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

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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