It is tempting to read Frankenstein as a means of understanding Mary Shelley. 200 years after the novel was first published, Alice Dunn asks, is that a bad thing?
Things most of us know about the novel Frankenstein: that its author Mary Shelley first thought of the idea for it during a ghost story competition among friends (Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori and husband Percy Shelley). And, perhaps after a quick slip of the tongue, we remember that the name ‘Frankenstein’ does not refer to the monster pictured on the cover (who is actually unnamed throughout), but to Victor Frankenstein, the monster’s creator.
Our thoughts then turn to Mary Shelley. It is tempting to approach Frankenstein, her first and best-known novel, for insight into her life. Leafing through my dog-eared copy, my eyes land on a single line addressing this query in the Introduction, which Mary Shelley wrote 13 years after the book was first published. She writes: “I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so very frequently asked me – How I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” How indeed? Re-reading Frankenstein swiftly followed by Mary Shelley’s biography, the similarities spookily emerge.
After many miscarriages and stillbirths, Mary Shelley had harrowing dreams about her lost children. Her own mother, the famous writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died ten days after giving birth to her. So Mary was raised by her father William Godwin, the political philosopher and writer. He remarried when Mary was four, but she had a problematic and cold relationship with her stepmother. She met and fell in love with Percy Shelley, who was already married. They would reportedly meet regularly at Mary’s mother’s grave. She eloped with him and they travelled around Europe together, and she became quite alienated from her father and stepmother. Percy’s wife committed suicide and Mary and Percy married. Mary wrote Frankenstein and published it anonymously in 1818.
Now, to the story of Frankenstein briefly (warning – contains spoilers): Victor Frankenstein, weak and ill, is found by the captain of a ship and tells him about his life, his studies at university, his fascination with science and philosophy. He makes a creature out of old body parts (from “among the unhallowed damps of the grave”) and when his creation comes to life, he is repulsed by the sight of it. He has a series of nightmares about his mother as a corpse and the monster walks off into the night. He later meets the monster, who tells him about his battles with loneliness, constant rejection and need for companionship. The monster has learned to speak by observing a family living in a cottage and entering their house at night to read the books in their library. When Victor refuses to make a partner for him, the monster threatens to be with Frankenstein on his wedding night. Victor marries, and finds his bride murdered. Desperate for revenge, Victor catches sight of the monster just before meeting the captain, who finishes the narrative through letters: Victor becomes worse and dies. The monster vanishes into the distance to die.
If we look for traces of Mary Shelley in Frankenstein then we might see her in the monster: he is isolated and rejected, just as Mary was estranged from her family. His education in the cottagers’ library is reminiscent of her own: as a child, she had free reign of her father’s vast library. In her Introduction, she explains: “I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print”. The Monster is similarly shy, worried about putting himself forward until he has acquired conventional communication skills. But we can see Mary Shelley in Victor Frankenstein too: his travels in the novel, to Scotland and Geneva, mirror her own excursions. The thematic concerns with motherhood and creation reflect Mary’s tragic experiences.
Should we feel guilty for drawing these comparisons? It echoes criticism frequently (but not exclusively) discussed in relation to Jane Austen’s novels; that when we read work written by a woman, we are, by proxy, reading about their lives.
But if we see Frankenstein as broadly a work of autobiography, then aren’t we undermining the power of Shelley’s imagination and knowledge while doing a great disservice to her intelligence and skills as a writer? We know that Shelley was well read in contemporary science (she explains that the way Victor brings his creature to life was inspired by the experiments conducted by Dr Erasmus Darwin as he animated vermicelli in a glass). She attended lectures on science in London.
Although it’s surely wrong that women’s writing is so readily assumed to be autobiographical, we also can’t help but feel that it’s only natural that the author should write from personal experience. Perhaps one way round this problem is to broaden our understanding of ‘personal experience’. So in Shelley’s case, we should consider how her personal experience of literature and science shaped her writing. That way we are not ignoring the parallels between Shelley and her literary creations at the same time as taking into account her genius.
Whatever your stance, I think this debate only makes for even more colourful reading. And after 200 years, that is a wonderful thing.