“My hideous progeny”

Death mask of William Burke and life mask of William Hare (1828) in Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (March 2018)

“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.

“His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.

“He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”


— Mary Shelley’s walking dream, from her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

If Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) can truly be said to concern life and death, the afterlife of the Creature is one that continues to affect us two centuries later. For us moderns the Creature impacts as much as that of that waking dream she was later to describe. She’d been trying to think up a ghost story to rival those of Byron, Shelley and Polidori:

One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.

Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

In the Introduction to the 1831 edition she endeavoured to give an answer to the frequent question, “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”¹ For a start she’d listened to discussions between Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron on the principles of life and how those principles might be discovered and communicated.

Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

Now, Victor Frankenstein was to be based largely on Mary’s lover and future husband Percy. Victor was Percy’s nom de plume in the book of poems he and his sister Elizabeth had published in 1810 (Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire) and Percy had been an avid peruser of medieval and Renaissance occult literature; at Eton he regularly charged the door handle of his room with static electricity to shock wouldbe visitors. In Switzerland, therefore, on the shores of Lake Geneva, it is hardly surprising that Mary would take a strong interest in ongoing scientific discussions between Percy and Byron on electricity experiments by the likes of Luigi Galvani and Humphrey Davy.

“Le docteur Ure galvanisant le corps de l’assassin Clydsdale” from Les merveilles de la science, ou Description populaire des inventions modernes, 1867, by Louis Figuier, fig. 333. Typ 815.67.3922, Houghton Library, Harvard (https://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/43319055?buttons=y)

In fact not long after Frankenstein was published in 1818 Professors Andrew Ure and James Jeffray took part in the public dissection of executed murderer Matthew Clydesdale, during which Ure attached a galvanic battery to the corpse. As Andrew Ure himself reported in 1819,

Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements resembling a violent shuddering from cold.

On moving the second rod from hip to heel, the knee being previously bent, the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain tried to prevent its extension. The body was also made to perform the movements of breathing by stimulating the phrenic nerve and the diaphragm.

When the supraorbital nerve was excited every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expressions in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representations of a Fuseli or a Kean.³ At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.

“The experiments gave rise to the persistent myth that Jeffray and Ure had attempted to bring the corpse back to life. The mundane truth was that they had simply intended to study the effect of electric impulses on the human nervous system.”² At the same time grave robbers (such as notorious Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare, who in 1828 would surreptitiously create corpses of their own) supplied physicians with fresh bodies for dissection; they were subsequently, and perhaps significantly, known as Resurrection Men.

It’s not hard to then see that public interest in the discussion of vitalism and reanimation was very current and that the Shelleys and their friends would be immersed in such matters. Mary’s hideous phantasm that pushed through her consciousness that night in 1816 was the spark for her penning the start of a short story which, slightly amended, would later be the commencement of Volume I Chapter IV:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed, and with an anxiety that almost amounted to agony I collected instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.

She goes on to describe thin yellow skin of a shrivelled complexion, lustrous black flowing hair, pearly white teeth, watery eyes as white as the sockets in which they were set, straight black lips: Mary’s narrative is concerned with meditating on the finality of death as represented by the corpse, even one stitched together from several body parts, as much as experimenting with the spark of life. For the world in 1816 was faced with a “year without a summer”, one which Mary herself noted was wet and “ungenial”. The 1815 eruptions of Mount Tambora in Indonesia had created an ash cloud around the world which subsequently lowered global temperatures; harvest failures resulted in price rises, leading to what’s said to be the worst famine of the 19th century. Death would have been very evident to the Shelley party as they travelled down to Switzerland in 1816.

Then there are the deaths in the novel echoing events so far in Mary’s life. In Frankenstein we hear of the death of Victor’s mother, Caroline Beaufort, of his youngest brother William (strangled by the Creature), of the hanging of the innocent servant Justine Moritz for this crime, the strangling of Victor’s bride Elizabeth Lavenza and of his friend Henry Clerval, and finally the natural deaths of Victor’s father Alphonse and Victor himself. Now let us consider Mary’s experiences: her own mother Mary Wollstonecraft dying after Mary’s birth; the premature Clara, her firstborn, dying a few days after her birth in 1815; after returning to England in 1816 there are the unexpected suicides of Mary’s half-sister Fanny Imlay and of Shelley’s first wife Harriet Westbrook. Even after Frankenstein was published there were yet more tragedies, including the death of another baby Clara, her son William and, in 1822, Percy’s own death by drowning at sea.

