There are several books whose history, or influence, I think are more interesting than the actual book. (One of these I am in the process of reading. It is actually so boring that it keeps putting me to sleep, yet it had profound, powerful, even sinister influence at its time and in the generation after it, but that’s another post.)
This post is about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That means the actual book, not the movies, cartoons, comics, etc.
One of the first signs that someone has mistaken the movie for the book is thinking that the monster is called Frankenstein, a Germanic name that evokes stone and lightning and evil organ music, especially if you say it with a Colonel Klink guttural roll of the r-r-r and give the st the German sht pronunciation.
Once I actually sat down to read this novel, which I had avoided all my early years (not liking horror or monsters) I thought: one, this isn’t as terrifying as it is weird, and second, the story about the novel is way better than the actual novel. The people concerned in its creation are way more complex and fascinating than Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s hapless creation.
It came about the summer that was no summer, when Lord Byron, the Shelleys, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister, went off to Switzerland for an outing. Claire (who kept reinventing herself, starting life as Mary Jane, then Clara, then Clary, and finally settling on Claire before the last name that her mother had made up to hide her daughter’s illegitimacy) became Mary Shelley’s step-sister when the latter’s father, William Godwin, married Claire’s mother. (Mary’s mother having been the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died far too young.)
The two girls were sometimes friends and allies, sometimes rivals, for Claire, though not as scholarly as Mary, had a stronger hunger for fame. And if she couldn’t get it for her music or acting or writing, she would get it by being close to famous poets. As close as she could get.
At the ripe old age of seventeen she threw herself at Byron, who gave in twice–and regretted it for the rest of his life. The result was a child named Allegra, followed by Claire’s indefatigable attempts to be part of his life. But at the time Mary invented the story that became the famous novel, Allegra was yet to make her presence known.
The planned trip to the beauties of the Alps for creative inspiration was partly spoiled by tension between Byron and Claire, who had invited herself along by promising to make herself useful. Another annoyance was Byron’s personal physician at the time, John William Polidori, who apparently shared Claire’s crush on Byron. Polidori and Claire both wanted more of Byron’s personal time than he had to give. The group treated Polidori abominably. (He got his revenge by taking the novel fragment that Byron wrote and abandoned, and turning it into The Vampyre–which was the first famous bloodsucker novel.)
But the other thing that spoiled the party was the weather. Nobody could know that a volcano blast on the other side of the world caused this particular summer to feel more like winter.
So instead of rambling among the glories of nature, the party was shut in, and–being a bunch of creative types–they turned to storytelling. When not telling each other these stories, Mary and Claire tag-teamed fair copy of Byron’s emerging poem, Childe Harold, which meant there was a lot of slipping of papers under various doors, either poetry or notes.
It is difficult to say how much help Shelley gave Mary in getting the novel written and prepped for publication. In those days there weren’t professional fiction editors in the sense we understand them now. In any case, Shelley was a poet, not a novelist. He didn’t have any better sense of novelistic structure than Mary.
The story opens with a double frame, that is, one set of letters concerning another set of letters. The purpose of one frame seems obvious–the idea was to create a realistic sense of immediacy and scientific verisimilitude, augmented by what the poets all believed to be super high tech: the use of electrical impulse to “galvanize” dead tissue to life. That was combined with the flavor of the popular, deliciously horrific German ghost tale.
But the frames are clumsy, taking forever to get the story going. Then, when we finally get to the monster, the reader is left with a murky sense of what? We’re given to know that he’s far taller than natural human beings, and that he’s fitted together from bits of bodies, which is where we get the stitched skin. But did Victor Frankenstein also manage to connect the veins and arteries, the nerves and muscles and bones of all these different individuals? If the monster is eight feet tall, and he’s made up of normal people’s bones, where did Dr. Frankenstein get that added height? If the Monster doesn’t remember his original brain’s owner, then how was he able to read Paradise Lost?
The thrill at the time was the evocative emotion of horror, the sense that science was getting ahead of how people understood the mysteries of life. Victor Frankenstein did not set out to be a villain, but he grows more horrified at what he has wrought until he cannot bear to look upon his creation. The monster looks to his creator, and sees that horror, and asks hard questions that get no real answer.
Gradually the reader gets the sense that the hero of this tale is the monster, and that his rampage is an act of frustration and alienation after he is denied a mate. Thereafter we get the villagers, the nonsensical locket murder mystery, the multi-cultural marriage tragedy, the Innocent Little Girl, the bride on her wedding night getting a big surprise–all staples of the Gothic Drama.
After that comes an ending that feels totally tacked on, almost from another book.
Even if the plot makes little sense when laid out, the emotional horror, and the questions about life, morals, and ethics, retain an echo of the power readers felt at the time.
The edition that Mary Shelley put out herself has a forward about how the novel came to be written, though it’s impossible to say how much of it is truth and how much part of Mary’s lifelong reinvention of Shelley as the angelic poet too good for this earth. That edition, the one we usually see, was heavily rewritten not only to fix some of the problems but to make it more acceptable to Victorian society. The original 1818 version (published anonymously) is harder to find, but interesting even in its flaws.
Mary went on to write a lot more novels–including science fiction–as well as plays. And she dedicated herself to making sure that Shelley and his work would not be forgotten, as did Shelley’s son and wife.
Claire’s diaries are a fascinating look at the Regency world from a different perspective than the lords and ladies of Georgette Heyer’s haut ton. Early on, Shelley and the two teenagers, Mary and Claire, cross Europe in the wake of Napoleon. Claire and the other two seem blithely unaware of the devastation of war and politics–Claire comments on how rundown, dilapidated, and dirty everything is. She also gets her nose out of joint that the poets fussed so much over Mary’s novel and not her Rousseauian tale of a girl raised in the wild, meant to be a castigation of society–from the learned perspective of eighteen years old. It apparently bored Byron, Mary, and Shelley so much that nobody got much past the beginning.
After Shelley’s death, Claire ended up having to earn her own living, working as a governess in Germany, and then Russia. She kept a journal, and wrote a lot of letters. Even if her music, acting, and writing never scored a notch in the world of letters, her journals and letters make terrific reading. The vivid picture she presents of Russia around the time of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is especially fascinating.
They were such fascinating people I like to imagine them in an alternate universe, where they all lived long and creative lives, and Mary, after attaining the wisdom of middle age, rewrote Frankenstein from the monster’s point of view, taking a hard look at what humanity really is, and where it’s going. That aspect of the novel, so brief, is probably the most timely of all.