This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus - first printed in London on 1 January 1818.
Shelley started writing the story in 1816 when she was 18 and completed her writing in April/May 1817 (Robinson, 1996).
The first edition of the novel was published anonymously with a preface written for Mary by Percy Bysshe Shelley and with a dedication to philosopher William Godwin, her father. It was published in an edition of just 500 copies in three volumes, the standard "triple-decker" format for 19th-century first editions.
On 31 October 1831, the first "popular" edition in one-volume appeared, published by Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley. This edition was heavily revised by Mary Shelley, partially to make the story less radical. It included a lengthy new preface by the author, presenting a somewhat embellished version of the genesis of the story. This edition is the one that I used to write this publication.
Frankenstein tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a grotesque but sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Much of the story takes place in the region of Geneva, Switzerland. The novel is infused with elements of the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement.
Frankenstein is written in the form of a frame story that starts with Captain Robert Walton writing letters to his sister. It takes place at an unspecified time in the 18th century.
In addition to climbers’ and explorers’ tales, an important factor that contributed to the expansion of tourism in the Alps in the 19th century was the success of literary works and pictorial representations of the mountains.
In the 19th century, Britons rushed to the mountains, led by a new breed of Romantic painters, poets, and writers (Fleming, 2000).
Lovers of mountains have often tried to give literary form to their feelings. Lord Conway’s first impression on seeing a great snow peak, the Blüemlisalphorn (3,661 m) in the Bernese Alps, gave proof of this: “I felt it as no part of this earth”, he said, “or in any way belonging to the world of experience. Here, at last, was the other world visible, inaccessible, no doubt, but authentically there; actual yet incredible, veritably solid with an aspect of eternal endurance, yet also ethereal; overwhelmingly magnificent but attractive too” (Engel, 1950: 255).
Mary Shelley's' Frankenstein has the glaciers and high mountains of the Alps in their background.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851) was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.
In 1814, Mary began a romance with one of her father's political followers, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was already married.
On 28 July 1814, the couple eloped and secretly left for France, taking Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with them. The trio traveled to Paris, and then, by donkey, mule, carriage, and foot, through a France recently ravaged by war, to Switzerland. "It was acting in a novel, being an incarnate romance", Mary Shelley recalled in 1826 (Sunstein, 1989).
In May 1816, Mary, Percy Shelley, and their son traveled to Geneva with Claire Clairmont. They planned to spend the summer with the poet Lord Byron, whose recent affair with Claire had left her pregnant. The party arrived at Geneva on 14 May 1816, where Mary called herself "Mrs. Shelley". Byron joined them on 25 May, with his young physician, John William Polidori, and rented the Villa Diodati, close to Lake Geneva at the village of Cologny; Percy Shelley rented a smaller building called Maison Chapuis on the waterfront nearby. They spent their time writing, boating on the lake, and talking late into the night.
The Alps left lasting impressions in Mary Shelley. She found an infatuation with the mountains and the glaciers that would later produce the story of Frankenstein. The views were what had inspired Haller, Rousseau, Goethe, Wordsworth, Turner and all earlier Romantics who had come to the Alps (Fleming, 2000).
"It proved a wet, ungenial summer", Mary Shelley remembered in 1831, "and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house" (Frankenstein, 1831 edition). The violent storms were, it is now known, a repercussion of the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before (1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer). Sitting around a log fire at Byron's villa, the company amused themselves with German ghost stories from the book Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of German ghost stories, which prompted Byron to propose that they "each write a ghost story". Mary Shelley produced what would become Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, and Polidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron's, Fragment of a Novel, to produce The Vampyre, the progenitor of the romantic vampire genre (Sunstein, 1989).
Unable to think of a story, young Mary became anxious: "Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative" (Frankenstein, 1831 edition). During one mid-June evening, the discussions turned to the nature of the principle of life. "Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated", Mary noted, "galvanism had given token of such things" (Frankenstein, 1831 edition). It was after midnight before they retired, and unable to sleep, she became possessed by her imagination as she beheld the grim terrors of her "waking dream", her ghost story (Frankenstein, 1831 edition).
“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 endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” (Frankenstein, 1831 edition).
She began writing what she assumed would be a short story. With Percy Shelley's encouragement, she expanded this tale into her first novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818 (Bennett, 1998; Sunstein, 1989). She later described that summer in Switzerland as the moment "when I first stepped out from childhood into life" (Sunstein, 1989: 117).
Upon her return to England in September of 1816, Mary quickly began to develop the novel she had started in the summer. Its progress was twice interrupted by family catastrophe, first the suicide of her half-sister Fanny in October (Daisy, 2010), then the discovery in December of the body of Harriet Shelley, who, being with child, had herself committed suicide the month before. Two weeks after they were notified of Harriet's suicide, on 30 December 1816, Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley were married at St Mildred's Church, Bread Street, London (Seymour, 2000).
The Shelleys left Britain in 1818 for Italy, where their second and third children died, —Clara, in September 1818 in Venice, and William, in June 1819 in Rome-, before Mary Shelley gave birth to her last and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley on 12 November 1819.
In 1822, her husband drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm near Viareggio. A year later, Mary Shelley returned to England and from then on devoted herself to the upbringing of her son and a career as a professional author. The last decade of her life was dogged by illness, probably caused by the brain tumor that was to kill her at the age of 53.