The story of how Frankenstein was born is well known, and largely relies on the account given by Mary Shelley in her preface to the 1831 edition to her novel. She and her (soon-to-be) husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were summering on the shores of Lake Geneva and close by Lord Byron and his personal physician John Polidori. It was 1816 – the so-called “year without a summer” and the inclement weather kept the party indoors, reading ghost stories as a pastime.
In one of the most famous propositions in literary history, Lord Byron suggested that each of them should try their hand at writing a supernatural tale. Ironically, it was the two novice writers, Mary Shelley and Polidori, whose works have endured. Almost out of nothing, the pair invented modern horror. Polidori’s story, The Vampyre, would inspire Bram Stoker 80 years later to write Dracula, while the 18-year-old Shelley wrote Frankenstein – which also has a good claim to be the first science fiction novel.
The book the Shelleys, Byron, and Polidori were reading during their trip was called Fantasmagoriana. It was an anthology of eight stories of the supernatural published in Paris in 1812 but translated from the German. No indication of authors or of original sources was given and readers were invited to think of stories as of embellished versions of real supernatural cases. The title joyfully played with this ambiguity, evoking the kind of shows, popular at the time, which were known as phantasmagorias.
Based on the magic lantern (an ancestor of cinema), these shows enabled audiences to see ghosts floating in the air, devils appearing and disappearing, young girls transforming into skeletons. In the end, the impresario came upon the stage, explaining it was all a trick. But in Paris, around 1798-99, such shows had been briefly shut down by the police, when rumours had spread that the phantasmagoria could bring the king, Louis XVI, back from the dead. The book read by our holidaying writers proposed a similar gallery of horrors. As Mary Shelley recalled:
There was the History of the Inconstant Lover, who […] found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of his race, whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house […] he advanced to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep.
It’s worth looking into the influence of such stories on Frankenstein. At some point in Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein dreams to hold in his arms the “pale ghost” of his bride to be, which may remind us of the story Shelley referred to as History of the Inconstant Lover (in truth, La Morte Fiancée or The Corpse Bride, by Friedrich August Schulze).
Frankenstein’s “Creature” is a gigantic being who causes the extermination of an entire family – a plot device that may have been inspired by what she calls “tale of the sinful founder of his race” who “bestows the kiss of death” on his descendants (actually a story called Le Portraits de Famille – or The Family Portraits, by Johann August Apel).
But if we read Frankenstein with Fantasmagoriana in mind, we see that the influence of those stories is definitely more profound than a simple inspiration.
While trying to describe in the preface to the book: “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea,” Shelley describes her mental processes as a phantasmagorical show. Imagination, in her words, is a screen onto which stories project impressions. At night, in her bed, Shelley sees “with shut eyes, but acute mental vision” the central scene of her novel to be – the idea of the novel comes first as an image, not as a plot.
It is an image she knows perfectly not to be true – but which is nonetheless frightening: like the ghosts of phantasmagoria shows or of Fantasmagoriana, which were explained to be tricks of the mind, but still left the imperceptible feeling of the uncanny. In Les Portrais de Famille, Shelley read of a ghost “advanc(ing) to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep” – half asleep she imagines a man in bed, beholding “the horrid thing” he created “stand(ing) at his bedside, opening his curtains”. The story read, in other words, mirrors and anticipates the story to be written.
At her bedside, Shelley too is visited by a ghost – in this case, the ghost of the novel:
On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.
On January 17 1803, a young man named George Forster was hanged for murder at Newgate prison in London. After his execution, as often happened, his body was carried ceremoniously across the city to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it would be publicly dissected. What actually happened was rather more shocking than simple dissection though. Forster was going to be electrified.
The experiments were to be carried out by the Italian natural philosopher Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, who discovered “animal electricity” in 1780, and for whom the field of galvanism is named. With Forster on the slab before him, Aldini and his assistants started to experiment. The Times newspaper reported:
On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.
