Hollywood did not give birth to Frankenstein; Mary Shelley did. More than a century before actor Boris Karloff, helped by make-up artists, made the monster in his image, came Shelley and her creation.
The mother of Frankenstein came from the rarefied reaches of the British artistic and intellectual elite. While Mary Shelley drew her inspiration from a dream, she drew her story's premises about the nature of life from the work of some of Europe's premier scientists and thinkers. The sophisticated creature that billowed up from her imagination read Plutarch and Goethe, spoke eloquently, and suffered much.
A Dark and Stormy Night
In the summer of 1816, nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her lover, the poet Percy Shelley (whom she married later that year), visited the poet Lord Byron at his villa beside Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Stormy weather frequently forced them indoors, where they and Byron's other guests sometimes read from a volume of ghost stories. One evening, Byron challenged his guests to each write one themselves. Mary's story, inspired by a dream, became Frankenstein.
The Villa Diodati
When I placed my head upon my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. .. I saw--with shut eyes, but acute mental vision--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. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous Creator of the world.A Writer's LifeMary Shelley came from a rich literary heritage. She was the daughter of William Godwin, a political theorist, novelist, and publisher who introduced her to eminent intellectuals and encouraged her youthful efforts as a writer; and of Mary Wollstonecraft, a writer and early feminist thinker, who died shortly after her daughter's birth.At fifteen, Mary met the poet Percy Shelley, who was married at the time. Two years later, she ran off with him to France. They were married in December 1816, two weeks after Percy Shelley's first wife drowned. By then Mary had already borne him two children.
Mary Shelley, from her introduction to the third edition of Frankenstein
Boundary Crossings in 1818
In her novel, Mary Shelley is silent on just how Victor Frankenstein breathes life into his creation, saying only that success crowned "days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue;" Frankenstein offers no monster-making recipes.
But Shelley's story did not arise from the void. Scientists and physicians of her time, tantalized by the elusive boundary between life and death, probed it through experiments with lower organisms, human anatomical studies, attempts to resuscitate drowning victims, and experiments using electricity to restore life to the recently dead.
When Percy Shelley's first wife, Harriet, drowned in London in 1816, rescuers took her lifeless body to a receiving station of the London Society. There, smelling salts, vigorous shaking, electricity, and artificial respiration--as with the resuscitation bellows shown here--had been used since the 1760s to restore drowning victims to life. Harriet, however, did not survive.
Restored to Life?
In March 1815, Mary Shelley dreamed of her dead infant daughter held before a fire, rubbed vigorously, and restored to life. At the time, scientists would not have wholly dismissed such a possibility. Could the dead be brought back to life? Could life arise spontaneously from inorganic matter? Physicians of the day treated such questions seriously--as the treatises they wrote, the methods they employed, and the contrivances they built all testify.
James Blundell, a London physician troubled by the many women who died after childbirth from massive bleeding, introduced blood transfusion between humans, using the simple apparatus shown here. Reproduction of an illustration from The Lancet, 1828-1829.
During the 1790s, Italian physician Luigi Galvani demonstrated what we now understand to be the electrical basis of nerve impulses when he made frog muscles twitch by jolting them with a spark from an electrostatic machine. When Frankenstein was published, however, the word galvanism implied the release, through electricity, of mysterious life forces. "Perhaps," Mary Shelley recalled of her talks with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, "a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things."
A Galvanized Corpse
Electricity's seeming ability to stir the dead to life gave the word galvanize its own special flavoring, as this 1836 political cartoon of a "galvanized" corpse suggests.
To make his creature, Victor Frankenstein "dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave" and frequented dissecting rooms and slaughterhouses. In Mary Shelley's day, as in our own, the healthy human form delighted and intrigued artists, physicians, and anatomists. But corpses, decaying tissue, and body parts stirred almost universal disgust. Alive or dead, whole or in pieces, human bodies arouse strong emotion--and account for part of Frankenstein's enduring hold on us.
De Monstro Nato Lutetiae Anno Domini, 1605
As this early book illustration suggests, nature's own "monsters"--sharp deviations from normal human development--fascinated anatomists of Mary Shelley's day and before.