The story behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
A dark dreary night by lake Geneva, as the full moon shines from above, a story of a grotesque man, animated by unseen before technologies, is born. It may have begun as a ghost story challenge, but Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has become so much more than just a story to be told around a campfire. The story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist, who becomes obsessed by the notion of creating life and succeeds by animating a man pieced together from different body parts is a story most of us know today, despite it being published almost two hundred years ago. With futuristic technologies and themes ranging from the passionately Romantic to the dark Gothic, this predecessor to sci-fi is one of our favorites.
But how did it all come about? Let's step into our trusty time machine, and we'll take you back to the origin story of one of the world's most famous works - the one and only Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Believe it or not, Mary Shelley is only 19 when she starts writing Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. As Shelley herself has described it, it was on her trip to Europe with Percy Shelley that the idea first came to her. While visiting lake Geneva in the cold and rainy summer of 1816 she and writers Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori sit around a fireplace, reading each other ghost stories. Just imagine - Lord Byron's dark villa, a glowing fire, and some of literature's finest telling tales of ghosts, ghouls and terror. When Lord Byron suggests they each write their own ghost story, the seed is planted and the process of assembling thoughts and experiences into what will become an electrifying Gothic tale has begun.
But not quite yet – despite the ghost story challenge, Mary Shelley can not come up with anything. Day after day she comes up blank, and at the others' inquiries every morning if she has written anything yet, she has to give a – in her own words – mortifying negative. Instead, inspiration strikes one dark night, far past the witching hour, as the moon streams through the shutters of the bedroom window. As she lies awake, her eyes closed, she sees a powerful engine working and a shape of a man – a student of wicked arts, pale and kneeling next to a figure of a hideous man put together from body parts. Then – a miracle. Through the engine's power the man moves – is awoken, and the terror the scientist feels courses through his body, making him run away from his miraculous creation. And as the scientist sleeps, after having fled the scene of horror, he stirs awake and gazes into the yellow, watery depths of his creature's eyes.
And so the story was formed. These vivid images, frightening her in the dark night, would become the delightful tale of impossible feats, horror, romance, guilt and morality that most of us know today. That next morning, she could finally announce that she had thought of a ghost story and the short tale eventually grew into something more. All thanks to her vivid imagination and that dreary summer in Europe.
There are plenty of clues that Shelley has taken inspiration from her journey across Europe and her surroundings. Lake Geneva, where she first thinks of the idea, is one of the main places of action in Frankenstein. She and Percy Shelley had also traveled close to a castle – Frankenstein castle – where it is said that an alchemist once performed strange experiments. Lord Byron and Percy Shelley's discussions had also given rise to ideas of galvanism and reanimating corpses.
She first published Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus two years later in 1818 under a pseudonym. The story became immediately popular (despite mixed reviews), with theater adaptations and wide recognition, even though it was unthinkable at first that a women could have written it. Fast forward almost a century, and the tale still strikes a chord today. Who can forget the many film adaptations and uses of Frankenstein's monster in film and TV.
Most of us have seen adaptations, where Frankenstein's monster looks something like this.
And aren't we all happy she had the idea! What would we do without the such a horrifically delightful tale? Next time you are so inclined, grab the book, sit by the fireplace and put on one of your Gothic inspired steampunk corset dresses, or some mad scientist inspired steampunk goggles. We'll leave you for now with one of our favorite (pretty steampunk-y) quotes:
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; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. (Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus. 1897/2002. Chapter 5)