It looked to some spectators “as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”
By the time Aldini was experimenting on Forster the idea that there was some peculiarly intimate relationship between electricity and the processes of life was at least a century old. Isaac Newton speculated along such lines in the early 1700s. In 1730, the English astronomer and dyer Stephen Gray demonstrated the principle of electrical conductivity. Gray suspended an orphan boy on silk cords in mid air, and placed a positively charged tube near the boy’s feet, creating a negative charge in them. Due to his electrical isolation, this created a positive charge in the child’s other extremities, causing a nearby dish of gold leaf to be attracted to his fingers.
In France in 1746 Jean Antoine Nollet entertained the court at Versailles by causing a company of 180 royal guardsmen to jump simultaneously when the charge from a Leyden jar (an electrical storage device) passed through their bodies.
It was to defend his uncle’s theories against the attacks of opponents such as Alessandro Volta that Aldini carried out his experiments on Forster. Volta claimed that “animal” electricity was produced by the contact of metals rather than being a property of living tissue, but there were several other natural philosophers who took up Galvani’s ideas with enthusiasm. Alexander von Humboldt experimented with batteries made entirely from animal tissue. Johannes Ritter even carried out electrical experiments on himself to explore how electricity affected the sensations.
The idea that electricity really was the stuff of life and that it might be used to bring back the dead was certainly a familiar one in the kinds of circles in which the young Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – the author of Frankenstein – moved. The English poet, and family friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fascinated by the connections between electricity and life. Writing to his friend the chemist Humphry Davy after hearing that he was giving lectures at the Royal Institution in London, he told him how his “motive muscles tingled and contracted at the news, as if you had bared them and were zincifying the life-mocking fibres”. Percy Bysshe Shelley himself – who would become Wollstonecraft’s husband in 1816 – was another enthusiast for galvanic experimentation.
Aldini’s experiments with the dead attracted considerable attention. Some commentators poked fun at the idea that electricity could restore life, laughing at the thought that Aldini could “make dead people cut droll capers”. Others took the idea very seriously. Lecturer Charles Wilkinson, who assisted Aldini in his experiments, argued that galvanism was “an energising principle, which forms the line of distinction between matter and spirit, constituting in the great chain of the creation, the intervening link between corporeal substance and the essence of vitality”.
In 1814 the English surgeon John Abernethy made much the same sort of claim in the annual Hunterian lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons. His lecture sparked a violent debate with fellow surgeon William Lawrence. Abernethy claimed that electricity was (or was like) the vital force while Lawrence denied that there was any need to invoke a vital force at all to explain the processes of life. Both Mary and Percy Shelley certainly knew about this debate – Lawrence was their doctor.
By the time Frankenstein was published in 1818, its readers would have been familiar with the notion that life could be created or restored with electricity. Just a few months after the book appeared, the Scottish chemist Andrew Ure carried out his own electrical experiments on the body of Matthew Clydesdale, who had been executed for murder. When the dead man was electrified, Ure wrote, “every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face”.
Ure reported that the experiments were so gruesome that “several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment, and one gentleman fainted”. It is tempting to speculate about the degree to which Ure had Mary Shelley’s recent novel in mind as he carried out his experiments. His own account of them was certainly quite deliberately written to highlight their more lurid elements.
Frankenstein might look like fantasy to modern eyes, but to its author and original readers there was nothing fantastic about it. Just as everyone knows about artificial intelligence now, so Shelley’s readers knew about the possibilities of electrical life. And just as artificial intelligence (AI) invokes a range of responses and arguments now, so did the prospect of electrical life – and Shelley’s novel – then.
The science behind Frankenstein reminds us that current debates have a long history – and that in many ways the terms of our debates now are determined by it. It was during the 19th century that people started thinking about the future as a different country, made out of science and technology. Novels such as Frankenstein, in which authors made their future out of the ingredients of their present, were an important element in that new way of thinking about tomorrow.
