When I think of Frankenstein, I think of a key element of gothic writing: The hypnotic, visceral mix of horror and pity. The hypnotic is often how grotesque human ambition can become, and the visceral contains emotional devastation — disbelief, revulsion, pity, and the crucial revelation that the reader, on some level, understands the blind ambition of the evil doer. Nothing about the novel Frankenstein is outdated. The story is here among us, even now. I think Mary Shelley designed it that way.
It’s taken me a long time to get around to discovering the “why” of Mary’s creation. In many ways, she became a shadow of Frankenstein herself. Not as graphic, but as sobering. Mary Shelley, educated by poets and philosophers, brought up in the liberal commentary of her time, found herself involved with a married man by the time she was seventeen. Fully capable of writing, eloquent and insightful writing, she devoted herself to following Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet and philosopher five years her senior from place to place in a European backdrop similar to our time. She was merely a child herself, and she was pregnant. All the while the world had become an alien planet, most of it from about 1815 on.
The summer she began writing her novel of a monster there had already been ample disturbance in humanity for well over a year. In April, 1815, Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, had erupted in the biggest explosion in volcanic history, an explosion heard for roughly 1600 miles with ash settling as far as 800 miles away. As a result, most of Europe was covered in an everlasting winter for three years following. Crop failures induced famines, a cholera epidemic fell upon humanity and revolts of all kinds were unleashed. Tens of millions died with no let-up in sight.
In the middle of this darkness, Percy and Mary Shelley and their second child took up residence in a villa alongside Lake Geneva in Switzerland along with Mary’s stepsister, Claire, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, his doctor. I’ve often wondered if they were prepared to die there, as bleak as the world was becoming. Instead, they stayed inside the villa listening to pounding rain, lightning and thunder, and discussing their strange reality. Modern medicine had taken them down an odd path for almost half a century, a path that included a term called “galvanizing.”
A cross section of physicians and scientists had been tampering with the use of electricity since the late 1700s to reanimate corpses, some of them proving that grisly experimentation could produce a life-like “quiver. . . adjoining muscles horribly contorted. . . legs and thighs set in motion,” descriptions that were often recited by unprepared witnesses. Word got out that this type of experimentation had occurred at Frankenstein’s Castle by physician and alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel — only it was being done on animals. He believed that souls could be transferred from one corpse to another by using a funnel, the absurdity of which might have been overlooked entirely by the tenacious group of writers locked in the confines of an isolated villa that month of June 1816 in favor of a delicious bout with horror.
Byron, Polidori, and the Shelleys spent much time reading about and discussing these practices along with ghosts and apparitions, and the dark night of their time. Eventually, Lord Byron gave them a challenge — to write a ghost story better than the ones they’d read. Mary struggled with the assignment, and I’ve often wondered why. Astute, articulate, and aware, she might have even visited Frankenstein’s Castle in earlier days, but there is no way to be sure. What one can be sure of is that she was a young mother of a son by the time of this adventure. And she had already lost a daughter to death.
Motherhood can be chronicled in Mary’s life as literally engulfing. Her own mother died less than a month after giving birth to her. Hence, Mary was raised by her father alone for a time, then a stepmother whom she came to detest. There was always strong influence from her father, who encouraged a type of compassion that Mary embraced and strongly championed in the image of devoted motherhood. An early pregnancy with her lover, Percy Shelley, might have been pivotal in her own mental health. But that first infant died an early death, something literally unforgettable in a young woman’s life. And Mary was only eighteen years old when it happened. In the ensuing months, she had another child with Percy, this time a son named William. He was the young one who accompanied them to the Geneva location, where a little over a year beyond her first child’s death, she began writing Frankenstein. It is here when I think her complex nature was willing to take a turn toward story, and Mary poured her suffering into words we’ve never quite gotten over ever since.
There is a line from Mary’s Frankenstein: “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” How well she knew. Oddly enough, I remember the age of seventeen when I, too, was pregnant with my first child, one who lived and thrived despite my early clumsy attempts to mother her. One who still reminds me of what it was like to be young and in love, guided by childish things while growing the new skin of an adult. Could I have written Frankenstein in the middle of raising my daughter, I wonder? I can assuredly say, “No.” But I can also say if such a thing had occurred to me it would have been young motherhood guiding my words, especially about the creation of a helpless creature, a creature alone, alive without the gestation of a mother’s womb or the soft hold of a human hand. Mary Shelley was able to draw us a form of life like none other because of what she’d experienced already far too often — “great and sudden change.”
In the end, Shelley lost three of her four children. Only one survived to adulthood, Percy Florence, born shortly after the publication of Frankenstein. They remained close for the rest of her life.
References include: Wikipedia, Germanyinsiderfacts.com and Independent-UK.com