Friday, October 23, 2009

Books That Go Bump in the Night, Part 4

She doesn’t look like a revolutionary, does she? Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had a father who was a radical political philosopher and a mother who was one of England’s first feminists. Today, we would consider her homeschooled, but her “teachers” were the radical thinkers of the times, who flocked to her father’s drawing room. At sixteen she fell in love with the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was one of the flock. As he was married at the time, they ran away to Europe together. They later married when his first wife committed suicide.

In 1816, when she was 18 years old, Mary and Shelley spent the summer on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with another famous poet and all around bad boy, George Lord Byron; his friend John William Polidori, a physician; and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont. It proved to be an unusually wet summer, and the group spent a lot of time inside around the fire, often reading German ghost stories. Bryon challenged each to write their own ghost story. Polidori penned a short story called The Vampyre, which was immediately attributed to Byron. Mary took the challenge more seriously, however, and her novel, which she published anonymously in 1818, became one of the most iconic stories of all time.


It’s been called the first science fiction novel, as it deals with a scientist taking his science a bit too far and playing God to create a man. Mary claimed the story came to her in a vision. Many modern day critics, however, claim Mary wasn’t all that original. Some say she visited Castle Frankenstein on her way to Lake Geneva and read about scientific experiments there. Others claim the book’s hero was modeled a bit too closely on Percy Bysshe Shelley. If so, Mary must have been a bit miffed at him at the time, as the poor scientist is thoroughly tormented for his efforts. In fact, one could wonder whether Mary was rethinking some of her revolutionary ways by this quote from the novel:

“You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.”

Regardless, the book was a huge success. It was reprinted in 1823 and again in 1831, revised and expanded by an older, wiser Mary, who is finally listed as the author. It has gone on to inspire dozens of films and adaptations.

Not bad for a homeschooled revolutionary, eh?


QNPoohBear said...

I love Frankenstein! I took a Romantic Literature course with a Mary Shelley scholar in college and we studied Frankenstein and other Mary Shelley stories. People doubted that a woman could write such a thing, prompting an introduction from Mary staking claim on her rights as author. My professor said that Mary and P.B. had nearly identical handwriting and even she found it difficult to tell who had written what. My professor co-edited the The Mary Shelley Reader, which contains a biography and little known writings. She also wrote and edited a number of other books about Mary.

A good YA novel about Mary is Angelmonster by Veronica Bennett. It's rather shocking but an interesting read.

Unknown said...

*sigh* I first read Frankenstein when I was twelve and it's still one of my favorite books.

Sarah said...

Great post! I love hearing the story of how Frankenstein was written :D

ChaChaneen said...

Very interesting, I didn't know that about her. Fun post!