can’t tell you why or what triggered it. But I saw the idea of Harry and the wizard school very plainly.” “I saw,” Mary Shelley wrote, “– with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” Shelley’s vision then grew into the story and, as Lester D Friedman and Allison Kavey show in their exhaustive discussion of the Frankenstein narrative, became, with the help of a lightning bolt, the only indelible scene in the novel. It is also the scene to which Friedman and Kavey return, in their concern with the relation of Frankenstein to scientific morality.

The similarities between Rowling and Mary Shelley extend no further than the backstory. Despite the wilderness that is Harry Potter fan fiction, Rowling has held fast to her authorial control and kept her many-headed Cerberus on a leash. Unprotected by copyright, Shelley saw none of the profits when, five years after her book was published, a dramatisation by Richard Brinsley Peake called Presumption: or, The Fate of Frankenstein, kick-started the Frankenstein industry. It was the play and not the novel that made her famous: Frankenstein had so far sold only 500 copies, while ­Presumption was a roaring success. Between 1823 and 1931, when James Whale’s first Frankenstein film was released, a further 26 Frankenstein stage plays were produced. To date, there have been roughly a hundred, most recently a 2011 National Theatre production in which Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch swapped the roles of scientist and his creature on alternate nights.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus turned 200 this year – on 22 June, to be precise, the day before the Brexit vote, which is poignant, given the role of Europe in the lives of Mary Shelley and her travelling companions. The book was published in 1818, however, and not 1816, so what is being commemorated by Monstrous Progeny, a book as roughly hewn together as the monster, is the twinkle in the author’s eye, the night on which her “mind” was so “possessed” by her vision “that a thrill of fear ran through me”. Shelley embellished this scene in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, where, prompted by her publishers, she re-created “the very room” in which her vision occurred, “the dark parquet, the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through”.

Writers are forever having centennial anniversaries – 2016 also marks 200 years since Charlotte Brontë’s birth, and 400 years since the death of Shakespeare – but I can’t think of any other book whose date of conception we celebrate. We are ­obsessed with the origin of this book about origins, and return repeatedly to Frankenstein’s primal scene.

The Frankenstein discussed by Friedman and Kavey, who are American ­academics, is a cultural product rather than a piece of writing: the progenitor of films such as RoboCop, Blade Runner and The Fly. The authors therefore bypass Mary Shelley’s prose style and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s own input into the novel, and refer only in passing to the author’s intricate web of literary referencing, her complex narrative frame structure, and the creation myth so skilfully constructed in her 1831 introduction.

Frankenstein’s life began in 1816, the year without a summer: the fallout from the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 caused harvests to fail across western Europe and thousands starved; snow fell in New York that June; darkness covered the Earth. The sky over the shores of Lake Geneva, where Mary Shelley and her party were staying, was black. “Incessant rain”, she recalled in her introduction, kept them indoors, where the visitors entertained themselves with a volume of German ghost stories. “The bright sun was extinguish’d,” Byron wrote in his poem “Darkness”, also composed that summer, “and the stars/Did wander darkling in the eternal space”. “Famine” roamed like a “fiend” and

 

. . . The world was void,

The populous and the powerful
was a lump,

Seasonless, herbless, treeless,
manless, lifeless –

A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay.

 

Mary Shelley returned to darkness and clay in her epigraph, which she took from Paradise Lost: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?”

The weather being what it was, Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story, so we have him to thank for the zillion movies and the production line of Frankenstein breakfast cereals, burger bars, plastic toys and ice creams.

Friedman and Kavey lazily describe Frankenstein as “the product of a very long rainy vacation”, but Mary Shelley, or Mary Godwin, as she was then called, was not on vacation, nor was there a holiday atmosphere. An 18-year-old, unmarried mother, daughter of an infamous feminist who had died shortly after giving birth to her, Mary saw herself as an outcast in a party of outcasts, moving through an apocalyptic world.

She and Shelley, who had been expelled from Oxford for atheism, were on the run, trying to escape from the wrath of her father, the radical philosopher William Godwin, and Shelley’s wife, a 20-year-old called Harriet (who drowned herself in the Serpentine later that year). Accompanying the lovers was Mary’s high-spirited stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant with Byron’s child. Claire had “pranced”, as ­Byron put it, halfway across Europe in order to find him. Meanwhile, his own wife, Annabella, had fled with her newborn child from the marital home and returned to her parents in order to begin separation proceedings from Byron, whom she thought mad. Pursued by rumours of incest, sodomy and emotional abuse, Byron left London in a coach modelled on the one used by Napoleon.

