As an eerie entry to a new year, January 1818, on the heels of the Napoleonic Era, a new captivating novel is published. Originally presented as written by an anonymous author, it is not until the second edition five years later in 1823, attributed officially to be written by the now 26-year old woman – Mary Shelley.
Yes – this week marks the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
Talk about leaving a legacy. If you were to create a top ten list of the most highly identifiable characters in classic fiction that are, so to speak, larger than life, Frankenstein would be right up there along with the likes of Sherlock Holmes or if you want to more up to date, Harry Potter. The curious thing about our friend Frankenstein is that the character of the monster – not Victor Frankenstein who created him – is the one face, which is visually recognized and remembered, thanks to the movie legend from 1931, re-envisaged several times before and since that Boris Karloff version.
As you read the 1831 edition of the book, you will see a different visual illustration of the monster as shown above. Perhaps, as is sometimes said, the confusion between the two characters is not a strange thing, if after you read the original story you are tempted to ask the question, who is the real monster here? However, the point of this post is not to offer up another analysis of The Modern Prometheus or even fiendishly attempt to draw comparisons to our 2018 versions of monster making or spin a tale of a contemporary Prometheus.
Today’s threads in the legacy of Mary Shelley’s narrative.
It is the beauty of seemingly random events experienced over time, subsequent thoughts found in the looping connectivity of stories, that are not at first obvious, that kicked off my desire to celebrate a woman’s monster legacy. In fact, it was only last month after visiting “At Home With Monsters”, the Guillermo Del Toro exhibit (closing Jan.7th) at the Art Gallery of Ontario, that I was then galvanized (so to speak), to read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.
Slowly wandering through the seven themed rooms of the Del Toro exhibit, I was reminded of what Del Toro says of this massive sampling from his personal collection of art, artefacts, books, and movie props from his Bleak House located in Los Angeles –
“…this is an act of love for the odd and the marginal that tries to amalgamate things, high and low brow…”
With this thought in mind, the last room in the exhibit includes a tribute to Frankenstein’s Monster, Del Toro’s favourite character. He wants to make a film one day, yet, however he may have been inspired by watching the Karloff film version, Del Toro is quoted saying, “To this day, nobody has made the book, but the book became my bible.” One more thread in the legacy of Mary Shelley’s narrative.
As I scurried along back and forth in the shadows, through the many, cold, damp scenes of alpine mountains, and arctic seas with Victor and his monster, (or as more frequently called, daemon, creature or fiend), I couldn’t help but see other hands at work, other voices that that guided Mary Shelley in her writing. The other characters that were so dominant in her life at that time.
During the eighteen months of the writing Frankenstein (1816-17), Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and others in this troupe of Romantics, were all there. Percy Shelley’s fingerprints are all over this book, serving as editor and encourager in chief, while so it goes, Byron was the one who said one night, “we shall all write a ghost story”. Apparently, the story that became Frankenstein did not occur overnight to young Mary, but the intellectual discussions of science and nature and other topics of the times did frame her mind to the task.
What cometh then, from romantic graveyard courting?
After my read of Frankenstein, even more in my looping connectivity of thoughts added to this legacy story. It should be no small wonder that the intelligent Mary Shelley is the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the late 18th century philosopher and women’s rights advocate and William Godwin, writer and radical political thinker. Quite the heavy weight influencers of their time.
So too these parental legends were in another way, a ghostly influence. Walking briskly through the passages of death and destruction in Frankenstein, I couldn’t help but recall a London visit some years ago, when I drifted slowly through the atmospheric garden graveyard of old St. Pancras Church. This is where Mary and Percy Shelley did their romantic courting while standing over the Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin grave. Her tombstone is still there, but her remains were moved to Bournemouth in 1851 by her grandson Percy Florence Shelley.
Legacies this strong do pass on one generation to the next, quite honestly as in this case with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The social events of the times and the responses to changing ways of disruptive ideas, as were shared within a circle of questioning thinkers and poets that wrapped around Mary Shelley at this time of her life, all served to inform her invention – Frankenstein.
If you want to get a fuller appreciation of Mary Shelley, her life with Percy and Byron and the many more marvelous cast of characters, with their interesting and woeful tales serving as the backdrop that generated the monster in Mary’s head – read Daisy Hay’s book, Young Romantics, The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives (2010).
For a new year’s wish, as Mary Shelley curiously says in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein:
“And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which formed no true echo in my heart.”
Prosper indeed. If she only knew her monster legacy would be such a big business two hundred years later.
Regular blog programming will continue next week.