Her hideous progeny: The story of Mary Shelley and the birth of the modern Prometheus

Gautham Shenoy November 18, 2017 8 min

It was a dark and stormy night in June, when Lord Byron issued a famous writing challenge, during the summer of 1816. Paradoxical when you consider 1816 is known as the Year Without A Summer. An anomaly caused by the massive eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before, causing massive climate change across the world. The sun obscured and darkened, the weather dismal, damp and depressing. The perfect gloomy, doomy setting, for the telling of bleaker, Gothic tales of the macabre and the fantastic supernatural.

Left: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin). Right: 1819 portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint.

But the sequence of events which led to the writing challenge really begins in 1814. Mary Godwin – the 16-year-old daughter of William Godwin, novelist, political philosopher and the first modern proponent of anarchism, and Mary Wollstonecraft, writer and amongst the earliest advocates of women’s rights – reciprocates the advances of, and falls in love with, one of her father’s political followers, the already-married Percy Bysshe Shelley, amongst the major English Romantic poets, and considered by many to be one of the finest lyric poets. They elope, accompanied by Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont, and travel across France and Switzerland. The couple would soon return to England, only to face ostracisation and a life of debt. In the meanwhile, having seen her half-sister with a poet and jealous, Claire decides that she wants to have a dalliance with a Romantic poet of her own, and so begins a liaison with one who ‘woke up and found himself famous’, George Gordon Byron, or Lord Byron.

Lord Byron – apart from being ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ – was also a celebrity, but all his love affairs and escapades would soon land him in debt. In 1816, the year without a summer, with ever-increasing debts and in the midst of scandals, Lord Byron would leave England – for ever as it turned out – leaving behind his wife and infant daughter, Augusta (who would grow up to be the famed Lady Ada Lovelace, the first ‘computer programmer’). Accompanied by his personal physician, John William Polidori, Lord Byron would travel through Belgium and finally reach Switzerland in May.

Left: Painting of Lord Byron in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillips in 1813. Right: John Polidori, Byron’s friend and personal physician.

Persuaded by, and chiefly due to the fact that, Claire Clairmont was possibly pregnant with Byron’s child – Percy Shelley, still married to another, and Mary Godwin – though she called herself ‘Mrs. Shelley’, would as plan to spend the summer in Switzerland with Lord Byron, and on reaching Lake Geneva would take up residence in a small house. Lord Byron and John Polidori arrived not much later, with Byron renting out a neighbouring mansion that John Milton was once supposed to have lived in, the Villa Diodati, which would serve as the venue for the conception of path breaking, genre-creating stories.

The Villa Diodati – the mansion where Percy Shelly, Lord Byron, Polidori and Mary Shelly – spent days indoors, and where Frankenstein was conceived. Engraving by Edward Finden, after William Purser.

The weather was unseasonably cold and stormy, and Mary Shelley would later write, ‘…it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house’. So it came to be that the rains would kept them all indoors for days, during which time they would discuss matters both literary, and ‘scientific’. They would discuss how Luigi Galvani had made dead frogs’ legs twitch by the application of an electric current. They spoke of the theories of Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) which speculated that electricity might be used to bring inanimate objects to life. All of which would take root firmly in the 18-year-old Mary Shelley’s mind. “Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener”, Mary would write later. Joining them was John Polidori’s whose medical knowledge helped bring a balance to the wild and speculative possibilities that the two poets discussed.

At night, the interiors lit by dim candles, the four read tales of horror from Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of German ghost stories. Byron read from Christabel, the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem in which Geraldine’s character appears as a woman, but is in fact a Lamia, a serpent-like creature considered in Greek myth to be a child-devouring, night-haunting demon. The stage was set.

“’We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron”, Mary Shelly would writer later when speaking about the writing challenge, and having accepted the challenge busied herself with trying to think up a story, ‘one which 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’. Polidori, she recalls, had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady. But at least Polidori came up with one. Mary Shelly couldn’t. Percy Shelley speedily relinquished his uncongenial task.

Lord Byron began writing a tale, which he would leave unfinished, called ‘Fragment of a Novel’, a proto-vampire story. The theme and story of which John Polidori would expand upon, and write the novella for he is famous – The Vampyre, with the protagonist Lord Ruthven, the aristocratic British nobleman and vampire, modelled on Lord Byron himself. As the progenitor of the vampire sub-genre of horror/fantasy fiction, The Vampyre would influence – in the years to come – a book called Dracula by Irish author Abraham Stoker.

In the meanwhile at the Villa Diodati, the night, on which the challenge was issued, passed. As did the next day. ‘Have you thought of a story?’ Mary Shelley was asked each morning, and each morning was forced to reply in the negative. The conversations though continued though through the day and well the night, about the creation of life, galvanism and re-animating corpses.

Left: A 1940 portrait of Mary Shelly, by Richard Rothwell. Right: Illustration by Theodor von Holst from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’.

Mary Shelly recounts her nightmare, or rather her waking dream as she called it, in her introduction to the first edition to credit her as the author (the 1818 edition being published anonymously), the 1831 edition of ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus‘, for that is the book’s full title:

‘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….I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision… the pale student of the 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…to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handy work, horror-stricken…. 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.’

And so was born Frankenstein the book, and the most famous of all literary monsters, Frankenstein’s monster. And the rest as they say is history.

In her conclusion to her introduction to the 1831 edition, from which I have drawn her recollections from, Mary Shelly writes, “I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper”. And how it has done so! In less than two months, Frankenstein will be 200 years old, but having lost none of the charm, with an influence that refuses to ever wane. So, in time for the bicentennial of a book that the Grand Master of science fiction, Brian Aldiss called the first science fiction novel – a book that has made generations of people think about science and its moral consequences, of the complex relationship between the creator and the creation – may I suggest a re-read of this classic.

What better way to celebrate a book, than to read it?

And speaking of celebrations, it’s time to announce the winner of the contest announced in last week’s edition of New World’s Weekly. The question was, ‘Name at least one Indian SF work you will be reading in 2037.’ And winning a copy of Samit Basu’s metahuman duology – Turbulence and Resistance – is Saaransh Mishra for his “Will Androids respect National Anthem?”, a phildickian Indian SF book that he hopes to read twenty years hence. Congratulations Saraansh! Get in touch with us with your mailing address and other details, and get ready to enjoy these two great books.

On that happy and winning note, I sign off for this week. Do keep the comments, criticisms and suggestions coming in. You can tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD or leave a comment below. I hope to see back here again next weekend, for yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly.

Live long and prosper!

Lead image by American artist Rodger Pister (https://rodgerpister.deviantart.com/)