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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

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.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser