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Eight things you need to know about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

In his acceptance speech at the 2018 BAFTA awards, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro – a creator rather fond of monsters himself – praised the writer Mary Shelley for giving a “voice to the voiceless”. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus was Shelley’s first novel, written at the tender age of 18. Here are some things you might not know about her most famous creation, first published 200 years ago in 1818.

1. Matters of life and death

Young Mary Shelley (née Godwin) never got to know her mother, the pioneering feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the radical treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published in 1792. Wollstonecraft died shortly after the birth of Mary, her second child. As a young woman, Mary Shelley herself suffered multiple infant mortalities. The miracle of birth was for her haunted by the brutality of death, which she dramatises so powerfully in Frankenstein.

James Whale’s 1931 film starred Boris Karloff as the monster. Universal Pictures, CC BY-SA

2. Thunder, lightning and scary stories

During unseasonably stormy weather in the summer of 1816, Mary and her future husband, the poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, playboy poet Lord Byron and other members of their party passed the time at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva by concocting ghost stories. After a feverish dream, Mary hit on the core premise of her first novel, which she hurriedly committed to paper. She recast this early work into the draft of a two-volume edition in 1816/17, using two notebooks whose pages survive in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.

3. The man who wrote Frankenstein?

Gay rights activist John Lauritsen continues to argue that Mary Shelley was not the true author of Frankenstein. Rather, he believes, her husband Percy wrote it in secrecy to air his latent homosexuality. Germaine Greer wrote a scathing riposte in curiously dismissive terms – Frankenstein, she argues, was clearly written by a teenage Mary because it’s not a good book. Lauritsen’s reply in The Guardian derided Greer’s “old feminist misinterpretations of Frankenstein: motherhood, dead or aborted babies, and so on.” Instead, he argued, Frankenstein “is about male relationships: romantic friendship, companionship and, for the poor monster, ostracism.”

4. Mary Shelley’s Scotland

The origins of Frankenstein go back a little further than Shelley’s feverish dream in Switzerland. At the age of 14, she was sent to live with the Baxter family on the outskirts of Dundee. Much later, in the 1831 introduction to a revised edition of Frankenstein, she spoke fondly of her days by the Tay river:

It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.

Parts of Frankenstein are set in Fife, Edinburgh and Orkney. In a rundown hut on Orkney, most notably, Victor creates – and destroys – the Bride, fearing the hideous race of creatures Frankenstein’s monster and the Bride would produce.

Mary Shelley’s first novel has influenced popular culture since it first appeared in 1818. National Portrait Gallery, CC BY-SA

5. The monstrous birth of science fiction

Frankenstein has many of the required ingredients associated with Gothic fiction: maddened ambition, gruesome death, a monster. But it doesn’t have supernatural elements. It doesn’t even have ghosts or vampires – though Victor does invoke Gothic tropes when referring to his creation figuratively as “my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave”. More accurately, Frankenstein is science fiction: if there is magic here it is the magic of science – AI, human and cross-species transplantation, animal testing, reanimation, and more.

6. What’s in a name?

As pedants like to remind us, Frankenstein is the name of the creator rather than his creation, whom we tend to refer to as Frankenstein’s “monster” or “The Creature”. Nick Groom, “Prof of Goth” at the University of Exeter, has offered a far more humane term: Frankenstein’s Being.

The Being is given many labels throughout the novel. Referencing the first humans, Adam and Eve, he calls himself “thy Adam”. Peggy Webling’s 1927 stage adaptation was perhaps the first to misname the Being as “Frankenstein”. James Whale’s iconic 1931 film billed Boris Karloff’s visually imposing character simply – and enigmatically – as “?”.

Universal Pictures/YouTube.

7. Frankenstein at the movies

From Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965) to Frankenweenie (1984), many quirky adaptations of Shelley’s material have made it to the big screen (IMDB currently lists 173 separate titles). Whale’s version remains the most famous, though Mel Brooks’ comic masterpiece Young Frankenstein (1974) also retains a prominent place in the popular imagination.

Various new films appear to be in development, including a 2019 remake of The Bride of Frankenstein starring Javier Bardem and Angelina Jolie as the monster and his mate. Mary Shelley herself has also appeared on screen many times, most recently brought back to life by Elle Fanning in Mary Shelley (2017). Now a further biopic is in development: Mary Shelley’s Monster will see the young author strike a Faustian bargain with her alter-ego as she works on her seminal novel.

8. Frankenstein spin-offs

Frankenstein has also been reworked by fellow novelists, most notably Peter Ackroyd, author of The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, in which a scientist (Victor) and a poet (Percy Bysshe Shelley) form an unlikely but intellectually stimulating friendship.

The hugely enjoyable young adult novel, Man Made Boy (2013) by Jon Skovron, is a wildly imaginative tale about Boy, the teenage son of Frankenstein’s Being and the Bride. Wearied by his family’s secretive existence in a lair beneath Times Square, Boy embarks on a road trip across America with the granddaughters of Jekyll and Hyde, who introduce him to malls and diners, love and heartbreak.

Mary Shelley’s first and most famous novel has shaped our imaginations in diverse, profound and enduring ways. It would be fair to say that no teenager in history has influenced popular culture to such an extent. Frankenstein is very much alive! Alive!

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