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Creating Frankenstein: The Story of the Story

7th March 2024 by Lauren Randall

‘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?’’

Mary Shelley from Author’s Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition, Frankenstein (1831
ed)

Since its first anonymous publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern
Prometheus
has had a ferocious influence and impact on storytelling and popular culture.
Cited as the first science-fiction novel and regarded as a titan of both Gothic and Romantic
literature, Shelley’s contemplation of the human condition has captivated and terrorised
imaginations, becoming a template and touchstone for similar narrative explorations and a
reference ingrained in society. It is likely that a person who might not have read the
novel itself would still be familiar with the machinations and components of its story,
consciously or not: the creation gone wrong, exploring the possibilities and boundaries of life
and death, the beauty and brutality of the natural world, the responsibility of parenting.
Frankenstein speaks to the ever-changing world within and around it, while acknowledging
the unknowns that haunt the past, present and progress. That is the enduring legacy of the
novel: a story full of endless possibility, wonder and fear.

And Shelley was just shy of her nineteenth birthday when she began writing her story that
changed the world.

Frankenstein Production Photo by Ed Waring. Actors Georgia-Mae Myers and Nedum Okonyia. A woman and a man touch hands across a bed. Long, thin blue lights like electric rods hang above them. Props and other pieces of set behind and around them.
Frankenstein production photograph, by Ed Waring.

The tale of Frankenstein’s genesis is marvellous, a ghost story within a ghost story that feels
too good to be true. (Indeed, it has even inspired stories and films of its own, including Ken
Russell’s bombastic Gothic in 1986, starring a young Natasha Richardson as our authoress).
Perhaps there is some artistic license taken but it comes from Shelley’s own hand, recalled
in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel: ‘In the summer of 1816 we visited
Switzerland and became the neighbours of Lord Byron…’ (p.6). Known as the ‘Year Without
a Summer’, 1816 saw storms and cold temperatures sweep central Europe. Confined
indoors while the ‘incessant rain’ (p.6) raged outside, Byron, Shelley, her lover Percy Bysshe
(P.B.) Shelley, and Byron’s physician John Polidori decided to see who could write the best
ghost story, inspired by a German collection they had been reading together. P.B. Shelley
and Byron (who had suggested the competition) produced fragments of stories, whilst
Polidori incorporated one of Byron’s (allegedly) abandoned ideas into his more developed
narrative. The Vampyre was published in 1819, one year after Frankenstein; one of the
earliest iterations of a vampire tale printed in the English language, it forged long-lasting
tropes for those that followed, particularly the image of a powerful, sexual, corrupting
aristocrat vampire. In other circumstances, Polidori’s creation would have been the most
memorable creation of that contest.

Mary Shelley was the last to contribute a story until a late-night conversation with Byron
turned to the ‘the nature of the principle of life’, the possibility of reanimating a corpse and
the theory of galvanism: ‘perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured,
brought together, and endued with vital warmth’ (p.8). Her Introduction describes how later
that night, not quite asleep or awake, her imagination conjured up this creation and its
repercussions on the creature’s maker: ‘[The] success would terrify the artist […]. He would
hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which had communicated would fade’ (p.9).
Delighted that ‘what terrified’ her would ‘terrify the others’ in her company, Frankenstein was
born.

Frankenstein Production Photo by Ed Waring. Actors Georgia-Mae Myers and Nedum Okonyia. One actor is standing upstage; projections of mountains and ice are on the set walls and a free-standing television screen. Blue lighting.
Frankenstein production photograph, by Ed Waring.

Yet, as Shelley writes: ‘Every thing must have a beginning […]; and that beginning must be
linked to something that went before’ (p.8). Though Shelley’s ‘waking dream’ (p.9) brought
her creation to life, Frankenstein, much like its Creature, is made from many parts, brought
forwards from the past. The essence of Shelley’s novel might appear simple – a scientist
strives to create a new form of life – but it is bound in complex narrative threads and
contemplations fused from the literary, philosophical and political influences, and personal
tragedies, acquired by the author throughout her nineteen years.

These influences include, but are certainly not limited to: the visceral, terrifying beauty of the
sublime in the natural world, as explored in the Romantic works of Shelley’s contemporaries;
the mythology of Greek titan Prometheus, who delivered knowledge and technology to
humanity, and whom Roman poet Ovid depicts in Metamorphoses (8 AD) as making mankind
out of clay; the fall of man and banishment of Satan in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise
Lost
(1667), which appears in Frankenstein as a tool for the Creature to develop language
and learning; Shelley’s mother, writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, who died
eleven days after giving birth to her daughter and whose seminal essay A Vindication of the
Rights of Woman
(1792) argued that fair education and opportunity for women was vital to
society’s progression; Shelley’s father, William Godwin, whose anarchist writings scrutinised
institutional powers; the Age of Enlightenment and its ideology that knowledge could be
pursued and obtained by reason – which Shelley challenges by proposing that humanity is
not rational, capable or responsible enough to understand some of the discoveries it might
make; Shelley’s travels through Europe with her lover Percy; the loss of her own child when
she is just seventeen and the birth of a second by the time they arrive at that villa in Geneva
in the summer of 1816.

Of course, the story of Frankenstein does not end there. The novel was an almost immediate
success, so much so that Shelley was able to see a thriving stage adaptation by Richard
Brinsley Peake just five years after its first publication, which she writes of having enjoyed.
It received its first cinematic treatment in 1910, a thirteen-minute silent film by J. Searle
Dawley thought lost for decades, before James Whale’s iconic and groundbreaking 1931
horror film for Universal Pictures, starring Boris Karloff in Jack Pierce’s legendary make-up.
An astonishing amount and array of adaptations have followed, from faithful recreations to
interactions with Kaiju, Grand Guignol, Blaxploitation, postmodern storytelling, stop-motion
animation, the modern day, the future and some classic Mel Brooks humour. Frankenstein
has also appeared in stories that do not even say its name, becoming the blueprint for
the mad scientist and unloving maker, the amalgamation of horror and science and the
seemingly monstrous as a victim of society.

The mutability and continued relevance of Frankenstein is a product of how Shelley builds a
body of eternal questions. Why are we here? What is our place in the world? How do we
move forwards? What are our responsibilities as both created and creators of life? And the
true horror of Frankenstein is what happens when those questions are not treated with
respect. ‘I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper,’ writes Shelley in her 1831
introduction (p.10). Sent out in the world, nurtured and full with the foundations of life,
Frankenstein thrives as an integral part of our cultural fabric. You could argue that the way in
which her progeny has prospered is beyond her wildest dreams – but then we know just how
wild her dreams were.

Dr. Lauren Randall

Reference:
Mary Shelley, ‘Author’s Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition [1831]’, Frankenstein (Penguin Group: London, 1994), pp. 5-10

Frankenstein Production Photo by Ed Waring. Actors Georgia-Mae Myers and Nedum Okonyia. They are in shadow, backlit by blue lighting and projections of snowstorm. They are pushing a cabinet which has an orange projection of a lightbulb on it.
Frankenstein production photograph, by Ed Waring.

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