“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.
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?
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.