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During the wet summer of 1816 in the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, a group of five friends began reading ghost tales from a book to amuse themselves through the drear, ungenial days that met them with incessant rain. It sounds rather unimpressive, but when those friends are actually some of the greatest literary minds in the history of English literature, something is certain to start brewing.
The exiled Lord Byron, creator of such mind-blowing works as Childe Harold, and his doctor, John Polidori, had been visited by budding poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (author of Queen Mab) and his wife, Mary, who was accompanied by her stepsister, Jane 'Claire' Claremont. When Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story to rival that of the book of ghost tales, little did the friends know that only two would complete their stories. The most unlikely of them all would produce a work that would echo in eternity for its chilling Gothic nature and black satire upon human creativity.
Born the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin on 30 August 1797, Mary Shelley was destined for a good literary background. Her parents shaped the ideals of the revolutionary left wing, and published several texts about it, namely Godwin's An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. However, it was when 16-year-old Mary eloped with Godwin's young friend, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, that she was to enter the history books. It was during the Shelleys' stay with Lord Byron at Lake Geneva that she conceived Frankenstein at the age of 18. The original preface was written by her husband, and many originally thought that it was Percy Bysshe Shelley who had written the story. However, the novel was an instant hit, and Mary Shelley was soon recognised as the talented young writer who had created the dark creature within it.
After Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a boating accident off the Bay of Spezia, Mary returned to England with her sole surviving child, Percy Florence, vowing never to marry again. Her following novels were never as successful as Frankenstein, but she continued to write articles for various magazines, though becoming an invalid. She died of a brain tumour at 53 on 1 February, 1851, and was buried in St Peter's Churchyard, Bournemouth.
'We will each write a ghost story...'
In the evenings Byron, Shelley, Polidori, Mary and Claire would often meet by the fire, and translate German ghost stories into English. However, when that began to get tedious, it was Lord Byron who came up with an idea that would take the literary world by storm. 'We will each write a ghost story,' he challenged them. They all accepted his proposal, and the days were spent trying to think of something to write about.
Byron began a story about a charming aristocrat vampire circulating in the top social circles, but soon gave up on it, publishing its fragments at the end of his poem, Mazeppa. Percy Bysshe Shelley looked to his early life for inspiration, but soon grew bored of the challenge. Polidori apparently had an idea involving a skull-headed lady, but lack of development sealed the story to an early death1. Claire took no part in the story-writing.
Mary Shelley, on the other hand, was determined to show the others that she could write a story. She listened with great interest to the conversations between Byron and Shelley. One time, they were discussing ardently the experiments of the scientist, Dr Darwin:
...who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion...
- from Mary Shelley's explanation on how she came up with Frankenstein
The two poets spoke about raising the dead, animating corpses, and other macabre ideas. Mary Shelley listened on intently. It was some time past midnight when they all retired to bed. But Mary did not sleep comfortably.
She dreamt of a hideous body created from various body parts that slowly came into life as a powerful engine began to animate the being. She saw the creator of this grotesque incarnation, sleeping in his bed, and waking up as a terrifying creature opens the curtains around him, staring over him with yellow watery eyes.
Awaking with a jolt, it had come to her. The next day, she announced to the others that she had thought of a story.
The original story that Mary wrote was merely a skeleton of the events in her dream, but Percy Bysshe Shelley encouraged her to develop it more. Soon, Mary Shelley had completed her monstrous progeny, naming it after the character who would create a being so repulsive and shocking to behold - Frankenstein.
Frankenstein2 is a Gothic exploration of the woes of human creativity. It is told through the letters of Robert Walton, the skipper of a ship exploring the cold north near Scandinavia and Russia, to his sister Margaret back home in England. The letters seem quite innocent, with longings for home from Walton but knowledge that he must finish his work at sea before he can think of returning.
However, the homely letters soon turn on their head.
When Walton's ship comes across a terribly ill and emaciated man in a makeshift rowing boat floating alone in the ice-cold sea, the crew of the ship immediately pull the poor man on board. Half-dead with cold, the man reveals himself to be Victor Frankenstein, a student of chemistry who originally came from Geneva. When questioned by Walton, who is at the same time recounting the events in his letters to his sister, Frankenstein begs his benefactor to listen to every word that he is about to say, and understand his plight of eternal damnation. Walton, though thinking that Frankenstein is probably a raving lunatic, agrees to hear the man out.
Victor Frankenstein is a student of the university of Ingolstadt, taking a course in natural philosophy, specifically showing an interest in chemistry and the principle of life itself. He then engages in a dangerous fascination with the creation of life. By taking various body parts from local charnel houses, Frankenstein begins a grotesque experiment to endow this new creature with life. However, when the experiment is completed, Frankenstein is overwhelmed with shock and fear that he abandons the creature who he had created.
However, as can be imagined - all is not well.
The creature, known only as 'the Monster', or words to that effect, has another idea in mind. Abandoned by his creator, the Monster leaves Frankenstein's laboratory in Ingolstadt to find the whereabouts of his creator across the wild paths and forests of Europe, travelling to Frankenstein's home in Geneva, all the way to the north of Scotland in search of the one who gave him life and shunned him. We learn that all the Monster wants, after his touches with humanity around Europe (which were less than amiable, judging by the number of murders that the Monster leaves in his wake), is for Frankenstein to create a female for him. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is repulsed by his creation, and refuses.
