Monday 25 September 2017

Cheat read: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Gothic horror: Written 1816, Geneva, Switzerland

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Hilary A White

The rundown A ship stuck in Arctic ice takes on board a stranger called Victor Frankenstein who is suffering badly from exposure. Frankenstein shares his story with Captain Walton, detailing his early years as a Genevan scientist with his friend Henry and beloved adopted sister Elizabeth. He developed a way to bring life back to dead tissue and set about assembling a corporeal form to similarly reanimate.

When he saw the monster he'd created, however, Victor was shocked but by the time he realised this, the creature had escaped. Vengeful, the monster went on to kill its creator's loved ones, eventually confronting Frankenstein in the wilderness and demanding that he create a companion for him.

Need to know If you think this summer has underperformed, be happy you weren't alive in 1816 when the eruption of Mt Tambora dumped ash into the planet's atmosphere, ruining crops and forever labelling that season "The Summer That Never Was". Holed up one horrid June night was Mary Shelley who was a guest at Lord Byron's Lake Geneva villa. The group, including partner Percy Shelley and The Vampyre author Polidori, competed to come up with horror stories to pass the time indoors. It's safe to say the 19-year-old Mary trumped the others.

The monster is now as ubiquitous as Dracula, and is a staple of genre revisions from The Munsters to Penny Dreadful. Feminist and maternal themes, and that old 19th-century chestnut of the Death of God, bled into the novel, securing its eternal shelf-life.

The End Beset with remorse over what he had done, Victor aborted the creation of the female creature, incurring the fury of his original monster who vowed to make his presence felt at the scientist's upcoming nuptials to Elizabeth. Elizabeth was killed on the eve of the wedding day by the monster and Victor's father, overcome with grief at so much tragedy in the family, collapsed dead too. Victor set out to destroy his monster, hunting it all the way to the North Pole. After Victor's death, Captain Walton discovers the monster in his cabin, weeping over his deathbed. The monster resigns to killing himself and heads off into the frozen night.

The verdict Reviews at the time were unimpressed with both Victor's romance with Elizabeth (a family member) and the layered framing structure of the narrative (a sign perhaps that Shelley, who published the first edition anonymously, was a callow talent).

In a modern context, Frankenstein is a fascinating insight into the extraordinary mind of a 19-year-old girl living in a long distant age. Fans of cinema and popular culture at large will be shocked to see how different its articulate, persuasive monster is to most groaning, bolt-necked screen depictions.

Did you know? Shelley's mother was the pioneering feminist philosopher and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who in 1792 wrote the ground-breaking political tome A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She died when Shelley was in infancy, and her graveside would go on to become a favourite place to sit and read for the young girl.

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