The genesis of “Frankenstein” began in 1816 when young Mary Shelley and a group of illustrious writers sat around a fireplace telling ghost stories; Shelley’s eventual book, “Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus,” was released on New Year’s Day of 1818.
On a miserably rainy night in June 1816, a group of friends and lovers huddled around the fireplace in their rented villa near Lake Geneva, telling ghost stories and challenging each other to write frightening tales of their own. From that evening came perhaps the most famous horror story of all time: “Frankenstein,” published 200 years ago this month.
Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein,” was far from the most famous writer around that fire; she was, at the time, 19-year-old Mary Godwin, daughter of the early feminist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft. She had become notorious by running off to the Continent with then-married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and having a child with him. He, Lord Byron, Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont (who became pregnant with Byron’s child that summer) and Byron’s personal physician John Polidari (himself suffering from a crush on Mary) made up that rather complicated house party. (If all this sounds like it should be a movie, rest assured that it soon will be: “Mary Shelley,” starring Elle Fanning in the title role, will be in theaters later this year.)
It’s not entirely clear exactly what, other than that dark night, inspired young Mary Shelley to create a tale of a living monster created as a grotesque scientific experiment by young Victor Frankenstein. But, in an introduction to a later edition of “Frankenstein,” she wrote of the idea coming in the form of a waking dream in which “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.”
Her eventual book, “Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus,” was turned down by two publishers before Lackington’s, described by biographer Charlotte Gordon as “an undistinguished house with a list of hack writers,” agreed to a small print run, released on New Year’s Day of 1818. Critics were angered by the book, published anonymously, and decried its author as an atheist. Though “Frankenstein” was republished twice in her lifetime (in 1822 and, heavily revised, in 1831), Mary Shelley never earned royalties from it.
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You wonder what Mary, if she could see us now, would think of what became of her monster; the blocky-headed creature of numerous movies, Halloween costumes, giggles (think “Young Frankenstein,” one of cinema’s great comedies) and nightmares. But it seems right that we give some attention, on the book’s anniversary, to that monster’s creator, whose life story — and her mother’s — was beautifully told recently in Gordon’s book “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley,” which tells the tale of the two remarkable Marys (whose lives only overlapped by 10 days). Gordon chooses to let their stories unfold not chronologically, but side by side in alternating chapters; an audacious choice that lets us see how the daughter’s life mirrored that of her unconventional mother.
Also fascinating reading, if you want to know more about that group around the fire: Daisy Hay’s 2010 book “Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives” — a group biography particularly good at bringing to life the shadowy figure of Claire. And a new biography solely of Mary Shelley, written by the British poet and literary critic Fiona Sampson, will be out this summer from Pegasus Books: “In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote ‘Frankenstein.’ ”
Should you wish to acquaint yourself with Shelley’s original tale, Penguin Classics has reissued “Frankenstein: The 1818 Text” in paperback, with a new introduction by Gordon. And Liveright Publishing has issued a handsome coffee-table-worthy edition of “The New Annotated Frankenstein,” complete with numerous notes and illustrations. (In one, the Villa Diodati, where “Frankenstein” began, gazes out at Lake Geneva in quiet dignity; that house, which still stands, clearly has stories to tell.)
I was surprised to realize, when I first heard recently of the anniversary, that though I know the Frankenstein story well I’d never actually read Shelley’s book before. Reading it in the annotated version is a luxury; the notes explain much which might not be otherwise clear, and spell out some differences in the varying versions of the text. There’s a puzzle-box complicity to the narrative, which unfolds in letters and remembrances by multiple characters (not unlike Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” published some seven decades later), and there are sections that feel undeniably slow to contemporary eyes.
But try not to shiver when reading Shelley’s description of the nameless creature (who, unlike in its popular incarnation, is not called Frankenstein) upon its birth, in the light of a nearly burnt-out candle. “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous lack, 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 color as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips.” You read it thinking of that teenager, long ago, on that dark night. The fire burning in the hearth wasn’t the only dazzling light in that room.
The great horror filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, in an introduction to the annotated version, draws a comparison between Mary Shelley and the Brontë sisters (one of whom, Emily, was born 200 years ago this year). “I would love to travel back to contemplate life with these remarkable women,” he writes, “to hear them speak, to walk by their side on cold beaches or moors and under impossibly steely skies.”