The origins of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. 1818 edition


Engraving in a Victorian edition of the poetical works of Shelley from a portrait by Alfred Clint, now in the National Portrait Gallery.

1816 was ‘the year without a summer’. The previous year volcano Mt Tambora, in Indonesia, erupted, an event a thousand times more powerful than the recent Icelandic eruption that grounded aircraft across much of the world. The cloud of ash and dust still darkened the skies of the northern hemisphere the following year, adversely affecting the weather. [See this account at the Guardian]

In June 1816 the poet Percy Shelley, at the age of 23, accompanied by the 18-year-old Mary Godwin, daughter of radical philosopher and author William Godwin and the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – she and Shelley didn’t marry until late 1816, after his first wife Harriet had committed suicide [see below] – were


MaryWollstonecraft, portrait at the Tate Britain gallery

travelling through Europe. Mary had already experienced the trauma and grief of losing their baby daughter soon after her birth in 1815; they took their six-month-old second child William, named after her father, with them on this trip to Switzerland in 1819, by which time she had lost three very young children.

The Shelleys stayed at Cologny by the shores of Lake Geneva, but spent much time in the nearby Villa Diodati, where Byron (then aged 28) was staying, brooding over the dire weather that exacerbated his mood. He had been obliged to go into exile after the scandal of his profligate behaviour (including rumours of incest with his half-sister Augusta) that culminated in his separation from his wife of just over a year, Annabella (they’d had a daughter, Ada, later famous as Ada Lovelace, the pioneer of computer science). Annabella had left Byron, and initiated proceedings for a legal separation. England had become too hot even for him to stand.

Claire Clairmont

Claire Clairmont (1798-1879) by Amelia Curran, portrait now at Byron’s home of Newstead Abbey

Shelley’s group included Mary’s precocious, slightly younger step-sister Claire Clairmont. Her competitive relationship with Mary may have been what led her, like her two (half or step) sisters, to have entered into sexual relations with Shelley; possibly rebuffed by him, she turned her passionate attention to Byron, who she eventually succeeded in seducing (it’s hard to believe he put up much of a fight).

He soon tired of her, however, and made it clear they had no future together. She seems to have insisted Mary and Shelley take this trip to pursue Byron, but he made it clear that although he enjoyed the company of the rest of her party at his lakeside villa, she was not welcome, and they had no future together. She would have known by then that she was carrying his child. Their daughter Allegra was effectively abandoned by him, despite his having agreed to care for her, and she died of fever at the age of five in an Italian convent. The atmosphere in this romantically complicated group must have been electric.

[I posted back in 2015 about this tangled web of intrigue and passion around Claire and its depiction after the event in Henry James’s novella the Aspern Papers].

Unable to get out much because of the weather, the party (Byron was accompanied by his physician, Dr Polidori) passed the time in earnest discussion of the fashionably radical topics of ‘natural sciences’ and ‘natural philosophy’ – that is, what we currently think of as ‘science’ but mixed with more arcane, semi-mystical, even supernatural topics. They would discuss the mysteries of the ‘life principle’, the nature of man as ‘instrument’: the origins of life and nature of death and what follows it. The work of scientists like Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, and his precursor in theorising evolution, Humphry Davy’s experiments with anaesthetic and other gases, and the use of Italian physicist Galvani’s electrical devices on corpses of humans and animals (to apparently reanimate them) – such semi-theatrical ‘demonstrations’, like post-mortem anatomical dissections, were held in public and attracted rapt audiences – would also have figured in their discussions. What they were often dabbling in was the dangerous and controversial ‘vitalist controversy’, with on the one hand adherents to the conventional teachings of Christianity on such matters, and on the other the new, radical scientific thinking of the likes of Shelley’s one-time physician and surgeon friend William Lawrence, who (like this group of radical Romantics) hotly opposed those establishment, theologically-based views.

Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton in 1820

One night in mid-June 1816, at Byron’s villa, they agreed upon a competition: each was to compose a ghost story. According to Mary’s preface to the third, 1831 edition of the novel, her mind was hyperactive after these discussions, and she had a nightmare that inspired the short story she offered the party next day. It told a horrific tale of a transgressive experiment that resulted in the production of a living creature out of dead body parts. She continued drafting it until the novel it grew into was finally published in England in 1818.

The emotional turbulence she had experienced and witnessed throughout her young life: multiple bereavements, the controversial, sometimes suicidal and often scandalous behaviour of those near to her, and this seething atmosphere of dangerous, radical theorising about highly volatile topics, from genetics to the origins of species, of life itself, and the consequences of death, would have provided a febrile set of themes, characters and motifs for her to plunder for her narrative. The alpine scenery she had recently toured would provide the perfect Gothic setting for much of it; the rest she had read about in the fashionable books of exploration and discovery of the period (as had Coleridge, who supplied some key allusions and details in the novel; the other major literary influence was Milton, whose Paradise Lost provided its epigraph, and much of its narrative material and tone).

