Origins of Frankenstein

19 May

Mary Shelley was born in 1797. Her parents were both very famous—notorious, really, since they believed in free love and frowned on marriage. They were both writers and philosophers: Mary Wollstonecraft the author of feminist works, such as A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and William Godwin the author of various philosophical works. (Interestingly, he wrote a historic book called Lives of the Necromancers.) They also owned and operated a children’s bookstore. Mary Wollstonecraft died on September 10 (my birthday), eleven days after Mary’s birth. So Mary grew up with no mother, a bunch of half-siblings, and a father who had other kids to look after. She grew up deprived of nurturing.
Fast forward: it’s the early nineteenth century, and the not-yet-successful poet Percy Shelley is a huge fan of William Godwin and gets in touch with the much older philosopher. Percy meets Mary, they fall in love, and they elope to France when Mary is sixteen years old. (Jane Austen would so not approve. Let me just say: Lydia Bennett.) Mary becomes pregnant a couple times, and both of her first babies die.
Mary is depressed and grieving over the death of her baby girl. She has dreams in which her baby girl is still alive, but she wakes up and remembers that she’s dead. But is Percy comforting her? No, Percy doesn’t care: he’s flirting with Mary’s half-sister, Claire.
Not long after her first baby dies, Mary, Percy, and Claire (now Lord Byron’s mistress) are all hanging out with Lord Byron, the most famous English poet of the time, at a mansion in Geneva, Switzerland. One evening, Percy, Mary, and Byron are having a conversation about whether it would be scientifically possible to bring the dead back to life. That night, Mary has a nightmare…that ultimately becomes the beginning of chapter seven in Frankenstein. It’s a nightmare about a student standing over a monster he has created, and the student realizes that this monster is gross and disgusting. So he runs away. (Gee, he reminds me of my parents.)
Victor Frankenstein is a really sucky parent. He makes a baby and instead of nurturing it, he rejects it and runs away from it, repulsed. Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinstems from the common anxieties of a young woman who’s had two babies die and wonders if she’s a bad mother and if she’s capable of raising a child.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: her Life, her Fiction, her Monsters. Methuen, NY: 1988.

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