This leaves them with one answer.
To be truly free of the other's hatred, one of them must die at the hands of the other.
Wrongly assumed as the name for the Monster, Frankenstein is in fact the creator of the monster. Born in Naples and bred in Geneva into a respected and well-connected family, Frankenstein was given the best of the best to ensure a good and happy future. He excelled at school and was soon offered a scholarship to study natural philosophy at the university of Ingolstadt at the age of 17.
Sad to leave his family, especially his adopted sister, Elizabeth, and his best friend Henry Clerval, Frankenstein travels to Ingolstadt where he develops a profound interest in chemistry, reading the works of Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus, even though those philosophies were considered to be nothing more than flights of fancy by his lecturers.
Unfortunately, Frankenstein has an unhealthy obsession with the creation of life itself, and soon starts a collection of human body parts that he collects nightly from the local charnel houses in his home laboratory. Undeterred by the ethical arguments against what he is doing3, Frankenstein sets the ball in motion for him to endow a non-living object that has been sewn together meticulously with life through the means of electricity.
It would be safe to say by Frankenstein's reaction that he was not expecting it to work.
Fleeing Ingolstadt, Frankenstein sets himself on a pilgrimage to clear his mind as he travels back to Geneva, much the worse for wear. However, when he returns home, tragedy strikes when his young cousin is murdered and a local girl is condemned by one bit of evidence, despite her meek background and history. Little does he know that the events in Ingolstadt are catching up with him.
Travelling as far as the north of Scotland, and even further into the cold north, Frankenstein is trying to find his salvation, despite being a selfish character himself. He wants nothing to do with a creature whom he created, who is effectively innocent of his appearance and entrance into the living world, and yet still loves his family, even though it is his creation which is destroying his life in vengeance of the destruction of his own.
Given no specific name (apart from several derogatory ones) by Frankenstein, 'the Monster' is the result of Frankenstein's toils one 'dreary night of November'. Brought to life by electricity, the Monster begins life devoid of knowledge of the things around him. However, unlike a newborn baby, the Monster learns quickly, and he learns that the person who created him abandoned him at 'birth'. Therefore, the Monster thinks that the most logical thing to do is to find this person.
Over hill and under dale, through extreme weather and wild shelter, the Monster travels all over Europe looking for Frankenstein, learning more and more about the human race as he does so. Everywhere he goes he is shunned by humanity, chased by farmers with pitchforks, shot at, shouted at, and experiencing the cruelty of humans because of his bestial appearance. The Monster survives by the skin of his rotting teeth, and settles near a farm, where he learns how to speak and read, eventually becoming a very eloquent speaker despite the grotesqueness of his exterior.
On the other hand, the Monster is looking for a reason. Why was he created, and then, why was he abandoned? He has life, he has feelings... and the feelings towards Frankenstein are not very friendly. Upon arrival in Geneva, the Monster begins his destruction of Frankenstein's happy family life by murdering his cousin and causing an innocent girl to be hanged for it.
Bit by bit, Frankenstein's family and friends are disposed of, until all that is left is to face his creator. If Frankenstein is unable to create a female to accompany the Monster, then the consequences for the chemistry student are very dire indeed.
Adopted into the Frankenstein family when she was a toddler, Elizabeth Lavenza is Frankenstein's favourite companion. She was originally the daughter of a Milanese gentleman and a German woman, but her mother had died in birth, and she was found in a house of a peasant and his wife. The Frankensteins adopted her, and Elizabeth grew up in better circumstances than what she was destined for in the peasant house.
Having been Victor Frankenstein's favourite 'sister', it was expected that the two would marry due to their closeness. There is nothing in the world that Frankenstein adores more than Elizabeth, who is loved by all because of her sunny radiance wherever she goes.
However, Elizabeth is a very sickly girl, suffering from scarlet fever upon Frankenstein's departure to Ingolstadt, and has a very delicate body and complexion. If anything were to happen to Elizabeth, Frankenstein would be destroyed completely.
Henry Clerval is Frankenstein's best friend. The son of a Genevese merchant, Clerval is a thrill-seeker, loving the stories of chivalry and romance and often composed songs of heroism and pieces of poetry to pass the time.
Clerval thinks that the world is a dream waiting to be created, but knows when to put his foot down in reality. He is another constant companion of Frankenstein, and travels with him to Scotland when the student is looking rather low in spirits and ill in body, and soon discovers why during their stay in a stone cottage upon the north coast of Scotland.
Robert Walton is the eventual narrator of Frankenstein's tale, recounting the events in his letters to his sister in London. The captain of a ship on an exploration of the north, Walton discovers Frankenstein in a small boat, floating on the icy sea, and takes him aboard his ship. There he learns about Frankenstein's problems, and other than the creator himself, is the only other person who knows about the existence of the Monster.
Frankenstein has often been put to film and television as a plain monster tale, when its rightful place should be under pure Gothic horror. Mary Shelley's vivid descriptions of Frankenstein's nightmares that involve him embracing decomposing corpses and the grotesque appearance of the Monster himself are enough to put anybody off their food4, and yet it still remains one of the most popular novels in literature, an allegory of how humans trying to play God just winds up in nothing more than tragedy for both sides.