by Sherwood Smith

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.



Rereading: FRANKENSTEIN — 25 Comments

  1. “But did Victor Frankenstein also manage to connect the veins and arteries, the nerves and muscles and bones of all these different individuals?”

    I suspect that Shelley didn’t actually know that much anatomy. I’ll hazard that people who weren’t butchers, anatomists, or artists didn’t in that period; Gray’s Anatomy was 40 years from publication. Electricity then seemed quite magical. Galvani’s work on galvanic contractions, what we now call electrophysiology, had been published perhaps 30-40 years previous. It then seemed plausible that electricity was the vital fluid; the literal spark of life.

    So those were some of the philosophical underpinnings. I suppose there is a sense in which this is a lesson for would-be hard science authors; it’s hard to understand what is understood.

    BTW, one version of Frankenstein is available from Project Gutenberg, link. Sadly the bibliographic cite is incomplete, so I am not sure which edition it is.

  2. Randolph: I don’t know which edition that is, either. The first one was published anonymously, then there were a couple more editions, then the one she revised in the 1830s, adding the foreword.

  3. What a fascinating story. I have never read the book, though, since it’s classic, I often tell myself I should.

  4. I always found it an amusing irony that Mary’s story enjoys world-wide fame. I like Percy Bysshe’s poetry, but few now would even recognize his name let alone read the poems.

  5. I find the imagery of Frankenstein as intriguing as its creation. Perhaps that’s the ultimate argument for Brian Aldiss’s claim that Mary Shelley was the mother of sf: She wrote a Godawful clumsy book whose ideas continue to fascinate, perhaps the fist such.

  6. Janice: it’s not too long!

    Pilgrimsoul: I suspect that about all anyone reads of Shelley anymore is “Ozymandias” because it’s in so many school readers.

    Supergee: Yeah, I do think of her as the mother of sf in the modern sense. There was sf before her, but mostly formed on travel books. Hers is an actual story.

  7. Oh, I love how you tell this! Where did you find all this out–was it in the foreword to the edition you read, or were you looking at other things (I’m talking about what you write about the group of them in the Alps, though I’m also very intrigued by your description of Claire’s journal–that sounds fascinating as well).

    Also, do you happen to know what things got tidied away for the sake of Victorian sensibilities? I’m curious.

  8. Asakiyume: I started collecting everything in print about them years and years ago. I forget the first hook, but it might have been when I realized how young Mary and Claire were, and then when I read about Claire reinventing herself.

    I really got hooked when I discovered the relentless pursuit by Mary and her son and the Shelley lovers to gussy up his image to the extent of actually changing drawings, or suppressing the ones that showed him as he really was (kind of a loose-lipped guy who was basically a letch, except an attractive one. He never had a problem getting partners.) instead of the angelic figure we see images of now.

    All their journals and letters are fascinating, including what remains of Byron’s. (There was a burning after his death, and I strongly suspect that all letters and creative stuff that was overtly gay was consigned to the flames.) The impression one gets is kinda like “nerds in space!” these people were all geeks–including Byron, who was obsessed with being overweight. He cared far more about his appearance than Mary cared about hers.

  9. Byron was the period equivalent of a modern rock star — in fact you could argue that all the juice and fame and raw energy that used to be in poetry has gone over to rock ‘n’ roll. And of course we at BVC have had our fun with him, over in THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY.

  10. Byron was indeed the equivalent of a modern rock star, though keeping that image worried him. (See the famous painting he had done of him wearing an Albanian hill guerrilla fighting costume.)

  11. I have always thought Frankenstein was, in part, Mary’s unconscious working out of her, um, issues with Shelley as a mate and a father. He dragged Mary (and their children) all over Europe, at least once insisting on traveling with their dangerously-ill infant–who died because of it. That Mary spent her life post-Shelley burnishing his reputation seems like a kind of reaction-formation: if rage at his casual self-centeredness was impossible, then she would deify his memory (that’ll show him).

