Mythology, monsters, and Mary Shelley: The enduring fascination of Frankenstein's creation

Events surrounding the creation of ‘Frankenstein’ in 1816 have gripped writers ever since. Lesley McDowell on an enduring literary fascination

We will each write a ghost story, said Lord Byron, and his proposition was acceded to.” So wrote Mary Shelley in the preface to her first novel, Frankenstein, published in 1831, 15 years after one of the most mythologised events in literary history. That was the famous night at the Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva, in 1816, when Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley and John Polidori, Byron’s doctor, gathered by the fire to make up ghost stories. Two of the horror genre’s most enduring monsters were born: the vampire and Victor Frankenstein’s unnamed creation. But Mary also wrote herself into fiction by mythologising further a group of writers who have been the subject of both biography and fiction, ever since.

The appeal of this group to the latter art form, though, is rarely analysed, despite the Shelleys and their circle popping up in novels ever since. From Jude Morgan’s expansive 2004 novel, Passion, which focuses on the women who came into contact with Byron and Shelley, to Benjamin Markovits’s sublime Imposture three years later (in which Mary Shelley is a young woman who “grew easily, girlishly chilled, and the wet weather had got into her bones”), to Lynne Shepherd’s recent captivating 19th-century detective trail, A Treacherous Likeness, where Mary is recalled chillingly by her stepsister Claire Clairmont later in life as having a “narrowness of heart and meanness of conduct”, her face “so closed and white in the flickering firelight,” fun is to be had with Mary and the Shelley coterie. Plays and operas, most notably Sally Beamish’s 2002 production, Mary Shelley, and some film adaptations – such as Ken Russell’s gloriously over-the-top romp, Gothic – have focused variously on a sexy Mary, an intellectual Mary, a rebellious Mary.

But why should we fictionalise a real-life person? Doesn’t biography tell us enough? The Shelley circle is notorious enough for countless histories, after all. On that night in Geneva in 1816, Mary and Shelley were unmarried lovers who had had two children – Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, the mother of his two other children, was abandoned in England (and would soon kill herself). They were accompanied by Clairmont, who had been conducting a sporadic affair with Byron, by whom she was now pregnant. Byron himself was in exile after the end of his short-lived but disastrous marriage to Annabella Millbanke. Her friends and supporters had leaked out information that Byron had been in a sexual liaison with his half-sister, Augusta, and the newly crowned prince of poetry was subsequently hounded out of his native land.

All of them were extraordinarily young, Polidori, Claire and Mary still teenagers. They were also beautiful – Polidori as handsome as Byron and Shelley, Mary famous for her mist of golden hair, Claire dark-eyed and vivacious.

But for the creators of fiction, more than a set of beautiful young things matters. For there is also a sense that the evening in Geneva holds a key to the mystery of literary creation itself. The “birth” of the man-made monster in Frankenstein is almost a metaphor for it: the birth of literary endeavour. Where does inspiration come from? Mary herself recalled: “When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie ....”

Is this where it begins? Sometimes an evening is all it takes; sometimes just a conversation. Almost 70 years after that night at the Villa Diodati, Henry James wrote one of his most famous novels, The Aspern Papers. It was the result of a conversation with a friend about an American collector, Captain Silsbee, who had been led a merry dance by an aged Claire Clairmont, who had held out the promise of some letters of Shelley’s and Byron’s only to pressure the hapless Silsbee into marrying her spinster niece. “It strikes me much,” was all that James had to say to convince us about the birth of his tale.

A sentence or two in a letter to a friend can also be enough. When Mary wrote to Leigh Hunt, a year after Shelley’s death in 1822, that she had “now renewed my acquaintance with the friend of my girlish days – she has been ill a long time, even disturbed in her reason”, something wasn’t being said. Mary’s acquaintance was Isabella Baxter Booth, a young woman whom Mary had grown extremely fond of when she spent three consecutive summers in Scotland from 1812 to 1814. Isabella had gone on to marry her dead sister’s husband, David Booth, who was 30 years older than her and had begun to suffer bouts of madness. What did Mary mean when she said Isabella was “disturbed in her reason”? And why did she go on to say in her letter that it was only the happy memory of those times in Scotland that made her continue seeing Isabella, “else all is so changed for me that I should hardly feel pleasure in cultivating her society”? What on earth had Isabella said on that first visit after so many years to cause such a reaction?

This single letter inspired Unfashioned Creatures, my historical novel about Isabella, which also looks at the birth of psychiatry, given the Gothic presence of madness in her early story. But how to portray Mary? It was Miranda Seymour, one of Mary’s biographers, who drew my attention further when she wrote of “the wicked, spicy side of Mary’s nature”. After all, this was a young woman who had, just a year after the publication of Pride and Prejudice which saw 16-year-old Lydia Bennet scandalously elope with a devilish George Wickham, run away at the same age with Shelley, who, even worse than Wickham, was still married to someone else.

I decided then that “my” Mary should be a little “wicked and spicy”, too. We like fiction to go where biography can only suggest; we want speculations to become affairs; gaps to be filled. And we want figures who have been relegated to biographical sidelines put centre stage. There are enough gaps in the Shelleys’ own lives, and enough fascinating characters waiting in the wings, for the mythologising to continue. We have Mary’s word for that: “On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story ...”

Unfashioned Creatures is published by Saraband

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders