Frankenstein and the Romantic Hero

Extract from new post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

To read Frankenstein is to enter a realm of intersecting myths. It is there immediately in the novel’s original subtitle ‘The Modern Prometheus’, a comparison between the Faustian Victor Frankenstein and the Titan who stole fire from the gods and was punished horribly for gifting it to humanity. As a response to Milton’s Paradise Lost the novel explores and interrogates the Christian myths of creation and fall. Frankenstein is also the source of one of the shaping myths of modern culture, a cautionary tale in which a scientist in pursuit of truth but unfettered by morality is destroyed by his own creation. That most people encounter the story first through one of the numerous film versions adds a further mythic layer populated by visions of Boris Karloff’s monster and Peter Cushing’s mad doctor, of De Niro’s tragic outcast, Herman Munster, Bladerunner, and the Bride of Re-Animator to name a few of the many.In gothic terms, only the Dracula mythos is as culturally endemic.

The novel itself also has a creation myth, inaugurated by Percy Shelley’s anonymous introduction to the first edition and expanded into a full narrative by Mary Shelley in her introduction to the Standard Novels edition of 1831. During the long Ranarök of 1816, the ‘Year Without a Summer’ when the world was enveloped in a nuclear winter following the eruption of Mount Tambora, Mary, along with Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairmont were near neighbours and frequent guests of Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva. Along with Byron’s personal physician, the volatile John Polidori, they spent long evenings after dinner discussing literature, science, philosophy, and politics, and their days reading, unless the weather permitted a trip out onto the lake. ‘But it proved a wet, ungenial summer,’ wrote Mary, ‘and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.’ One evening in mid-June, the party amused themselves by reading aloud stories from Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of German ghost stories translated by Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès in 1812. This led to a challenge from Byron that ‘We will each write a ghost story.’ Byron and Shelley soon tired of the game, the former producing ‘A Fragment’ of a gothic immortal story that Polidori later picked up and developed into ‘The Vampyre’ (1819). This was the first modern vampire story to seize the public imagination, turning the bloodsucking ghoul of European folklore into a sexually magnetic aristocrat, not a million miles from Byron in fact, and is therefore the second gothic icon to come out of the Villa Diodati. Shelley started something based on a childhood memory but, like Byron, soon abandoned it; Claire wrote nothing at all. Mary, however, persevered: ‘I thought and pondered – vainly … “Have you thought of a story?” I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.’

Mary had written in her later Introduction that ‘It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing.’ As the daughter of the ‘English Jacobins’ William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, in love with Shelley and in awe of Byron, seeped in the narratives of European Romanticism from birth, the teenage Mary must have felt that her hour had come. The pressure must have been extreme. ‘In our family,’ her half-sister Claire once wryly said, ‘if you cannot write an epic poem or novel, that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging.’ And in life outside literature, though for Mary the two were always combined, she had already had two children by Shelley, the first, Clara, born the year before, living only eight days. She was presently nursing their son, William, born early in 1816. Shelley was still married to his first wife, Harriet, and Mary’s father had disowned the couple. (As an advocate of ‘Free Love’, Shelley was also in a sexual relationship with Claire, who in turn was carrying Byron’s child.) When she lost Clara, Mary had written in her journal: ‘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 – I think about the little thing all day.’

Finally, it was a discussion of ‘natural philosophy’ that was the trigger for her story:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin … Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

In his Commentary on the Effect of Electricity on Muscular Motion (1791), Erasmus Darwin – grandfather of Charles – had posited a ‘subtle fluid’ (animal electricity) as the source of motion and life. Italian physicist Luigi Galvani had discovered that an electrical spark could make a dead frog’s legs twitch. This process was developed by his rival Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the first chemical battery, who nonetheless named it ‘Galvanism’. Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, performed a famous public demonstration of Galvanism on the corpse of the executed murderer George Foster at Newgate in 1803. The Newgate Calendar described the experiment:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.

Mary was aware of this research, and Polidori had studied medicine in Edinburgh during the French wars when bodysnatching was rife to supply medical schools with corpses for dissection, a subject he was not coy about sharing. Thus, the original gothic discourse that had inspired Mary was fused with the morbid horrors of contemporary scientific reality, further fuelled by the laudanum that Byron and Shelley both took freely. This giddy cocktail resulted in a vivid waking dream:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion…

At first terrified, Mary realised that she had found her ‘ghost story’…

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