The proximity of so much death combined with scientific interest in animation — literally the imparting of a spirit, the anima, into inanimate matter — were the seeds that were to give birth to what Mary was to later call her “hideous progeny” that in 1831 she bade to “go forth and prosper”. But what of the matrix that was the cauldron of inspiration, in which the novel was to germinate and grow? That is of course the mind of the nineteen-year-old woman, which allowed Frankenstein to erupt from her unconscious into the light of day.

Jungian psychology has its archetypes — the self, the anima or animus, the shadow, the ego and the persona — which despite efforts to schematise them resolutely refuse to stay put. Nevertheless, when we consider the fears that make us “dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart” it’s hard not to seek among these archetypes for the origins of Victor and his relationship with the Creature. It’s also tempting to speculate on how much Percy, of Mary herself and of close friends and family were all projected onto these archetypes as they quickened in the author’s brain, to emerge on that fateful sleepless night in the summer of 1816.

That her progeny survives in great vigour two hundred years on, isn’t that a miracle and a wonder in itself?

Jungian individuation archetypes (after http://eric.pettifor.org/individuationarchetypes)

¹ https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/frankenstein/1831v1/intro
² http://www.universitystory.gla.ac.uk/biography/?id=WH17224&type=P
³ Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) was a painter of supernatural subjects; Edmund Kean (1789–1833) was a famous actor of the time

The final instalment in a short series of posts marking the bicentenary of the novel, which received its first published reviews in March 1818.

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24 thoughts on ““My hideous progeny”

  1. What a fantastic post Chris. Such an interesting analysis of the context and inspirations for the book. They did have a terrible time of it, the Shelleys, didn’t they? Between that and mixing with temperamental, drug using poets, no wonder Mary’s mind turned to the darker side of nature. Fascinating Chris

    1. Yes, laudanum was their drug of choice, wasn’t it, under the guise of medication. Victor Frankenstein used it to calm himself (though it seems to have increased his hysteria); in real life Percy is said to have taken the opiate to relieve what appears to be chronic nephritis; and Mary’s half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide in Swansea after an overdose of laudanum, but it’s not absolutely clear why or if she was a habitual user.

      As for Mary herself, I don’t know; perhaps she took laudanum that night of her waking dream to get to sleep — though to no avail, and mayn’t it instead have intensified the vision she had of that ‘hideous phantasm’?

      1. You’re right, laudanum was the drug of choice, though manufacturers seemed to slip opiates into everything, including calming drops for babies. I’m surprised people of the period got anything done, the amount of drugs they consumed! Like you, I’m not sure about Mary’s intake. Perhaps she was relatively clean compared to the poets. Whenever Byron and Shelley are mentioned I always think of Blackadder 3 and Mrs Miggins Literary Salon, where she exclaims ‘Ooh, Mr Byron, don’t be such a big girl’s blouse.’ 🙂

        1. Ha, I’d forgotten Mrs Miggins and her bons mots! I’ve a great fondness for Blackadder 3, though the second series is probably my favourite — while the fourth is still quite close to the bone in our national psyche, and I still get choked up just thinking about the final scene of the final episode.

          1. They all hold a special place in my comedy heart, all this time later. I love all the series and would find it hard to pick the best between 2,3 and 4. All are strong in different ways. Nothing like it since. And you’re right, that fade to the poppies in the last ever episode, all our pals fallen on the field of battle, even poor old Darling. One of the most moving TV moments

            1. Ben Elton’s recent Shakespearean forays, Upstart Crow had some of Blackadder’s trenchant wit, social commentary, innuendo and farce, combined with the clever pantomime staginess of its predecessor, but seems not to have found its way into the public’s heart in the same way.

            2. We’ve enjoyed Upstart Crow but can’t say it has the spark of Blackadder. Like Lennon without McCartney, Elton without Curtis just isn’t the same

            3. David Mitchell as the Bard didn’t have the cynicism that Blackadder himself had in series 2 to 4, a cynicism which also remained very vulnerable when set against the idiocies of the world: Shakespeare in ‘Upstart Crow’ seemed as much an innocent as everyone else, meaning they all only had each other’s idiocy to play against.

