|Frankenstein: 200 Years of Horror History Part 2
Continuing in our year-long celebration of the 200th year publication of the novel Frankenstein
or The Modern Prometheus we are re-publishing this wonderful article written by our own Rose
Titus from a few issues back. Her article about Frankenstein's true creator Mary Shelley was so
inspiring that it was just a given that we should re-run it again for all of you to enjoy once again.
Frankenstein’s Mother: Mary Shelley
By Rose Titus
Most people think of “Frankenstein’s Monster” as being a creation of
Universal Studios, a terrifying, undead being that materialized from the
mists of Hollywood’s black and white movie past. But no…
Most people do not realize that Frankenstein was created by a young
lady of the early nineteenth century. And while almost everyone knows
that Bram Stoker wrote the novel “Dracula,” possibly based on the his-
torical Vlad Dracula, warlord of Transylvania, very few horror fans know
of Mary Shelley, and how the world she lived in, along with her dysfunctional personal life, inspired her
novel, “Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus.” In fact, as it was improper for ladies to write of such
horrible things, the novel was first published anonymously, thus causing much speculation as to its author.
Mary Godwin was the daughter of the Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of “A Vindication for the Rights of
Woman,” in which it was stated that woman was made to be merely “the toy of man, his rattle, and it must
jingle in his ears, dismissing reason, whenever he chooses to be amused.” Mary Wollstonecraft married
the intellectual William Godwin and their daughter Mary, it was said, was born during a lightning storm.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin died soon after the birth of her daughter, due to a mistake made by a
nineteenth century physician who did fatal internal damage to the mother after the child was born.
Young Mary and her sisters grew up in the Godwin household, and as her father was a man interested
in all things intellectual, he often held meetings in his home with the most brilliant minds of the time period.
The girls would secretly listen from a hidden place while their father sat with scientists and various others,
discussing what was considered back then to be cutting edge.
One such subject the girls listened in on was the new science of electricity.
As science was primitive in the nineteenth century, many speculated that electricity was perhaps the
source of life, and that if electricity could be applied to a corpse, then perhaps the dead could be brought
back to life. Today, of course, we know that is not true, for if you apply electricity to muscle tissue, it may
simply cause a physical reaction, and nothing more. However, many scientists and doctors at the time
conducted such experimentation on dead frogs, and saw that the legs moved when electrodes were
applied. To produce electricity, they relied of electrical storms, or hand cranked generator-like machines
and primitive types of batteries.
Soon larger animal carcasses were used, and one physician looking to “raise the dead” wrote that he
caused the eyes of a dead ox to open, that the animal appeared to look around. After this incident with
the ox took place, many nineteenth century “scientists” were using such techniques to put on a show,
attempting to make recently dead animals live again, before a shocked and horrified audience. It was not
long before the attempt was made on mankind, with grave robbers making money from these endeavors,
supplying the raw materials for experimentation in exchange for money. And of course, Mary Godwin
knew of these things, for discussions of these curiosities and scientific misadventures took place in her
One such visitor to the Godwin household was the handsome but eccentric Percy Shelley, who was
known as “Mad Shelley” to friends during his school days. He was already married, of course, but that did
not stop his wandering heart from falling deeply for Mary Godwin. She loved him in return, and there was a
scandal worthy of today’s reality TV. To escape the gossip, they made their way to the European
continent, while Mary was with child, another reason that she was not accepted in proper society.
Although she was talked about poorly by those who considered themselves to be of decent society, she
was young, in love, and possibly experiencing one of the few times in her life when she would have a small
amount of happiness…
Tragedy struck soon after the birth of her daughter. She woke up one morning to find the baby was
dead, leaving her and Percy desolate. One night soon after, she dreamed the baby had come back to life,
and awakened hoping it to be true, but of course, it was only a sad dream.
They continued to travel, as they were not really welcome anywhere that they were known, and
eventually found themselves in the company of the notorious Lord Byron, who was said to be “mad, bad,
and dangerous to know.” As Byron was handsome, women chased after him. After finding out what he
was really like, women would run away in the other direction, fast. Lord Byron once bragged to Percy
about having committed a murder of a young woman, but Percy wasn’t sure if the tale was to be believed.
Lord Byron was known to take delight in shocking people, and as he was also known to be insane, he
enjoyed making sure everyone knew that he was, in fact quite mad. However mad he was, the novel would
never be written if not for Lord Byron. For it was he who suggested to his companions that they all attempt
to write their own ghost stories, for fun and for competition.
In their travels, Percy and Mary may have also learned of the name Frankenstein, as a large castle in
Germany belonged to this noble family. Legend has it that a German knight, Sir Frankenstein, actually
fought Vlad Dracula in one of his battles. An odd coincidence of history, the real Frankenstein having met
the real Dracula on the field of battle. Neither would ever know how famous, or infamous, they were to
become in later centuries, or of their immortal contributions to literature.