Thinking about the science that made Frankenstein seem so real in 1818 might help us consider more carefully the ways we think now about the possibilities – and the dangers – of our present futures.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was published anonymously 200 years ago in January, 1818. It has since become the most analysed and contested novel of all time.
It is cited today in debates on the ethics of scientific progress. The “Frankenstein effect” has become synonymous with questionable advances in genetics, in vitro fertilisation and artificial intelligence, evoking the spectre of dangerous science. It has become an example of what goes wrong when science goes too far.
When we return to Frankenstein’s origins, however, we uncover a different story. As Shelley was later to document, the story was forged during the Summer of 1816 in debates that took place between herself, her partner (later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and John Polidori at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva.
There, she records, the group was debating the arguments of poet and chemist Sir Humphry Davy and discussed “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated”.
Shelley had accompanied her father William Godwin to hear Davy give his lectures on chemistry at the Royal Institution in 1812, and later, in 1816, she read his Elements of Chemical Philosophy as she was composing Frankenstein.
Davy’s account of science was mesmerising for the sheer excitement that it conveyed: “Science has … bestowed upon [man] powers which may be called almost creative,” he declared. Frankenstein, drawing upon the scientific advancements of its age, Erasmus Darwin’s early theory of evolutionary development in the 1790s, vitality, galvanism and Davy’s quest to determine the “hidden origins” of nature, partakes of the fascination and anxiety about scientific progress. But it is wrong to read the novel as being straightforwardly sceptical of scientific advancement.
‘A torrent of light’
Victor Frankenstein’s aims in creating new life are, after all, commendable. Reflecting the mixed aspirations of his mythological counterpart Prometheus, Frankenstein wishes to “pour a torrent of light into our dark world” and in so doing “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption”. He seeks to eradicate diseases which corrupt the human frame before its time.
These are not bad ambitions. But it is the way in which he pursues nature to “her hiding places” that makes his quest so fatal. Ventriloquising Shelley’s views, Frankenstein later observes that:
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule.
Knowledge, Shelley argued, should always be pursued in tranquillity; creation should always be the intellectual fruit of a “peaceful mind”.
The words that Frankenstein utters can be read, too, as an expression of Shelley’s approach to authorship. Much has been made of her comparative youth when she wrote Frankenstein. The novel was begun when she was 18.
Despite the fact that Matthew Gregory Lewis, known to both Shelleys, published his own Gothic tale – The Monk (1796) – at the age of 21, some ask how such a young woman could have composed Frankenstein, and falsely ascribe authorship to Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Sir Walter Scott, reviewing Frankenstein for Blackwood’s Magazine, was the first to commit this error, commenting that it “is said to be written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, if we are rightly informed, is son-in-law to Mr Godwin”.
Shelley’s response to Scott’s review of her novel was swift. Writing to Scott on June 14, 1818, she pointed out his error, noting, “I am anxious to prevent your continuing in the mistake of supposing Mr Shelley guilty of a juvenile attempt of mine.”
Shelley’s response to Scott’s mistake was decisive in her assertion of authorship. Her journal further illustrates the intensive work that she invested in her manuscript.
Percy Bysshe Shelley may have edited her work, but this was the gesture of one who wished to support and encourage another’s authorial career. Frankenstein was the first in a line of seven novels by Shelley that she published across three decades.
It may be the one for which we now celebrate Shelley, but all of her works reveal an assertion of women’s rights to create as authors and artists, associating these rights with a calm pursuit of knowledge. Shelley, author of Frankenstein, cautious supporter of scientific advancement, was much, much more than the sum of the parts of her first monster.
According to popular understanding, New Year’s Day 2018 belongs to the 68 years since the dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch – where human activity has so dramatically altered the Earth that natural phenomenon is now human phenomenon. Science fiction and fact, indeed all fiction and fact, are persistently mediated by humans. The effects of this blurring show that the role of fictional art (art that is fantasy) is as impactful as ever – perhaps more so, due to its ability to remind us that humans are capable of so much, but are less attentive to our culpability.
