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Tuesday 21 October 2014

Shelley, Storms and Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe S...
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Stipple engraving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
"[He] then proceeded, with much eagerness and enthusiasm, to show me the various instruments, especially the electrical apparatus; turning round the handle very rapidly, so that the fierce, crackling sparks flew forth; and presently standing upon the stool with glass feet, he begged me to work the machine until he was filled with the fluid, so that his long, wild locks bristled and stood on end. Afterwards he charged a powerful battery of several large jars; laboring with vast energy, and discoursing with increasing vehemence of the marvellous powers of electricity, of thunder and lightning; describing an electrical kite that he had made at home, and projecting another and an enormous one, or rather a combination of many kites, that would draw down from the sky an immense volume of electricity, the whole ammunition of a mighty thunderstorm; and this being directed to some point would there produce the most stupendous results."

If you don't know already, my guess is that if I told you the above description was taken from another novel based on Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" you would not challenge me. Besides his wild eyes, Mary Shelley offers us no physical descriptions of Victor Frankenstein in her novel. However, the above text comes from Shelley's biographer, Thomas Jefferson Hogg when he describes the famous poet during his time at Oxford University. It's an interesting image. Like Victor Frankenstein, Shelley combined an avid interest in the metaphysical and the occult with the ways of modern science. His spirit and manic enthusiasm paint the very picture many actors would take on board when they portrayed this character. 

I have read Mary Shelley's most famous novel, "Frankenstein", a number of times now throughout my life. It first made its way into my life via the Universal monster movies that were The novel, the history of its origin and its legacy fascinate me. I don't think I am overstating the novel's status by calling it an enigma. The novel breaks with the conventions of the Gothic fiction of its day and is considered by many to be the first example of a science fiction novel. Since its first publication, the novel and its author have been thoroughly dissected by fascinated academics. She was apparently born during an electrical storm, the genus of the novel occurred during an electrical storm and Percy Shelley, her poet husband, was killed when his boat ran into a storm at sea.

Reginald Easton painted this miniature portrai...
Reginald Easton painted this miniature portrait of Mary Shelley, on a flax coloured background. It incorporates a circlet backed by blue, the same seen in the Rothwell painting and a shawl. Seymour, p543 Abinger Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley lived a life of rich influence. Both her parents were independently famous. Her mother, Mary Wolstonecraft, who died not long after she gave birth to Mary, pioneered the feminist movement and her book, "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects", is perhaps one of the most influential books in the history of the English printed word. Melvyn Bragg certainly thought so. Her father, William Godwin, was a no less famous radical political writer and novelist. Mary came of age in the Romantic movement and was very close to some of its most famous poets. She married Percy Bysshe Shelley and, like him, was a close friend of Lord Byron. Combine these intellectual influences with a life of tragedy, including the death of her mother after Mary was born, the premature death of her husband and the deaths of all four of her children and any psychologist is going to have a field day with the content of "Frankenstein". There is a type of energy that drives the work. It is difficult not imagine the story without seeing fork and sheet lighting strike and blaze around it. 

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Cover of Percy Bysshe Shelley
However, it is interesting to note that much of the imagery we have of "Frankenstein" might have a lot to do with Percy Shelley. He was very interested in the sciences and conducted experiments involving kites, which are not mentioned in the novel, but are present in film adaptations of the work. The later scenes of Universal's "Bride of Frankenstein" come to mind. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics' edition of "Frankenstein", Maurice Hindle notes that the more one considers the contemporary observations of Percy Shelley and sets them beside Victor Frankenstein the more apparent it seems that the character was directly based on the famous poet. It is a very convincing argument. Shelley wrote a preface to Mary's book and had actively encouraged her to write the novel. The book was originally released under a pseudonym and many speculated then, just some historians have speculated today, that Percy Shelley was the novel's real author. However, the evidence does not really stack up well. As one rather unkind critic remarked after highlighting certain ludicrous plot points, the tale of a creator who suffers so much at the hands of his monster and yet does not destroy it, is in line with a maternal psychology we can see in Mary. 

There is a parallel case with John Polidori's hugely influential novella, "The Vampye: A Tale" (which is contained as an appendix in the Penguin Classic edition). The work was attributed to Lord Byron and Polidori felt the need to write a short preface to a later edition of the work to state that this wasn't the case. Nevertheless, the character of Lord Ruthven is clearly based on Byron's scandalous image and one of his conquests seems to be have been inspired by his ex-lover-turned-stalker, Lady Caroline Lamb. Lamb had already written her own novel three years before Polidori with another character called Lord Ruthven, a rakish figure that was blatantly a unflattering fictionalization of Lord Byron.

The character of Victor Frankenstein is a sympathetic and human role, but he is also an example of the overreacher and his life resembles the legend of Faust. The meeting between Frankenstein and the explorer, Walton, that bookend the story make the strong argument against the perils of become obsessed with challenging nature. Despite the progressive radicals that surrounded and clearly impressed Mary (she dedicated the novel to her father), her tale is a cautionary one. Hindle quotes Mary eventually becoming a staunch moderate who warned against extremism in any direction. It might be concluded that she saw the dangers of radicalism around her and Shelley's own forceful attitude spoke to her fears. Polidori wrote "The Vampyre" after he had fallen out with Byron and he models the story's mortal opponent of Ruthven on himself. It might be argued that Victor Frankenstein is Mary's subtler and kinder critique of her electrifying husband...

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