The runaway couple also became acquainted with Dr. Polidori, who was temporarily friends with Lord
Byron, as many of Byron’s friends were temporary. Polidori was the author of “The Vampyre,” the main
character being attractive, yet dangerous. Possibly this character was based on Lord Byron. Soon Dr.
Polidori grew tired of Byron’s rude commentary, his outrageous behavior, and parted company. If Lord
Byron was not a wealthy member of the upper classes, it is very likely he would have spent a good part of
his useless and dissolute life in prison, or in a mad house.
Tragedy struck again when Mrs. Shelley was reported to have died – by suicide. Left alone and with no
means of support, Harriet Shelley threw herself into a river. Percy now had regrets, but was left free to
marry Mary Godwin.
By now Mary Shelley’s life, her sadness at the loss of her child, and perhaps her guilt from feeling
partially responsible for Harriet Shelley’s death, was weighing heavily on her, and her love affair was
perhaps no longer giving her happiness. She began having nightmares... In her dreams she saw the body
of a dead man, suddenly to come back to life, and the figure of a man beside the monster he created.
Could this vision be from her subconscious mind, showing her the monster her own personal life had
become? As she finally awakened to the fact that she left home to be with a married man, to have a baby
and see it die, to cause another woman’s death, to be the cause of embarrassment to her family and the
cause of scandal…? Yes, without knowing it, without meaning to, she created a monster. By being young,
foolish, and in love, she created her own monster that was out of control and destroying the lives of others.
And the horror was about to begin – on paper.
The original work is different from the movie released by Universal, as the creature in the novel is able
to communicate its thoughts and emotions. The monster we know from the old black and white film is a
beast that seems to simply shuffle unintelligently about wherever it goes and cause mayhem.
Mary Shelley wrote two versions of her novel. In the first, the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein is a
tragic creature, and Dr. Frankenstein is at fault for all the problems caused by his experiments.
Frankenstein rejects and abandons his creation, causing the creature to become sad and lost in the world,
alone and unwanted, wandering around, frightened of people, never fitting in with society, and with
nowhere to call home, sometimes killing out of rage due to mistreatment. From this we can see inside
Mary Shelley’s troubled heart, of how Mary must have felt about herself and her life. She was beautiful,
intelligent, and yet never seemed to fit in anywhere she went. Because of her affair with a married man,
she was made to feel ashamed, and ostracized by all but a few who also lived the bohemian lifestyle that
artists and writers often favor.
In a later version, written after Percy’s sudden death in a boating accident, it seems that all the misery
of the tale is caused by fate, as if Mary had come to forgive herself, realizing the sadness that had come
into her life and the lives of others was not entirely her own doing.
Mary Shelley was surprised that her work became so popular, and it was presented on stage as a play
during her lifetime. But her life never became any easier. She lived a life of sadness and loss, losing her
mother at her birth, losing her baby, losing her second and third children, seeing Percy become unfaithful
with her own sister, seeing another sister die by suicide, and finally losing Percy to the sea. Her friends
Dr. Polidori and Lord Byron also passed away due to illness, making her feel even more alone in the
world. She would write to her father for help or emotional support of some kind, and he would write back
and express his constant disapproval. The hardship and disappointment she faced in her life would
defeat any mortal woman, but somehow, she managed to continue on. She thought once, or maybe twice,
of ending it all, like the first Mrs. Shelley. But she did not go through with it. Somehow, she managed to
keep on living.
She supported herself and her only surviving child, a son by Percy Shelley, through writing, and also
wrote a novel entitled “The Last Man,” about a plague that destroys all of humanity. No longer young, she
began to experience poor health, and her physicians could not do much for her. She died at age 53.
But her influence lives on. Not only is she “Frankenstein’s mother,” she is considered by some to be the
first true science fiction writer. In our century, many people have not even heard of her name, and do not
realize this famous work of horror and science fiction was written by a young, beautiful woman who was
brilliant yet somewhat naïve, who could not keep her own life in order.
But her stories will never die.
You can learn more about Mary Shelley’s life and work from “The Lady and Her Monsters,” by
Roseanne Montillo. An excellent book, you will also learn of the strange experiments performed on the
lifeless, and the numerous attempts to bring back the dead with bolts of electricity.
If you enjoy science fiction, you might want to read Fred Saberhagen’s “The Frankenstein Papers,” a
novel that tells “the despicable truth about Dr. Frankenstein and his monster with a heart of gold.”
Or, look for the original novel in your local library.
There are countless films with the Frankenstein monster as a character, including the original from
Universal Studios, and several sequels. A more modern and thoughtful version is “Frankenstein
Unbound,” which asks the eternal questions, should science even dare to create such things? What is the
difference between good and evil? Another excellent modern retelling, “The Bride” features rock star
Sting as the infamous Doctor, and he plays the part very well. This film makes us ask ourselves, what is
true beauty, and what is love?
These stories and films make us think of moral and ethical questions that are not easy to answer about
the problems we all face, and whether we are ourselves responsible for the monsters we create in our own
lives, whether we meant to or not.