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The Birth of Frankenstein

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.

This article provides illuminating information about the origins of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. Read on to learn about Shelley's life and work.

This article provides illuminating information about the origins of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. Read on to learn about Shelley's life and work.

The Birth of Frankenstein

If you were to write a screenplay titled ‘The True Story Behind Frankenstein,’ it would be returned quicker than you could bat an eyelid. The word IMPLAUSIBLE would be scribbled across the top.

Yet it is true.

To say that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's upbringing was unconventional would be an understatement. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a prolific writer. She is now considered one of the first feminist philosophers. She published "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" in 1792. The French Revolution had recently taken place. Promoters of social change sensed that reform might happen. The book argues that women are in no way inferior to men. But they are not educated as men are. She argues that a rational society would use the same curriculum to educate men and women.

A Bright Beginning

William Godwin was an author, philosopher, and anarchist. He had first met Mary Wollstonecraft at a private dinner held for Thomas Paine. He later remarked that the conversation was more about Mary than Paine. Mary must have been a fascinating companion. Paine was a famous promotor of The American Revolution and celebrated in liberal circles.

Godwin and Mary lost touch for a while. Mary, curious about the revolution, went to France to see what was happening.

She met an American called Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a daughter named Fanny. The relationship did not last. In 1796, she met William again, they became firm friends then lovers. Mary became pregnant again. The couple decided to marry, despite Godwin having championed the abolition of marriage in his book Political Justice.

The ceremony took place in March 1797, their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in late August. Shortly after Mary's birth, her mother died of complications. The distraught Godwin was left to bring up Mary and Fanny alone. In 1801, he married a neighbor who added two children of her own to the household. The four children increased to five with the birth of William.

The education the children received was informal but challenging. It allowed for a great deal of self-expression. The youngsters had free use of Godwin's extensive library. They met and talked with the many distinguished visitors that Godwin entertained. By the time Mary was fifteen, Godwin was to describe her as "bold," "imperious," and "active of mind." She would always remain her own woman.

Portrait of Shelley by Joseph Severn

Portrait of Shelley by Joseph Severn

Enter Shelley

The poet Percy Shelley was trying to help Godwin with his usual financial problems. The young man was a regular visitor to the house. The idealistic Shelley would have liked to spend his aristocratic family's considerable fortune helping the disadvantaged, however, his family had different ideas. They refused to release the funds that would have allowed Shelley to help Godwin. The relationship between the two men cooled when Godwin discovered that Shelley could give him no money.

The coolness became icy when Shelley and Mary began an affair. The couple allegedly consummated it at the graveside of Mary's mother. She was sixteen, he twenty-one and married. Godwin's disapproval of the relationship confused Mary. She must have thought that her dad was being impossibly old-fashioned.

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In July 1814 the couple, along with Mary's step-sister Claire, went to France and on to Switzerland. Percy's pregnant wife was left in England. After six weeks the three had run out of money and returned home. Mary was pregnant and, in February 1815 gave birth prematurely to a girl who did not survive long. She conceived again and bore William, named after her father, in January 1816.

For the moment we will leave the couple to sort out their tangled lives. We go on to describe an event that, though far distant, was very pertinent to the story.


Under the Volcano

In April 1815, Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies erupted. It was the largest eruption since 180AD and threw more than one hundred square kilometers of material into the skies. Dust in the atmosphere blocked sunlight. Temperatures fell around the world. Crops failed everywhere, causing some two hundred thousand deaths in Europe alone. 1816 was the year without a summer. It was also the year that Mary and Percy chose for their next continental holiday.

From the point of view of a couple seeking a romantic break on the shores of Lake Geneva, it wasn't the best time to go. But the volcano would make its contribution to literature.

Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva

Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva

The Novel Comes To Life

Claire had had an affair with Lord Byron and was pregnant. She, Mary, and Percy decided to meet up with Byron in Geneva, taking little William with them. They arrived in May 1816 where they were joined by Byron and his doctor, John Polidon. A few days later. Byron rented the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, whilst Mary's party took a smaller house nearby.

The awful weather made outdoor activities difficult and unpleasant. The group spent their time writing, talking, and drinking too much. It was Byron who suggested that they each write a ghost story. For some days Mary could think of nothing to write. Then, one evening, the conversation turned to the nature of life itself. Galvanism was mentioned, a fashionable and intriguing process at the time, and Mary imagined a professor bringing a corpse coming back to life. She started working on what she assumed would be a short story. But, with Percy's encouragement, it became a novel.

It is worth reading or re-reading the book. There are depths of meaning that escaped the film industry.

It was finally published anonymously as "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus," on January 1st, 1818.

Why did she subtitle the work as "The Modern Prometheus"?

It is tempting to wonder if Mary had a model for her creation. Byron "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" might fit the bill.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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