Humans now set the trajectory for the current epoch, yet we have little idea how that trajectory will look. We are active, able, creative agents in the world – the makers of the world. And we remain absolutely without a clue as to why we are, or what we are. Whether religious, secular or ecologically concerned, we are still chaotic accidents of organisms who ask the same questions as in other epochs and are responded to with the same resounding silence: why are we here? What are we? What is our purpose?
Increasingly, the value of humans is being questioned in the Anthropocene Epoch – an era which seems to threaten disaster as much it promises longer and better life. Two centuries ago one of the earliest examples of science fiction appeared on New Year’s Day that also asked these questions. Mary Shelley – a political radical, the daughter of the world’s most famous feminist and the wife of an infamous atheist – published Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus.
Even in the title we see that Shelley understood the persistence of the above questions that each age jealously feels belongs only to their particular existential crisis.
In Shelley’s frontpiece quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Adam laments being created, Shelley immediately reminds us that there is a persistent tension in all tales of human existence between a creator who has the ability, but perhaps not the wisdom, to be accountable and responsible for their acts of creation – and a subject who knows not what to do with the life and knowledge they have been given without their consent or request.
Shelley invoked a monster filled with pathos, humble curiosity and ultimately despair – and a creator whose hubris elucidated him as lacking in empathy, megalomaniacal and whose pride was more important than its effect on other living beings.
While one could say the same of every age, the Anthropocene Epoch seems to be performing Shelley’s tale on a global scale – where a single monster is now many species of non-human, or minorities and oppressed humans. The creator, meanwhile, is governments, nation-driven patriots and multinational companies, much like Shelley’s overweening creator, Dr Frankenstein.
Horror made flesh
Shelley’s Frankenstein legacy has a surprisingly unique offshoot. It spawned, due to the creative genius of the famed make-up artist Jack Pierce, a reimagining of a literary character so different from the original that it has entirely replaced it to become a concrete icon of horror – the monster as incarnated by Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) and the more faithful (to the book at least) adaptation, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
While the book had already inspired one of the earliest horror cinema adaptations (the 1910 Charles Ogle film), James Whale’s 1931 film for Universal Pictures was the point which reversed the monster with the creator as the most important locus of the story, so turning it from tale to myth. The shift from focus on the God complex of Frankenstein to the wretched existence of the unloved monster marks a moment of humble self-reflection for audiences who identify more with a pieced together, almost mute, bumbling mass of flesh who simply seeks a “friend”, than with the irresponsibly power-mad scientist.
Perhaps reflecting humans’ focus from their maker (whatever that may be) to themselves, the spectacle of Karloff – placed gnarled, deformed and doubtful of the relevance of his existence after the first world war and heralding the imminent concerns of Sartre’s existentialism – is life meaningful? Are we hear for a reason? Do these questions matter? – evoked the dread and ugliness of a meaningless existence at the intersection of biology and technology made flesh.
Cinematically we have not seen a return to the Gothic Shelley adaptation. Recent versions seem twee compared to Hammer’s 1950-70s viscerality – and the sci-fi robot or genetic creation has overtaken Victorian aesthetics. Sleeker, stronger creations of more metal and less flesh allay our horror at simply being a cluster of mortal cells.
While vampires, werewolves and even zombies are sparkly, sexy and utterly hygienic, it has been a while since we have had a truly corporeally flawed yet articulate monster whose body as a patchwork reminds us of the patchwork of identities and ideologies we are.
Empathy with the monster may be an ideal means of navigating this age. We must embrace difference and vulnerability and reflect on the Frankensteinian powers we exert at the expense of others. We should focus not on why we are here, but how we can be here more creatively, more accountably – as part of a world which, in a way, is its own kind of sewn-together organism of multiple different parts without reason or meaning.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Frankenstein,’ by Mary Shelley.
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