            4. I liked the Marlow character – dashing and cheeky as he is, Kate and the wonderful Liza Tarbuck as Ann who I would watch in anything. It’s an interesting mix of playing with the Shakespearean oeuvre – saying his comedies aren’t funny, using the unlikely gender swap, mistaken identity plot points that he relied on so heavily – whilst slipping bits of satire in too. I’m surprised it got a second series and a Christmas special – not exactly Mrs Brown’s Boys, is it? 🙂

            5. I’d certainly watch a third series, I enjoyed the farce and the wit, even if David Mitchell basically plays himself (as opposed to Rowan Atkinson who is capable of much wider characterisation — have you seen his Maigret films on ITV?).

            6. Yes, Mitchell is very likeable but not the best actor. We haven’t watched Maigret. I think we had problems seeing Atkinson as a serious actor. Is he good?

            7. Forget Mr Bean, I enjoyed his Maigret, played straight and with gravitas and appropriate sombreness — though I do worry that all the pipe-smoking can’t be good for him in the long run! 🙂

            8. Yes, not sure what they do about the pipe smoking these days – I know actors smoke some kind of herbal cigarette instead of real fags, but pipes? Not a clue. Perhaps we’ll give Maigret a go then. Have been watching the Endeavours and while I love Roger Allam and Sean Evans in the main roles the plots are not amazing some weeks.

            9. Saw most of the Morse episodes but never got into Endeavour when it started (a clash of programming perhaps? ) and didn’t follow it up. Too late now, I think, and so much else to be watch!

              Yes, I think herbal tobacco is used, as was flagged up when Mad Men started, but while less harmful I can’t help thinking that can’t be good either!

            10. Inhaling smoke is never good, is it? I saw somewhere recently that having a log burner isn’t great for you.

              And I know exactly what you mean about missing things – way too much to watch! I liked the young Morse and his DI, but the issues (racism, sexism) are painted BROADLY and one episode they had an escaped tiger let loose a maze – enough said 🙂

            11. I remember reading a report about a community who believed burning a host of candles in confined living spaces would protect them from illnesses, only for some of them to contract lung cancer.

              And now I’ve seen that bird feeders are adversely affecting bird populations because sometimes the food is contaminated with fungal growths when the feeders are not regularly cleaned, and also different bird species which don’t normally mix are passing viruses among themselves when they come together at feeders.

              We really have little idea of how even well-meaning acts could have severe consequences. There was a time when smoking tobacco was touted as being good for decongesting the lungs…

            12. So true Chris – we never know the outcome of human interference until years down the line. You’re right about the fungus on bird feeders, they have to be kept an eye on, but bird populations are suffering through loss of habit and predation – hard not to give them a hand. Too many cats around us to have many flying visitors, sadly.

  2. Interesting post, and a fitting conclusion to your series! The story of Frankenstein seems to touch very closely the Jungian archetypes, to be so resonant 200 years after it was conceived… I wonder if there are any analyses of the religious aspect of the relationship between the Creator and his Creation? The Creature’s need to be recognized and loved despite its flaws and the imperfect Creator denying any responsibility for his progeny seem surprisingly humanistic themes – or maybe it’s a sort of story into which everyone can read their own fears and dilemmas :).

    1. “A sort of story into which everyone can read their own fears and dilemmas” is exactly right, I agree! As for the religious aspect, with Percy being a self-proclaimed atheist I think that the conspicuous lack of conventional religion explicitly stated in these pages could be explained in various ways, not all exclusive: Percy’s influence, a daring analogy with a view of God as uncaring of his human creatures who have become an embarrassment to him, or an exploration of current fears of scientists ‘playing God’ with unforeseen consequences (a debate we’re still having genetic engineering and AI).

      But it’s at a psychological more than a philosophical level that the novel seems to have affected readers most. Particularly the Creature lurking outside a door or window has echoes down the ages, from Grendel stalking Heorot to King Kong snatching Fay Wray out of a skyscraper apartment, the externally projected Shadow trying to achieve oneness with the Self.

    2. There should be, there’s this famous line I still remember, and I read it over 15 years ago: “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”

      1. That’s true, and the passage is also in the 1818 edition (in Volume II Chapel 2). But Marilyn Butler’s Appendix B in the OUP edition notes that the 1831 version (1) gives Frankenstein an inner conscience, (2) explicitly has Victor endue the “monstrous Image … with the mockery of a soul”, (3) substitutes passages in Volume III that “soften and Christianity Frankenstein’s character, toning down the severity of the portrayal in 1818.”

        Commentators point to the links with Milton in the quote you give — extraordinary the reading then that the Creature has undertaken! though not so unexpected for the home-schooled author — but I wonder if this just indicates a background of religious culture that existed at all levels of society in Europe rather than Mary’s intentions in the 1818 version.

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