  12. As with the Brontes and some other literary figures, their own lives’ stories are as fascinating as their literary work.

    People then try to make fiction out of their lives — but all these novels fail to convey the fascination their biographies do.

    The most successfull Glenarvon, Lady Caroline Lamb’s revenge novel about Byron and herself. But then she was not only as much an aristo as Byron, not only as narcissistic and mad, she was a figure in the saga.

    I tend to feel a fair amount of pity for Claire — and even more for Mary too, at least until her son’s coming of age, and she can be taken care of in a decent manner, while she then took care of the Shelley legacy. I always feel that all of them treated Mary very badly at different times — not all the time, but at times. It was, as they said, “Complicated…” Losing your children so young and so swiftly, losing your husband, hiding from yourself and the world that he he’d had a child with your half sister ….

    Not happy times, yet some of the times were indeed happy. As you say, all three of them were so very young.

    I still think the best study of them is Richard Holmes’s.

    Love, C.

  13. Fascinating! Now I don’t feel so bad that reading Frankenstein left me thoroughly confused. I need to read it again with the history in mind.

  14. Madeleine: I feel sorry for Mary–her journal and letters are full of little anxieties about contriving to keep household, and deal with childbirth and childcare on scant money. Shelley encouraged her to write, yes, but she was expected to run the household on air. You get the sense of constant anxiety and borderland depression. Of course her grief when he died gave her depression a reason and purpose. But then she had Sir Timothy to deal with. I suspect her happiest days were in Paris, where she was lionized for her brains, and not nibbled to death by ducks the way her life was previously.

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  16. What always amazes me is that this all took place in an era before birth control. Claire Clairmont surely knew that hopping into bed with Byron, or anybody, would have repercussions nine months down the line that would last her whole life. And although Byron might have hoped to dodge the consequences some of the time, it was like Russian roulette — sooner or later he’d have to pay the piper, and everybody knew it. The sexual passion must have been positively overwhelming to sweep away consideration of the costly consequences.

  17. I don’t get the impression that Byron thought of that, from his papers. Claire was 17, but if anything, she rejoiced, because it would tie her to Byron. She went after him pretty hard, he was ambivalent but took what was offered, then got tired of her. She bombarded him with an absolute stream of letters, which he never answered, but he did save, because they are in print. Later, he took Allegra away from her and parked the kid at a convent to be raised, and he wouldn’t deal with Claire directlty, but through the Shelleys. He was pretty much a jerk to her, but then she was the original stalker groupie.

    But she did get her wish–fame, and her name forever linked with his!

  18. I love the novel, Sherwood. I think it’s fabulous. Now I have to reread it to make sure I’m not wrong.

    I’m not crazy about her shorter work, but I love Frankenstein.

  19. Sue: you are not alone–many others love it, too.

    But Mary Shelley is on my own list of those whose lives I find more interesting than their fictions. Mileage varies!

  20. “And I suppose, being 17, she did not care (if she even knew) about the odds of dying in childbed.”

    She knew there was a risk. Everyone did then. But young lust has consistently overwhelmed all warnings, thoughout history. Mother Nature wants here children to breed, and it very determined about the matter.

    (BTW, nobody knew about odds then, at least in Europe. I am not even sure how much actual mathematicians knew.)

  21. Claire–growing up in the family she did–would have had an idea of the risks; her step-sister Mary’s mother (aka Mary Wollstonecraft) died ten days after her birth (complications of a ruptured placenta). A woman dying in childbed was hardly a rarity; instead, I think it was so common place a thing that it was just part of the fabric of life.

    And of course, no 17-year-old believes that the Bad Thing will happen to her.

  22. “I am not even sure how much actual mathematicians knew.”

    Pascal and Fermat laid down the origins of probability theory in the mid-17th century. And certainly gamblers talked in terms of odds long before, whether they could calculate them accurately or not.