Friday, August 28, 2009

On corpses, body parts, and poets

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in London in 1797, the child of writer William Godwin and the well-known feminist educator and writer Mary Wollstonecraft.

In 1814, Mary Godwin began a romantic relationship with the very dashing (and very married) Percy Shelley, a poet of the Romantic persuasion. They married in 1816 following the suicide of Shelley's wife.

That same year, the couple spent the summer with the poet Lord Byron in Geneva, along with John Willim Polidori and Mary's older half-sister Claire Clairmont. Claire was pregnant at the time with Byron's child.

Though she and Shelley would not marry until later in the year, Mary was already calling herself Mrs. Shelley. The friends spent their time writing, boating on Lake Geneva, and talking late into the night.

It rained a lot that summer and they found themselves confined inside, mostly at Byron's villa. During this time, the writers talked about many things, but one night the conversation turned to the supernatural. They talked of the poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter. They talked of "galvanism" and debated the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life. OoooooooEEEEEooooooo....

They began to amuse themselves by reading German ghost stories. Then Byron suggested they each write their own supernatural story, as a sort of competition. And so they did just that.

Later, Mary said the concept for her short story came to her in a kind of "waking dream":

"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, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."

Mary's story won the friendly competition. In fact, Percy thought it was so good he encouraged her to develop the short story into a full novel, which she did.

Thus, in the summer of 1816, conjured up in the mind of an 18-year-old girl, the story of Frankenstein was born. Or shall we say "re-animated."

So, the many movies that scared us as children in theaters and on television over the years of the dreadful monster Frankenstein (actually the monster had no name) turns out to be classic literature.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The monster is closing in on 200 years old this summer.

[Thank you to Stephanie B for the sort of idea for this post. At least for making me think of Lord Byron.]
I recommend you the the dark gothic art of New Zealand artist Sarah Dolby.


  1. When I was in college, I took a class (which could count as a humanities OR a physics credit) called Physics in Fiction, which was watching how science influenced literature and vice versa. Oddly enough, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus was the first book.

    You want to know what struck me? The monster is easily the most wonderful individual in the whole book. Patient, tolerant, desperate for affection from the only parent he knew, all violence he committed was only after untold efforts to find love, to end his complete isolation - only to meet with revulsion and hatred.

    He never asked to be born. He cannot help his appearance (someone else's doing) and no one could ask for a more devoted student or one more appreciative of even the least kindness. If only he'd received any.

    And it kills me that I can't help but feel that Mary W. Shelley missed the point that the creature was actually a fine person, so consumed with what instead of who he was.

    Ironic, isn't it?

  2. I particularly like Shelley's Ode to the West Wind. :) He was born not far from here, you know.

    Talking about monsters, I was reading a book about a book about Dracula recently. I find it intriguing when a work of fiction passes into a continuum of literature and is referenced in later works. How long does that take, I wonder? Dracula the story is younger than Frankenstein, only just over 100 years old. Vlad the Impaler was a trifle older.

  3. Thanks Stephanie B, for being the first person I can remember ever articulating that thought.
    On reading the book, as a teenager, grappling with the archaic phrasing, it was always my thought too, that the creature- (in the book, less of a monster than the cinematographersmade him), was really more of a lost toddler in a powerful body, his rages and wants and needs were those of an infant, and I'm sure Mary modelled him on the children of her friends.
    All the evil in the book comes from the humans, the lust for power and recognition from the Doctor, the unreasoning hate of the different, of the unknown, from the villagers.

    For those who have only Hollywood's version of the story in their minds, you can find the whole text in several places on the web, such as here:-

    Give the real story a chance, read Mary's preamble, and I'll tell you, it beats all those modern blockbusters by such luminaries as Tom Clancy and Dan Brown into a pathetic pulp.

  4. You weren't of the GCSE generation then, Soubriquet. Frankenstein is studied in some of the English courses and the monster's "remarkable sensitivity and benevolence" is stressed there.

  5. Mary Shelley was a teenage mother, unmarried, and the baby died within weeks. She was not quite 19 and expecting her second child when she wrote the story. Quite an achievement.

  6. They also say that the death of Mary's child was another catalyst for the story. Mary's mother had a fascinating and tragic life too.

  7. @Stephanie B - A very interesting thought. But the author MUST have seen that since she wrote it that way. The creature was in reality HER creation, not the doctor character, and she chose to make him a sympathetic character to her readers.

    Obviously she saw the creature as the epitome of persecution and continuing physical pain, hence the subtitle of the novel. But perhaps you are right. An interesting thought.

    I have always wondered about something entirely different: If the creature were indeed a Prometheus allegory, then where was his deliverer? No Hercules to be found in this story. Not fair! Not fair! No redemption. Not even vindication. I am one of many readers over the ages who had hoped for a different ending to the novel and left more than a little empty at the non-resolution.

    But she WAS a teenager. I will cut her some slack. :)

  8. @A. - I have tried to force-feed myself some of the romantic poets, with considerably less success than you've had. I generally prefer my poets Irish and drunk, but I respect your soft spot for terza rima. And there's no denying ol Percy's greatness in the eyes of other poets, and they should know, right? Had he not died at age 29 he might have supplanted Shakespeare. Perhaps not. :) But his friends died young too. John Keats died at age 25 and the rather unusual aforementioned Lord Byron at age 36. Perhaps it was something in the water.

    On the other hand, Dylan Thomas, my favorite hard-drinking WELSH poet, made it to the ripe old age of 39 and 13 days before his abused liver finally imploded. You wouldn't have caught HIM drinking the water!

  9. @A. - I am too gorged on spaghetti right now to talk about Vlad the impaler, if you don't mind. But your Dracula point is bloody well taken. Har!

  10. @Soubriquet - I am starting to believe there is something to what you say. I didn't study that book in school, though some of my classmates chose it (we were given a list of 5 and I chose "To Kill a Mockingbird" which was hardly classic literature and I don't know why it was on the list of 5. So I read Mary Shelly much later. Of course, TKAMB had a couple of innocent and unfairly put-upon characters in it too. Not quite the same, I guess. Thank you for your interesting comment.

  11. @Sheila - I don't necessarily think that being pregnant for the second time at age 19 is all that great an achievement. Oh. You mean the book. I see. Yes, indeed. She spent most of her life plugging Percy's poetry, you know. :)

    @Alison - The story is the premature infant died during the night while sleeping with its mother. She said by its appearance it had died of convulsions. I'm not quite sure what she meant, except that its features were probably distorted. My vote is she squashed it. Can we be honest here? - Mary Shelly was a loon.

    I will look into her mothers life. God, Alison. Do I dare? I don't trust you... :)

  12. I don't think I can take credit for force-feeding of romantic poets. However I will take your implied criticism with sang froid.

  13. The impression I read from the phrasing and terminology in the book was that the "evil" stemmed from was Frankenstein (the doctor) playing god and making his creature evil regardless of the creature's actual actions. In my opinion, it was the abandonment of the creature and the callous treatment by all for him that provided the real evil, not the creation itself. I can't say what was in Mary's mind, but I had the overwhelming impression we disagreed on this point.

    I'm pleased to see that classes discuss the understanding and inherent humanity of the creature (as opposed to dismissing him as evil), but I'm not convinced that Mary Shelley shared that thinking. The notion that man taking upon himself to defy nature leads to evil was part and parcel of Romantic philosophy at the time.

    I have a soft spot for Keats lyrical work, recognize the beauty of much of Shelley's work (if I don't always agree with him) and tend to think Byron is overrated.



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