October 21, 2017
Mary Shelley and the Frankenstein ThemeThe genesis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is now almost as famous as the novel itself: teenage-runaway Mary Godwin, her married lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, their new and infamous friend Lord Byron and his new lover (Mary's half-sister, Claire Clairmont), gather on a stormy evening in the Swiss Alps to read ghost stories; they propose a contest to write their own; Mary has a waking dream several nights later of a student trying to impart a "spark of life" to "the thing he had put together."
The novel was published anonymously eleven months later, to wide acclaim and curiosity. When Mary Shelley stepped forward, many were so doubtful of such a wild tale springing almost fully-formed from a first-time, teenaged, female author that they attributed the book to her husband. Her dream-story only contributed to the view that the novel was itself a freak. The longer story of the novel's origins -- the story of Mary Godwin/Shelley's first twenty years -- contains such a trail of miscreation, abandonment, alienation and ghostly pursuit that it might have been more surprising had she written a book on any other theme.
Mary Shelley's parents were famous and controversial free-thinkers. Her father was the novelist and radical socialist, William Godwin; her mother, the pioneering feminist Mary Wolstonecraft. Wolstonecraft died giving birth to Mary in 1797, but the daughter was brought up on both parents' books and expectations. " I was nursed and fed with a love of glory," Mary later wrote. When she declared -- at sixteen, on her mother's gravesite --her love for Percy Bysshe Shelley, the free-thinker in William Godwin could not have been surprised, but the dad was outraged. When the lovers fled to France three weeks later, outrage became renunciation, and lasted for years.
Seven months after running off, Mary Shelley gave birth prematurely to a daughter, who soon died. Fifteen months before her famous waking-dream in the Swiss Alps, her journal reveals the original Frankenstein nightmare: "Dream that my little baby came to life again -- that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived -- I awake and find no baby." Two months later, still just planning her novel, her half-sister, Claire, revealed that she was pregnant by Byron, and planned to give the baby up to him. Two months later still -- Shelley just one day into writing her book -- another half-sister, Fanny, killed herself, her suicide note referring darkly to being a bastard and a virtual orphan. Step-father Godwin was so distanced that he did not attend the body, leaving it to be buried by the parish. Such corpses were often given to students like Victor Frankenstein for dissection. Another two months later -- Shelley now half-way through Frankenstein -- Percy Shelley's first wife drowned herself, almost full-term pregnant. The poet's free-love theories -- possibly habits, possibly with Mary's half-sister Claire -- and their affiliation with the dissolute Byron had them already branded as a 'League of Incest' by many back in England; now the court denied them custody of Shelley's two earlier children. In her journal, Mary Shelley worried that their own recent child, William, would also be taken from her.
The actual events were worse. On March 11, 1818, the day that Frankenstein was published in England, the Shelleys left for Europe. In the next eighteen months, Mary Shelley lost three-year old William and one-year old Clara to illness, and gave birth to another boy, Percy. She spent much of the next two years in house-bound depression, hysterically apprehensive of further loss. In mid-June, 1822, three and a half months into a new pregnancy, she miscarried, almost bleeding to death herself. Two weeks later she had such a presentiment of disaster that she begged her husband not to leave on his planned sailing trip; ten days after departure, his body finally washed up on the Italian coast. It was eight years, to the week, since their first flight for love and freedom.
When a friend revealed that he had plucked Shelley's heart from the ashes of his beach-fire cremation, Mary Shelley had to physically fight him for it. When she asked Sir William Shelley for support payments, he tried to pry her only remaining son, Percy, from her. When Percy was a teenager, his mother was still so ostracized by society gossip about her involvement in the League of Incest that his girlfriend was forbidden by her parents to visit.
Manuscript comparison shows that Percy Bysshe Shelley did in fact rework a number of passages in Frankenstein. His rewriting is fancy, professional and noticeably inferior to Mary Shelley's wide-eyed tale of passion and parenting gone hauntingly wrong.
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