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Terrifying night visions: the origins of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so frequently asked me— “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote this in her introduction to the third edition of Frankenstein in 1831. Her account of the novel’s inspirations takes us back to her experiences as an 18-year-old girl (then still named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin). Mary spent the wet summer of 1816 close to the shores of Lake Geneva; she had travelled there with her lover, the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont. The group arrived in Geneva in order to meet with Lord Byron, an already successful author (albeit one mired in controversy), who had taken lodgings at the Villa Diodati. Claire had begun an affair with Byron back in England. Also present was the personal physician to Byron, John William Polidori. This group of young intellectuals spent their time reading and discussing literature and philosophy, including ghost stories from Fantasmagoriana (1812), as Mary explains:

[…] it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. […] I have not seen these stories since then; but their incidents are as fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.

“We will each write a ghost story,” said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to.

Mary then describes her inability ‘to think of a story’, and her disappointment in what felt like an utter failure in her task. She wanted to cause anxiety and fright, to write something that ‘would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart’. As the daughter of illustrious literary parents (William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, both writers and philosophers), she admits that ‘It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing’. Here was her chance to succeed in proving her talents, and Percy Shelley actively encouraged her to do so. Another late-night discussion on the role of science in modern society brought inspiration. Mary heard Lord Byron and Percy Shelley contemplating this topic one evening:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

Then, she explains, her own terrified thoughts, and something that ostensibly felt supernatural, took hold as she attempted to retire to bed:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. 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. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

I opened mine in terror.

As she explains in the 1831 introduction, Mary began her first transcript of the story with the words ‘It was on a dreary night of November’. The scene that she claimed she ‘saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision’ is reproduced in Vol I, Chapter IV of the first edition of Frankenstein (1818). Her depiction of the being’s horrible features is now a literary legend:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! — Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.

Mary Shelley’s description of the creature as it awakens is interrupted by another dream, that of Victor Frankenstein, the tortured protagonist:

Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured; and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch – the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the court-yard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.

Mary’s interest in dreams would have been influenced by the artists and thinkers that came before her, perhaps prompting the ‘waking dream’ narrative that she claims provided the basis for her story of the novel’s origins in Geneva, and her depiction of Victor’s subconscious cited above. Horace Walpole, author of what is commonly understood to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), claimed he was inspired by a dream. Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare was exhibited in 1782 at the Royal Academy; the work shocked viewers, and represents a fascination with the unconscious and what dreams might mean. In 1797, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would awake from an opium-induced dream and compose the unfinished masterpiece, ‘Kubla Khan: Or, A Vision in a Dream’.

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Furthermore, Frankenstein was not the only tale of horror that would emerge from those present in the Shelleys’ circle at Lake Geneva, as Polidori also wrote The Vampyre (1819). Polidori’s letter prefaced to this work describes a now infamous scene at the Villa Diodati where Byron’s recited Coleridge’s strange and unsettling poem Christabel. Percy Shelley ‘suddenly started up and ran out of the room’:

The physician and Lord Byron followed, and discovered him leaning against a mantel-piece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face […] his wild imagination having pictured to him the bosom of one of the ladies with eyes […] he was obliged to leave the room in order to destroy the impression.

A ‘wild imagination’ could be genuinely terrifying. Mary Shelley’s novel reflects this sentiment in her protagonist’s tragic realisation of his aim – or dream – of ‘infusing life into an inanimate body’, something he had desired with ‘an ardour that far exceeded moderation’. When Victor Frankenstein’s creation awakens all hope disintegrates: ‘the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form […] now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart’. Mary Shelley then presents the reader with haunting, menacing tale of pursuit and revenge. Her original idea has become a permanent fixture of culture (and certainly not just in literature, but in film and countless other formats).

Mary Shelley’s 1831 introduction to her most famous work is a retrospective, carefully constructed account of the events that led to the composition of her novel. It was 200 years ago that Mary was assembling and completing her ‘hideous progeny’, and as Halloween approaches imitations of her/Victor’s creature will be ubiquitous, a symbol of a ferocious being designed to terrorise its beholders (of course, often the cartoonish nature of the green monster is now not so much scary as comical). Yet the genesis of the story as recounted here reminds us that the original text was also designed to question ideas about human and intellectual advancement and the future. Mary Shelley’s text has often been read as a promoting a warning against scientific development. Yet in the book itself, Victor Frankenstein admits that although he has failed, ‘yet another may succeed’ (Vol III, Chapter VII) in such endeavours. The novel’s warnings about the flaws of humanity are far more complex than any reading that sees Frankenstein as a simple narrative encouraging us to be wary of progress.

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As a PhD student at the University of York, I am examining the collaborative literary relationship between Mary and Percy Shelley (the pair eventually married in December 1816), emphasising the social nature of creativity. My research includes considering how in writing the original preface to Frankenstein and a positive review of the text, Percy Shelley also contributed to the mystery surrounding the novel’s conception. Percy also edited Mary’s draft manuscript (This can be seen for free online at The Shelley-Godwin Archive). Mary included lines from Percy’s poetry in the novel; many assumed Percy to be the author at first. Collectively the Shelleys sought to beguile and captivate their readers with their ideas, a purpose reflected in Mary’s Shelley’s hope that ‘What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.’

Mary would go on to write five more full-length novels, including The Last Man (1826), which takes place in the future and shows her continued interest in speculative fiction. She would also edit her husband’s works, which he left in disarray after his untimely and tragic death off the coast of Italy in 1822 aged just 29. Mary Shelley’s position as an important author of the Romantic age and in the Gothic genre is increasingly recognised and celebrated. Incidentally, this is something I hope to contribute to, as I am organising The Shelley Conference in London next year, with a CFP open to anyone interested in either Percy or Mary Shelley, or both.

-Anna Mercer

Images:

Mary Shelley (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (exhibited 1782)

Frankenstein poster (director: James Whale, 1931)

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