Travelling with the disgraced milord was a young doctor called John Polidori who was probably being paid by Byron’s publisher, John Murray, to report back on the poet. ­Polidori’s diary provides us with a good deal of information about the goings-on at the Villa Diodati. Tensions ran high: Mary was jealous of Claire, who flirted with Shelley. Polidori, who flirted with Mary, was jealous of Byron. Mary patronised Polidori; Byron belittled Claire. Shelley and Byron, who had not met before, formed a fellowship of upper-class poets. When it came to writing, they all fed off one another’s ideas. It was a feverish, hysterical atmosphere whose sense of unreality was aided by opium. “I had a dream, which was not all a dream,” is how Byron’s “Darkness” opens. One effect of opium is to blur the boundaries between wake and sleep; Frankenstein, Mary wrote, came to her as “a waking dream”.

Less than ten years later, Polidori had killed himself, Claire Clairmont’s daughter had died of fever, Shelley had drowned and Byron had been bled to death with leeches in Missolonghi. Mary Shelley remembered the summer of 1816, however, as a happy time. It was also, as Friedman and Kavey put it, a “cauldron” of creativity.

While Polidori wrote a tale about an aristocratic vampire which he modelled on a draft by Byron, and which became the prototype of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary “busied” herself with a story that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart”.

Her lines, which might have been written for the cinema, are repeated as a voice-over in the opening moments of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which provides the first filmic reference to the Diodati weekend. Fifty years later a more exuberant version of events was presented by Ken Russell in Gothic (1986). Two years after that came a Spanish spin on the story, Remando al viento, or Rowing With the Wind (1988), written and directed by Gonzalo Suárez and starring Hugh Grant as Byron, with Liz Hurley as a saucy Claire Clairmont, giggling under the table. Grant and Hurley apparently first got together on the set.

Frankenstein films are both silly (none more so than Young Frankenstein, starring the late, lamented genius Gene Wilder) and serious, and Monstrous Progeny shows how porous are the boundaries between comedy and fear. The novel is equally hybrid, and Lester and Kavey reflect on it as science fiction. What did the scientist kneeling before his creation mean in 1816, and what has it meant to us since? “In becoming timeless,” the authors write, “Frankenstein has lost its moment in time, and with that, some important tools for understanding it.”

The “mad scientist”, they remind us, was a ubiquitous figure in 19th-century laboratories. Take Sir Humphry Davy, experimenting with the effects of laughing gas, David Pritchard injecting hookworms under his skin to test his allergic responses, or Stubbins Ffirth, rubbing black vomit into his eyeballs and into open cuts on his arms to test whether yellow fever was contagious. Lester and Kavey give further examples of Enlightenment heroes alone in the lab, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and taking the place of God.

How much, they ask, of the medical ethics raised by Mary Shelley is still relevant today? How far should we allow science to interfere in nature? How should we read Frankenstein in the age of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner? Is Mary Shelley responsible for creating a world in which designer bodies are the norm? But before we start shaking our fists at her, Friedman and Kavey concede that Shelley “cannot be held solely, or perhaps even chiefly responsible, for the contemporary fear of scientific expertise, medical research and technical innovations”.

The film-maker Michael Moore has compared Victor Frankenstein to Saddam Hussein; for Peter Cushing, he was Christiaan Barnard, the South African cardiac surgeon. Frankenstein’s creature has become the patron saint of minorities. He has been seen variously as Jewish, Mongolian, African; as an embodiment of those with disabilities fighting for their rights; as the lumpen proletariat turned monstrous by capitalism. While feminists claim the novel for themselves, it is heralded by experts in queer studies as a tale of homosexual love in which two men pursue one another across arctic wastes. As Captain Walton writes at the start of the novel, “I desire the company of a man who could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine.” This is what Victor Frankenstein desires, too – and so, as Will puts it in Will and Grace, he “sewed together a bunch of guys to make the perfect man”. He even gave him a “flat head, so you can set a drink on it”.

What does Frankenstein represent to us today, 200 years on? Or rather, what doesn’t Frankenstein represent?

Frances Wilson’s most recent book is “Guilty Thing: a Life of Thomas de Quincey” (Bloomsbury)

Monstrous Progeny: a History of the Frankenstein Narratives by Lester D Friedman and Allison B Kavey is published by Rutgers University Press (256pp, $27.95)

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers