When Frankenstein was first published in 1818, many readers were shocked. What could be more appalling than the tale of a mad scientist creating life? What kind of person would write such a terrible story? Critics believed the novel was hostile to religion, as it depicted a human being attempting to appropriate the role of God. One contemporary writer complained that the book was “horrible and disgusting.” He declared that the author must be “as mad as his hero.” He could not accuse anyone in particular, however, as no one knew the author’s identity. The book had been published anonymously, and when people discovered the author’s name, the truth seemed even more scandalous than the “horrible” story itself. The author was a woman, and her name was Mary Godwin Shelley.
In the 19th century women weren’t supposed to write novels, let alone a novel like Frankenstein. Middle-class women were expected to confine themselves to being good wives, daughters, and mothers. For a woman to step outside of her proper domain was against all of society’s rules. Critics muttered that Mary Shelley must be as monstrous and immoral as her story. And yet when they met her, they were surprised to find that Mary was ladylike and reserved. It was difficult for Mary’s contemporaries to square the boldness of her work with its creator.
Mary Godwin Shelley (1797–1851) was the proud daughter of the famous radical Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Although Wollstonecraft died ten days after giving birth to Mary, Mary was still profoundly influenced by her mother’s ideas. Mary’s father, William Godwin (1756–1836), a noted political philosopher and novelist, held up Wollstonecraft as a paragon of virtue and love, praising her genius, bravery, intelligence, and originality. He even taught young Mary how to read by tracing the letters on her mother’s gravestone. Except for Wollstonecraft, her mother’s name was the same as hers: Mary Godwin.
Steeped as she was in her mother’s ideas, and raised by a father who was grief-stricken by Wollstonecraft’s death, Mary tried to live according to her mother’s philosophical principles. Over the course of her life, she sought to reclaim Wollstonecraft from the grave, becoming, if not Wollstonecraft herself, her ideal daughter. When she wrote her own books, she reimagined the past and recast the future in a doomed effort to resurrect the dead, gazing back at what she could never regain but sought to duplicate in very different times.
[pullquote]”Mary was determined not only to write books like her mother, but also to live with the same kind of freedom. She too would break the rules of society.”[/pullquote]
This was a dangerous ambition, as Wollstonecraft’s ideas flew in the face of societal conventions. When she died, her husband, Godwin, published a tell-all memoir that cataloged Wollstonecraft’s illicit sexual affairs, including the child she had out of wedlock before she met Godwin. Godwin declared that he was paying homage to his dead wife and was proud of Wollstonecraft’s unconventional life. But the consequences of his memoir were far-reaching and pernicious.
Wollstonecraft’s reputation as a political philosopher was now overshadowed by her sexual improprieties. Her writing was largely neglected until the 1970s and she almost disappeared from our historical memory. Her illegitimate little girl, Fanny Imlay Godwin, became the most notorious bastard of the era. Godwin had attempted to protect Fanny from social ostracism, adopting her when he married Wollstonecraft. But though she and Mary were raised in the same household, which included Godwin’s second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, and her two children, Jane and Charles, Fanny never recovered from the loss of her beloved mother.
Undaunted by the furor caused by her father’s memoir, Mary was determined not only to write books like her mother, but also to live with the same kind of freedom. She too would break the rules of society. She too would live the life of an independent woman. Her first opportunity to follow in her mother’s footsteps came when she met the 21-year-old poet Percy Shelley.
To 16-year-old Mary, Shelley seemed the very essence of a Romantic poet, with windblown hair and brooding eyes. As for Shelley, he was immediately struck by Mary’s dramatic appearance. Pale, with a blaze of reddish-gold hair, Mary was quiet, but when she spoke, her frequent literary allusions and quotations revealed her erudition. Shelley was thunderstruck. He had never met anyone like Mary Godwin.
Unfortunately, Percy was already married, and there were few greater taboos than a liaison with a married man. But Mary did not let social conventions restrict her. She declared she loved him and threw herself into his arms. As Shelley remembered it, Mary was inspired “by a spirit that sees into the truth of things.”
Impatient with the restrictions they faced, Mary and Shelley ran away together to Europe. Both Mary and Percy believed they were acting in accordance with the highest of moral principles: if two people were in love, nothing should stand in their way. After all, this was one of the governing principles of Wollstonecraft’s final novel, Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman, and it was a foundational point in Godwin’s famous tome Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. The legalized “possession of a woman” in marriage is “odious selfishness,” Godwin intoned.
Given his criticism of marriage, the happy couple assumed that Godwin would support their relationship, but when they returned, Godwin refused to speak to his daughter—a blow for Mary, as Godwin was the person she most loved and admired on earth. Society was merciless. Mary was called a whore, Percy a scoundrel. Old friends turned their backs. Mary’s stepmother followed Godwin’s lead and refused to speak to her, even after she lost her first child, a baby girl who died at three days old.
Throughout this tumultuous time, Mary followed a rigorous schedule of reading and writing. She wanted to live up to the legacy of her mother and write important books, but she was not yet sure what her themes should be. In January 1816, she gave birth to a healthy boy, William, who she guarded carefully, fearing that he might be taken from her as well. It was a wet spring, and William developed a stubborn cough. Mary and Percy decided to vacation in Geneva, where the air was supposed to be healthy. There was also the benefit of being near the poet Lord Byron.
Byron was the most notorious poet of the era. His poems were famous for their frank descriptions of illicit love affairs and their exotic settings. Like the Shelleys, he had been rejected by London society for his scandalous behavior. Byron had rented a grand home, the Villa Diodati, and the Shelleys took a smaller house nearby. Far away from England, Mary, Percy, and Byron felt safe from their critics, and were inspired and excited to be together.
The only problem was the weather, as 1816 was known as the year without a summer. The preceding year, a volcano had erupted in Indonesia, spewing thick ash into the atmosphere and disrupting weather patterns in Europe, Asia, and even North America. The Yangtze overflowed. Red snow fell in Italy. Famine swept from Moscow to New York. Grain froze and corn withered.
In Switzerland, the weather was unseasonably cold and stormy, and after weeks of rain, the young people were restless. At last Byron challenged his friends to see who could write the scariest ghost story. He was tired of reading the same unremarkable tales. Surely, someone in their midst could do better.
Byron and Shelley tried their hands at this exercise, but soon went back to their other projects. But it was Mary who struck gold. The first sentence she wrote, “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed,” seemed to unleash all that would come next, as though the story were waiting to spill on the page. She spent the next two years extending and revising the story, publishing the novel in 1818, when she was only 20 years old.
Drawing on her own experiences as a child whose mother had died after giving birth, whose father had rejected her, and whose society had condemned her for living with the man she loved, she added a brilliant plot twist, the surprise that would set her story apart from others and make her one of the most famous authors in English literary history; instead of regarding his handiwork with pride, her young inventor rejected his creation, abandoning his “completed man” in horror.
If another Romantic poet, like Shelley or Byron, had written this story, it seems unlikely that either would have devised such a scenario. In fact, in the works they began that summer, Byron’s Manfred and Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and Prometheus Unbound, both poets invented creator protagonists whose abilities make them seem heroic. But Mary was ambivalent about the prospect of men creating life. She had given birth to a child she loved, but she had also lost a baby, and lost her own mother as a result of childbirth. If men could control life and death, she would not have suffered these tragedies. On the other hand, she wondered what would happen to the role of women if it were possible to create life via artificial methods. She was also concerned about what would happen to God, or the idea of God, the mysterious, even mystical power behind nature.
Haunted by these concerns, Mary stopped writing from the point of view of the creator and switched her vantage point to that of the created. Not once did she call him a monster, refusing to reinforce Frankenstein’s prejudices and asking readers to use their own judgment in assessing the creature’s behavior. Rejected by the human beings he meets, Victor Frankenstein’s creature laments that he is alone in the world, and sets forth to find the father who has abandoned him. But when the creature finds his father, the young scientist pushes his “son” away, just as Godwin had pushed Mary away.
[pullquote]”Careful not to weight the story in favor of either the creator or the creature, Mary conjured a sense of moral suspension in which the conventional questions—who’s the hero? who’s the villain?—no longer apply.”[/pullquote]
Mary’s attention to the creature’s point of view turns her novel from a tale of the supernatural to a complicated psychological study. Frankenstein is not simply the story of a brilliant inventor and his invention; it is the story of what happens after the act of creation. What are the consequences of Victor Frankenstein’s invention? What are his responsibilities? What happens to everyone else as a result of his creation? And most important of all, what happens to his neglected creation, the creature?
That fall Mary and Shelley moved to Bath, and Mary immersed herself in her story. She added a new character, Robert Walton, an arctic explorer searching for the north pole, who recounts Frankenstein’s story in a series of letters to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville, providing the reader with another version of the tale.
Like Frankenstein, Walton is obsessed with proving his own genius, acting against the wishes of his beloved sister, who has “evil forebodings” about his endeavor. When at last Walton turns back from his quest, his decision offers a hopeful alternative to the disastrous choices made by Frankenstein and the creature. Walton despairs over his lost glory, but knows that his sister will be relieved that he has survived. The sole voice of reason in the novel, Margaret emerges as an important character, though her words are heard only indirectly, through the letters of her brother, a structural echo of the role most women were forced to play in the lives of men. Her opposition to her brother’s ambition is an important counterpoint to the selfishness of the male characters, reminding the reader of the importance of love and relationships.
Mary’s three-pronged narrative, her Russian doll technique of nesting one story inside another, provides the reader with three different versions of the same set of events. This was a daring departure from the didactic novelists of the preceding generations (such as Samuel Richardson and her own father), and it gave Mary the opportunity to create a complex narrative that asked far more of her readers than a simple parable against the dangers of invention. Careful not to weight the story in favor of either the creator or the creature, Mary conjured a sense of moral suspension in which the conventional questions—who’s the hero? who’s the villain?—no longer apply. The creature and Walton undermine Frankenstein’s version of events, allowing us to see what he never acknowledges: that he was at fault because he did not provide his creation with love or an education. Monsters, says Mary, are of our own making.
Mary sustained two devastating blows while writing Frankenstein: the suicides of her half sister Fanny and Harriet Shelley, Percy’s first wife. These tragedies drove home what Mary already knew: unmarried mothers and illegitimate children were hated by society just like Frankenstein’s creature. Wollstonecraft became an outcast when she had Fanny. Fanny became an outcast the moment she was born. This was profoundly unjust, Mary believed. Fanny was an innocent child. Her mother, too, was innocent. All Wollstonecraft had done was fall in love; she should not have been ostracized. Neither, for that matter, should she. Her crime was nothing more than loving Shelley.
As for Harriet, her death was an even more complicated burden to bear. She had become pregnant by another man and had killed herself, unable to face life with an illegitimate child, and Mary faulted herself for participating in Harriet’s ruin by running away with Shelley. Now Harriet had joined the pantheon of women rejected by the world. Ironically, Mary was the beneficiary of Harriet’s death, as now she and Shelley could marry, which they did in December 1816.
Mary spent the summer of 1817 readying the novel for publication, creating a fair copy of the manuscript. She finished right before she gave birth in September. The significance of the novel’s gestation was not lost on Mary. She frequently referred to the book as her “offspring” and linked the story to her own birth. The tale begins “Dec 11, 17—” and ends in “September 17—.” Mary Wollstonecraft conceived in early December 1796 and gave birth to Mary on August 30, 1797, dying on September 10, 1797.
By connecting Frankenstein to her own genesis, Mary hints at the many ties she felt to the novel. Like the creature, she felt abandoned by her creator and rejected by society. Like Frankenstein, she felt compelled to create. Her own birth had caused the death of her mother, but it had also brought life to her characters.
After multiple rejections, the novel was published in January 1818, and in one of the great ironies of publishing history, Frankenstein would earn no royalties. Sales were so weak that there was no indication it would become one of the bestselling English novels of all time.
