Think of Frankenstein and the first thing that comes to mind is likely the face of Boris Karloff, as clear an example as there is of a Hollywood actor blending in the popular imaginary with his most famous role (on a par, surely, with Bela Lugosi and Dracula). That image, black and white, haunting and intrinsically old-fashioned, comes from the 1931 production by James Whale, but the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation predates the film by well over a century. First published on New Year’s Day of 1818, 200 years ago, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured in our culture not only because it explores a key question to human experience—wherein lies the principle of life?—but also because in its exploration of such question it examines with great audacity the merits and limitations of the sacred cow of the West: science.
Like Robinson Crusoe, Romeo and Juliet or even Star Wars, Frankenstein has been so fully assimilated by our culture that it almost seems like we instinctively know what these and (and many other) stories are about. In the specific case of Frankenstein this instinct might well be aided (or even spawned) by a seemingly endless reel of remakes on celluloid, from Whale’s 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstein (also with Karloff) to the more lighthearted Munsters TV series, which was produced in 1964–66 but which lives on in reruns to this day, or the 1990s mega production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with a whole plethora of stars (Kenneth Brannagh, Robert DeNiro, Helena Bonham-Carter). A valid explanation for our undying fascination for Frankenstein can be derived from elements intrinsic to the story—Shelley’s straightforward style, at the time dismissed as too crass; the irreverent attitude and wild imagination of the young author, just a teenager when she wrote this, her first book; and so on. Lost in this internal analysis of the text would be a series of outside factors which not only dictated that Frankenstein took the shape it took but also that one of the greatest and most recognizable stories ever told ended up being written by a woman at a time when women—bar the rare exception—weren’t meant to write.
Before Mary Shelley was Mary Shelley, however, she was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the only daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, both of them liberal thinkers of note in the end of the 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft, made her name with her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a passionate response to Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections on the French Revolution, which even predated Thomas Paine’s celebrated Rights of Men (1791). After publishing what remains her most famous book, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), she traveled to Paris to put her liberal theories to practice in the fertile ground of revolutionary France. Alas, the Jacobins proved bloodthirsty in greater measure than she had foreseen, and as the Reign of Terror grew ever more brutal she became more endangered by the suspicions of a paranoid government. Wollstonecraft found comfort from all this confusion in a tumultuous relationship with Gilbert Imlay, an American speculator who in 1794 fathered her first child, Fanny, but his later estrangement from her would lead her to attempt suicide in 1796.
Luckily she was rescued from the River Thames, and was able to recover from her wounds—more emotional than physical—rather quickly: by the end of the year she had become re-acquainted with William Godwin, who shared the same publisher as her and Thomas Paine. Godwin, in the meantime, had become a famous political philosopher and commentator in his own right, especially through the publication of his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793. Godwin’s radical views are famous for essentially founding anarchism, but for all his libertarian tendencies the major tenet holding together his theories is the underlying assumption that humans are good by nature, and that the source of egoism is often found in the impositions of certain overpowering institutions, such as government and marriage.
Despite his theoretical reservations against marriage Godwin wedded Wollstonecraft in March 1797, with the couple welcoming their first (and only) child, Mary, on August 30 that same year. Just eleven days later Mary would lose her mother to postpartum complications, leaving Godwin to raise his child and his wife’s daughter, Fanny Imlay, on his own. Clearly he found this too tall a task, for William Godwin married again just three years later but if he had gone back on his apprehension towards marriage as an institution he had remained steadfast in his resolve to raise his children in the progressive fashion outlined by Mary Wollstonecraft in her writings, aiming to make of them members of what his late wife liked to call “a new genus,” intellectually and politically active women capable of supporting themselves independently.
Thus, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin grew up in an all but conventional household, very much influenced by her father’s high cultural standing—a standing that was equally generous in bringing distinguished guests and inextinguishable debt to their home. At the impressionable age of 16 the young Mary became stars-struck with one of Godwin’s admirers, the poet and aristocrat Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was himself just 21 years of age—and, crucially, married. Shelley cherished every moment spent with William Godwin, but he seems to have found similar delight in the company of his three daughters, Fanny, Mary, and Claire Clairmont, Godwin’s wife’s illegitimate daughter from a previous liaison. Indeed, Shelley’s infatuation with the Godwin sisters grew so strong that in the summer of 1814 he abandoned his pregnant wife Harriet (with whom he had eloped three years earlier) and took Mary and Claire along on a sojourn to Switzerland. Predictably, scandal ensued—but Mary and Percy were irreparably in love.