While Mary was working on her draft of her novel in England she experienced yet more catastrophe: her half-sister Fanny Imlay (Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter from a relationship before she met Godwin), who may also have been romantically involved with Percy Shelley, committed suicide in October 1816, having lived an unhappy life, torn between loyalties to the various involved factions of siblings and relatives. She may also have inherited her mother’s depressive tendencies; Mary Wollstonecraft attempted suicide twice during her troubled relationship with Fanny’s father. As noted above, Shelley’s first wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in London at the age of 21, after he left her for Mary, and having become pregnant by a new lover.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress

Byron in Albanian dress, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813 (all images in this post in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Percy Shelley was to die aged 29 in a boating accident in Italy just four years after this first edition of Frankenstein was published. Keats had died at the age of 25 the previous year. Byron died in Greece, where he was supporting the independence movement, two years later, aged 36. Mary Shelley lived on until 1851, when she was in her 54th year. Claire Clairmont didn’t die until 1879, in Florence, at the age of 81. Make of all that what you will.

I felt it necessary to provide some context to the origins of Frankenstein, though I acknowledge it’s all pretty well known. I’ve tried to keep it brief, but it’s a complicated web of relationships and influences out of which the novel arose in Mary Shelley’s imagination. Next time I’ll explore the text.

Embalmed darkness: Keats and his nightingale

I’ve been unable to do much of my own reading as I’m busy preparing and teaching new courses at work. But one of the benefits of going back over the English Lit canon to this end is that I’ve revisited some works not looked at for some time.

One recent example: the poetry of Keats. It’s interesting to read it after such a long hiatus. My more youthful self was intoxicated by his…well, intoxicated sensuality. Now I find it sometimes a little overwhelming, maybe even tipping over into indulgence.


Portrait of Keats by William Hilton, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Via Wikimedia Commons

But there are such compensations. At his best he’s surely one of the finest poets in the English language. He only published 54 poems in his lifetime, and died at 25. It’s churlish to find, as I did in the past, a morbid streak in his later work, when he knew, having medical training, that the blood he’d been coughing up was his death sentence.

I’d like to quote the fifth stanza from what is probably his most popular poem – ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. It’s popular for good reasons.

He wrote it in the late spring of 1819 during an astonishing period of creativity in the final two years of his life (he died of tuberculosis in 1821). In the poem he struggles to reconcile conflicting, elusive feelings about imagination, beauty, mortality (the pain and suffering of human existence) and immortality (the beauty of the bird’s spontaneous, natural song).

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, 

         Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, 

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet 

         Wherewith the seasonable month endows 

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; 

         White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; 

                Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; 

                        And mid-May’s eldest child, 

         The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, 

                The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. 


There’s the impulse to fly away with the bird into the gathering darkness – this is why he can only smell the heady scent of the flowers at his feet, not see them – to transcend – escape – this temporal world – ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret’. His mother, brother and other members of his family had recently died of consumption, brother Tom only a few months earlier, so this line is particularly poignant: it’s the world of pain in which ‘youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.’ This he knew was to be his fate, too.

So the poem is all the more touching and uplifting in that he so painfully honestly persists in his attempts to determine what it is this bird’s song makes him feel, and to reproduce this struggle in his poetry; the toil is therefore doubled. The impulse to escape the world becomes associated with a kind of death-wish – ‘to cease upon the midnight without pain’ is a line that has haunted almost everyone, surely, who’s ever read this poem. ‘Easeful death’ as consummation, in which he and the bird become one. Yet the speaker in the poem knows that the immortal bird will live on, singing, while he is turned to earth, being mortal.

Looking at it again recently I realised it isn’t morbid or self-indulgent. The lush sensuality of the stanza I’ve just quoted shows that he’s only ‘half in love with easeful Death’; the other half is still capable of these transports of ecstasy that make him want to live and feel. The numbing attractiveness of dreaming, of ecstatic transportation into the eternal and ethereal may be ultimately as unsustaining or unrewarding as being bound to the mundane existence in the real world of sensation.

I don’t suppose one understands a poem like this, and what I’ve said so far doesn’t come close to a complete or adequate interpretation; but – to read it is to experience it. Who was it who said ‘A poem should not mean but be’…

All that balm and incense and ‘dewy wine’ (Keats is over-fond of those ‘poeticisms’ of adjectives with their showy ‘-y’ suffixes; he has ‘skiey’ somewhere, even worse than ‘dewy’); it’s an almost sickly, overwhelming sensuality, then, but has its necessary place in this emotional and spiritual drama of consciousness versus imagination, reality v. fantasy. At the end the bird flies off. It isn’t immortal after all; death is an inexorable certaintly. Was all this a vision or a waking dream? It seems nevertheless too potent to dismiss easily. The poem itself is poised between those two possibilities, unresolvable.

I suppose we all are, and that’s why it will always speak to us so beautifully.