Ultimately, it was the stage versions of the book that made the story famous. In 19th century England playwrights were allowed to borrow freely from novels without crediting the original author. In the hands of adapters, Mary’s multifaceted creation often became one-dimensional. Another odd development was that over time Mary’s hubristic Dr. Frankenstein almost completely disappeared from public awareness; by the 1840s, the word Frankenstein had become synonymous with monster. To the public, Mary’s name became inextricably entwined with that of a murderous fiend. As her fame grew, the many layers and multiple perspectives of the novel were gradually forgotten.
After she published Frankenstein, Mary went on to write five more novels, as well as many short stories and works of nonfiction. In 1831, she returned to her first novel, revising and extending the text, making the story darker and even more dystopian.
In the introduction, she declared that she had struggled to come up with the idea for the novel. It was not until she had a dream of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” that she could begin writing. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this was true. At no point had she or any of her friends or family mentioned any difficulties in the composition of the novel. Indeed, from the records of those who were there, and from reviewing the notebooks in which Mary wrote the novel, all the evidence suggests that she composed the novel with uncommon fluency and speed. Why, then, would she say that she had difficulty coming up with an idea?
[pullquote]”She was well aware that women artists were considered monstrous, as women were supposed to create babies, not art.”[/pullquote]
The most likely answer is that Mary wanted to distance herself from the inception of a work that critics had called perverse and immoral. Indeed, her story about the composition of Frankenstein is probably just that: another layer of fiction in a many-layered book. More than 15 years had passed since she had written the first edition of Frankenstein, both Byron and Shelley were dead, and she faced enormous financial and social pressures as a single mother. She was well aware that women artists were considered monstrous, as women were supposed to create babies, not art. If she could improve her sales and her reputation by saying that she had not consciously created the story, she would do so, inventing a tale that would deflect the criticism she faced when people learned that she was the author of Frankenstein. Gifted storyteller that she was, she described her “dream” with the kind of telling details that make it seem real:
When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.
But buried within Mary’s apparent self-deprecation is another, prouder claim. A dream vision was the marker of a true Romantic artist. Extraordinary dreams were not democratic; only great artists received visions. Thus, at the same time that she downplayed her own initiative, she also asserted her credentials as an artist.
For years, the 1831 edition was the more popular version, but recently, many students and teachers have elected to read the 1818 edition, as it is in this first version that the reader can encounter the younger Mary Shelley. In 1818, Mary wrote with the speed and candor of youth. She had yet to lose three of the children she bore and to endure the loss of her husband in a tragic accident at sea. In this version, she allows Victor the freedom to choose whether to pursue his ambition. Here, when he makes the wrong choice, it is his own decision that brings about his downfall; as with a character in a Greek tragedy, his actions determine his future. However, despite their differences, there is one constant in both versions. In both 1818 and 1831, Mary emphasized the dangers of ambition. As Frankenstein warns Walton, “How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
Frankenstein is famous for being the first science fiction novel, as well as being a tale of psychological horror. But what is often overlooked is how the novel upholds the legacy of Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. At first glance, Frankenstein may not seem to have much in common with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, nor does it seem to share many of Wollstonecraft’s ideals, but one can detect Wollstonecraft’s influence from the missing elements of the novel. With the exception of Margaret Saville, the women are unable to exert any influence over the men in the story. Ultimately, the absence of strong women holds the key to Frankenstein’s main themes. When women are not allowed to have a voice, or to play important roles in society, Mary implies, loss ensues. Unchecked male ambition will lead to destruction, injustice, and devastation.
Frankenstein is the story of one man’s obsession with the creation of life, and his subsequent abandonment of his creation. It is a study of guilt and innocence, creativity and destruction. But it is also a cautionary tale. By fearing the stranger, by abusing the vulnerable and the outcast, society creates its own monsters.
From the introduction to Frankenstein: The 1818 Text. Used with permission of Penguin Books. Copyright © 2018 by Charlotte Gordon.