Godwin, deep in debt as ever, disapproved emphatically of the pair’s romance, though part of his anger might have stemmed from the fact that Shelley had not paid off his debts in full as he had promised. Be that as it may, Percy and Mary moved in together upon their return from the continent in September 1814, and Mary soon became pregnant. In the meantime, Percy deepened his affair with Claire and greeted the arrival of his firstborn, Charles, from his abandoned wife. Financially, they struggled at first, before things improved slightly. Emotionally, this has all the looks of having been a torrid rollercoaster: Mary, jealous of Claire, envious of Harriet, gave birth to a premature child in February 1815, a girl who died within a fortnight. Shortly thereafter she became pregnant again, giving birth to a boy named William in January 1816. That was the crucial year, 1816, for early in the summer Mary, Percy, little William, and Claire would embark on yet another trip to Switzerland, this time to Lake Geneva, where they would hook up with Lord Byron, who earlier that year had entered into an affair with Claire.
The difference between the two parties could not be starker: Byron, a selfish misanthrope in perpetual search for epicurean pleasure, paired with Percy and Mary, genuine children of the revolution who believed wholeheartedly in the liberal notions of equality and freedom for all. And yet, Shelley’s admiration for Byron as well as Claire’s infatuation for him made up for all intellectual discrepancies and ensure that the group would hit it off mightily. Byron rented a villa on the lakeshore, the Shelley-Godwins took their lodgings in a cottage nearby and the newly founded gang resolved to spend the summer together.
As it happens 1816 turned out to be the “the year without a summer,” partly due to the effects of the massive eruption of Mount Tambora the year before in present-day Indonesia (at the time known as Dutch East Indies). As well as devastating the agricultural industry across the continent, this circumstance also ruined the plans of the Byron-Shelley clan, who had hoped to spend a few weeks in the sun, rowing in the lake, cavorting outdoors, enjoying the nearby mountains. Instead they were forced indoors by the constant rain, engaging in long (and stimulating) conversations. But even intellectuals of the greatest ilk get bored of idle talk. To fend off boredom the group took to reading ghost stories out loud, and on a particularly blustery night Byron proposed they retire to their chambers to write a ghost story of their own. Claire had no literary pretentions and Shelley refrained from producing a tale on the pretext that he was stifled by the format—he wrote verse only. Mary, meanwhile, struggled for days to come up with a suitable story, so initially only Byron and his physician, John Polidori, produced some fragments. A few days later, however, Mary announced, elated, that she had been struck by a vivid image, a visitation, almost, of a creature pieced together by a young medical student, coming to life.
That’s as far as Mary would get in Geneva but the seed of an important work of literature had already been planted. Over the course of the next year, now in England, Percy would encourage Mary to keep developing her story, following in the footsteps of her mother and father, both of them greatly respected writers. The result grew, of course, into far more than a ghost story: Frankenstein is as much an intellectual treatise—confronting the merits of science and the arrogance of Man with idealist conceptions of justice and destiny—as it is a fascinating piece of Gothic literature. And yet, when it was first published, anonymously (though with a dedication to William Goldwin and a preface that led some to think it was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s work), it was widely disparaged by critics. The public, however, loved it.
Within five years the book was reissued and in 1831 it was published with some amendments as part of the selection of Standard Novels: Frankenstein was well on the way to becoming immortal. The fact that it was Mary, and not Byron or Shelley, who succeeded in transforming the atmosphere, the thrilling emotions of that vacation, but also the intellectual context of her age, into a piece of literature that has transcended time is not entirely coincidental—and it certainly isn’t inconsequential. Mary Godwin Shelley was not an ordinary woman with an ordinary education (then again neither were Byron or Percy Shelley) but her triumph, which was not reduced to Frankenstein alone as she remained a prolific writer until well into the 1840s, provided a poignant boost to the changing attitude towards the role of women in society in the 19th century. That is the true legacy of a remarkable summer holiday—that, and Karloff’s unforgettable square-faced impersonation, of course.