Twitter is abuzz with opinions about Frankenstein’s monster – is he a killer or a victim? Whichever side you fall on, there is no doubting the legacy of this character and the book he appears in.
On the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, historical fiction writer and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley fan, Kate Mosse shared insight on what makes the Frankenstein novel an enduring classic.
Mosse, who is also the founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is best known for her Languedoc trilogy, the first of which, Labyrinth, was adapted as a mini-series starring Sebastian Stan. Speaking to a packed audience at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai at a special session dedicated to the anniversary, Mosse explained why the story has lived on and why Mary Shelley was ahead of her time.
Mary Shelley’s Life Influenced Her Monster
Despite the importance of separating the artist from the art, Mosse says that she would be remiss to not find parallels between Shelley’s life and her work. Shelley wrote the story when she was only 18 and the experiences she had had by then are heart-breaking.
Shelley’s story begins with her mother, the extraordinary Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer of the women’s rights movement. Her most well-known work was The Vindication of the Rights of Women. “[Wollstonecraft] was living an example of a life that was not always expected of an intelligent woman of the time… She was not saying that women and men were the same. What she was saying at the time was that everybody, male or female, should be able to live a life that gave them what they needed.”
Another remarkable quality of Mary Shelley’s family was that they were a “family of scribblers”, as Mosse describes them. “They were writing down everything all of the time… So, when it came time for [Shelley] to start writing her great novel, she had already been practicing; she was fit; she was already a writer a long time before her book ever came out.”
Wollstonecraft died eleven days after Shelley was born, an event that clearly left its mark on her. “What is Frankenstein really about?” asks Mosse of the audience. “It’s often described as a novel about god playing man and about man playing god; who has the right to give life? But, it is often about orphans and parents and what it means to not know love.”
Mosse believes that this is why the novel lives with us even now. “It’s not just about science and how life is created. It’s about what happens when you don’t know what it is like to be loved. And that, of course, is the great tragedy of Creature.”
In addition, Shelley’s own struggles with illness shaped her views for the book. “Shelley went through a period of time when she was in her early teens when she was very badly disfigured by skin diseases… she had to often be encased in bandages.” Shelley thus poured her experience into writing Frankenstein’s monster, having known what it was like to be so “reviled and perceived as so awful by people that they recoil in horror. Being a child who is completely covered in this terrible skin problem and bandages, we start to see where that might come into her fiction.”
When Mary Shelley was 17, she was wooed by her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, the romantic poet and a close friend of her father’s, at the rather macabre scene of her mother’s grave. “It was the only place where they could sneak away and be private. So, much of the love affair started standing outside a church in St. Pancras, at the grave of a mother that Mary had never known. PB Shelley was still married at the time and it would be a few years before his wife died of drowning. Despite his marital status, Mary Shelley eloped with PB Shelley.
Mary Shelley’s life was also marked by several miscarriages, starting when she was still a teenager. In addition to the loss of her mother so soon after her birth, her first miscarriage compounded her complicated relationship with birth and death, a relationship we see elaborated upon in the book.
There Is A Story Behind the Story
The infamous story behind the birth of the concept of Frankenstein is well-known, especially among literary circles, but there is more to the story than most realise.
In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley, her step-sister, Claire Claremont, Byron, who was Claremont’s partner, PB Shelley and fellow writer John Polidori found themselves stranded in Polidori’s home. Following a volcanic eruption the year before, all of Europe and Great Britain was covered in an ash cloud that effectively blocked out sunlight and brought relentless rain. Thus, 1816 came to be known as the year without a summer.
Mosse gives the audience a sense of the atmosphere. “It wasn’t just that they were sitting on one day when it started to rain; they were in an environment where it looked as if the sun had been blotted out.” Shelley and Claremont were both most likely pregnant but, far from being a joyous affair, “everywhere there was this sense that the world was about to end”. To lighten the mood, Byron suggested the group make up stories to amuse themselves.
The 17 or 18-year-old Mary Shelley struggled to think of a story, which consequently caused her a great deal of stress. Her mind kept returning to the “nature of life – where it came from” and that was how the spark of an idea came to her. Mosse elaborates: “What about the idea of someone trying to bring life to something that doesn’t seem to exist? Not a woman giving birth to a child, which she was not able to do at this stage, but what about an ordinary person in a workshop in a wet and cold, dark European city. Seeing what it means to breathe life.” Between the stark weather and her own losses, the elements of her life had come together to bring Frankenstein to Mary Shelley’s mind.
Critics Thought A Man Wrote Frankenstein
Despite capturing her friends’ imagination with her story, Shelley did not write the book while at Polidori’s home or even shortly after. Instead, she gained impetus to write the book on her return to the UK following a series of tragedies – the loss of another child, the death of her half-sister, Fanny, of overdose, and the death of PB Shelley’s wife. “Between the idea of writing this book and actually finishing the book… there had been a succession of death and loss,” Mosse says.
Frankenstein was first published in January, 1818 and it was conspicuously missing the name of the author. The book opened with an introduction by PB Shelley and included a dedication to William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father. For these reasons, Mosse explains, people assumed that PB Shelley had authored the book. “She was invisible in the creation of this extraordinary character,” Mosse says, and the audience groan at the injustice.
Unlike in present day when reviews appear almost instantaneously on social media and the web, reviews took longer to arrive in Shelley’s time. By the time the first reviews came pouring in, the Shelleys had left the UK and were travelling. In fact, Mary Shelley actively avoided reading people’s thought on her book. Shelley wanted Frankenstein to be a “different sort of book”, stressed Mosse, but would critics understand that?
“Some of them thought it was fabulous and others not so much,” says Mosse, who singles out a review that she felt Shelley would have particularly appreciated – that of Edinburgh magazine, Blackwood’s. In their review, Blackwood’s wrote – “The author’s principle object is less to produce an effect by means of the marvels of narration than to open new trains and channels of thought.” And that is what Frankenstein continues to do.
Adaptations Don’t Get the Essence of the Novel
If you watch adaptations of Frankenstein, you are most likely not going to see a connection with the novel. Characters from the book are left out on screen; others, like Igor, were added in early film adaptations and have become such a mainstay of the Frankenstein mythos, that many are surprised to find Igor doesn’t exist in the book. Even the framing device of the book is completely ignored in cinematic and theatrical re-tellings of the story.
The story is told through letters written by Captain Robert Walton, a character rarely seen in adaptations. Walton is travelling to the arctic on his ship when he finds the monster on an ice flow. Walton rescues Frankenstein, who has followed his creation all the way to the arctic, following which Frankenstein shares his story with Walton. Essentially, the entire narrative is a report.
Also, far from being a horror novel, Mosse explains that Frankenstein “is entirely a cautionary tale… that ambition to overreach yourself will lead to disaster. The whole of the novel is about the fact that [Frankenstein] never thought about what he was doing, or the consequences of what he was doing when he created Creature. It is a novel of loss. It is a novel about what happens when you don’t want to be born.”
The book is surprisingly scant on details about the monster. We learn that he is eight feet tall and that his skin is grisly. He is covered in bandages – a parallel to Shelley’s teenage years when she was suffering from skin disease. “That teenage girl who suffered so badly put some of herself into that monster,” as so many writers want to do.
Far from being a heartless monster, Mary Shelley’s creature in the novel wants to learn love, which he does not receive from his creator. It is when the creature spies on a family and sees the affection between them that he learns what he is missing from his existence. The monster pleads with Frankenstein, much as Adam does to god in Milton’s Paradise Lost, says Mosse, that by creating him, Frankenstein has a duty to love and care for the monster. This poignant and powerful moment of humanity has often been left out of pop culture adaptations, unfortunately, but it is the core of the novel.
The monster eventually asks Frankenstein to make a female companion for him, which Frankenstein almost goes ahead with until he realises that by doing so, he could be creating a new species with the power to destroy humanity. Frankenstein destroys the female creature, thus invoking the ire of his creation. It isn’t until this betrayal, that the monster’s killing spree begins.
As Mosse points out, the monster never attempts to kill Frankenstein, but those that Frankenstein loves, because the monster realises that losing one’s life is nowhere near as terrible as losing the ones you love. Shelley gave her monster much more nuance than she has been given credit for.
Mosse shows the audience an extraordinary map of the various locations within the novel. Shelley included in her book not just an emotional journey, but also a physical one, “which absolutely replicates the way that Mary and Shelley lived. They were forever moving on and going somewhere else”. The story takes the characters to Scotland, Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and then the North Pole, a place as cold as the monster’s heart is by that point in the story.
But what makes the novel so heartfelt and enduring is the powerful image towards the end of her novel – the monster holding his dead maker/father and realising that, after everything that has transpired between the two of them, he still has no peace, and never will. “In the end, we all understand that there is no peace in loss,” says Mosse. People tend to focus on Shelley’s statement in Frankenstein about man playing god, but many often gloss over the fact that Frankenstein is “a negligent parent”. Despite the fact that most of the death in the novel is caused by the monster, Mosse believes, as many readers do, that it is the monster “who is hardest done by”.
Frankenstein Wasn’t Shelley’s Only Novel
Far from being her only written work, Frankenstein is one of several novels and travel books that Shelley eventually wrote. Following the success of Frankenstein, Shelley took a short break from writing. But again, it was death and loss that drove her to writing. Her next novels were written following the deaths of two children and her friend, John Polidori. PB Shelley also died while boating a few years later, never seeing his only surviving child with Mary Shelley, Percy Florence. Shelley was very close to her son, who managed to live to a ripe old age, and take care of his mother.
Mosse implores the audience to read Shelley’s other works. “She is more than just Frankenstein.” A historical fiction writer herself, Mosse says she learnt everything she knew about Perkin Warbeck from Mary Shelley’s book, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck. “When you think of all of those extraordinary things that [Shelley] suffered and that she still managed to write all of these other novels,” she deserves to be read.
In addition to her own writing, Shelley also worked hard to keep her husband’s legacy going. “Without Mary Shelley keeping PB Shelley’s name alive, would he have been so well-known today?” wonders Mosse. Shelley was editing PB Shelley’s poetry and publishing his remaining work, not without opposition from others who felt they had a right to PB Shelley’s legacy.
It wasn’t just PB Shelley’s work that people fought over. When Mary Shelley’s box desk was found, inside were the locks of her dead children’s hair as well as part of her husband’s heart. This relic of PB Shelley’s heart was hotly contested and many fought Shelley for ownership of it. Shelley had to battle quite a while and eventually won the rights to half of the heart. You could not get more macabre or gothic than that!
“[Mary Shelley] had a really tough life,” says Mosse. “She died painfully; she lived painfully, but the legacy of this book, what a legacy!” Mosse ends to rapturous applause from the audience. Frankenstein has never been out of print and all editions since 1823 have had Mary Shelley’s name on the cover.
Frankenstein and Pop Culture
Though many of us first learnt of Frankenstein through the horror films, Mosse says that the story spoke to modern times even when it was first published. “It’s the idea of the unknown, the idea of something that is monstrous, that looks like a person but is bigger than a person.”
Barely a few years after Mary Shelley’s death, her character, Frankenstein’s monster, was being given new life by popular culture. Modern audiences are often criticised for confusing the creator with his creation but even in the 18th and 19th centuries were people, even newspapers, erroneously referring to Frankenstein as the terrifying, inhumane monster. It soon became common parlance to use the term ‘Frankenstein’ to describe any number of ghastly things.
“We know what it is as writers, to create a character that steps outside of the pages of the book,” says Mosse. “It steps outside of the context within which it was written to become cultural; it’s bigger than just the book it comes from.”
But pop culture has not been kind to Frankenstein. Early film adaptations centralised the character of Igor, who does not exist in the novel. The monster’s now-famous appearance – large face, bolts in its neck, the lumbering stride and outstretched arms – none of that was in the novel. “[Frankenstein] went from being a story that was thoughtful, thought-provoking and upsetting, about grief and ambition and loss of love, to being the fuelling of an entire movement of horror films.”
However, Mosse does not think the adaptations are bad for the book. In fact, she tells the audience that these adaptations, far from harming the book, have brought new readers to it. People who watch the films and stage adaptations, then go back to the original book to learn about the genesis of the story.
Gothic Tradition and Pioneering Science-Fiction
According to Mosse, Gothic fiction is about balancing opposites, light and dark, love and hate, “extreme environments and the force of nature”. Frankenstein was actually part of an existing tradition that had begun in 1764, with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Gothic writing was the “mass fiction of the day”, says Mosse, and attracted both male and female writers.
The 18th century lent itself to this kind of story because, once the sun went down, and with no electricity to illuminate their surroundings, there actually was complete darkness around people, which helped spark people’s imaginations. One cannot know what one cannot see and that is when the mind fills in the gaps in the shadows. “What every good ghost story or gothic fiction is about is our own fears. It is never about the outside; it is what you, in your mind, see.”
However, the genre veered mostly towards “schlocky horror”, much like the films of the 1930s, but Frankenstein changed the game. According to Mosse, Frankenstein showed readers and critics that there was more to the ethos of the stories that was visible on the surface. Mosse compares Frankenstein to contemporary crime fiction, an incredibly popular genre that is often dismissed as light reading. But the best crime writers are the ones “telling you something about society and life and the human heart beneath it.”
Frankenstein does this by asking readers the important questions, says Mosse – “Who are we? What do we want? When we write a story or tell a story; to what purpose are we doing that? And, at what price do we tame the darkness?… Gothic fiction without Mary Shelley would simply be horror – death and destruction, the body count going higher and higher.” It was the first of its kind to do so and, 200 years later, Frankenstein continues to ask these questions of its readers.
Frankenstein did not just change the game for gothic fiction; it gave rise to a whole new kind of fiction – science-fiction. Kate Mosse quotes Brian Aldiss who said Frankenstein was the first science-fiction novel. Mosse elucidates the elements that lend to Aldiss’ theory. “It’s not just about science – can humankind create life, can it bring something back to life, can you build a machine – but, on the other side of that, is the fear of disease. That is very prevalent, often in science-fiction and dystopic fiction, where all of humankind has been wiped out by a plague.”
Up until the 1900s, almost 50% of children in the UK died before their fifth birthday, says Mosse. This is what people of the time were scared of – of catching something and dying. They were also afraid of mutation, which again parallels the descriptions we read of the monster in Frankenstein.
With The Sun erroneously lambasting students, ‘snowflakes’, in their words, for thinking the monster from Frankenstein is misunderstood, The Observer writing that Mary Shelley’s husband deserves credit for the book, and a vlogger claiming that Shelley’s science-fiction wasn’t the ‘hard sci-fi’ that Jules Verne wrote, Mosse has helped set the record straight about one of the greatest and most enduring books of all time.
Mary Shelley has not been given enough credit for her creation, which has been attributed to men, mauled by pop culture and reduced to ‘light fiction’, all because a woman, a girl, really, wrote it. But Shelley’s story and her characters are far more complex and relevant, even in this day. Frankenstein has been loved for 200 years; it will live on for centuries more.
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