February marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus. Kathryn Markup has done a wonderful job of researching the origins of the story in Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Auntie M already owned Markup’s book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, so she knew she was in for a treat when asked to review this book.

How could a 19-yr-old woman with no formal education imagine what would be deemed the first science fiction novel, combined with gothic fiction, into an extraordinary novel?

Markup examines what was happening in Mary’s world at the time leading up to the writing and when the story was finished in 1818. Exploration of distant lands is a theme in Frankenstein, spurred by Walton’s expedition to the North Pole. At the same time, scientific ideas and experiments centered on a fascination with electrical phenomena, resulting in galvanism, the use of electricy to stimulate muscles.

America and its slave trade were deplored by the Shelleys, and the idea of people who look different from the majority being treated horribly probably had its roots here.

There had also been sensational demonstrations using the corpses of hung criminals to show electricity had the power to reanimate the dead by making their muscles jump. Mary’s use of Prometheus as a subtitle illustrates the classical mythology she had been taught in her own home schooling.

These are just some of the contributing factors to the final story. Ghost stories were a popular form of entertainment, too, and the summer of 1816 saw Mary, husband Shelley, Lord Byron and others escaping a cholera epidemic on the shore of Lake Geneva. At Villa Diodati, Byron’s challenge to write a ghost story led to Mary’s amalgamation of the monster, especially after Bryon read aloud from Coleridge’s unfinished supernatural horror poem, Christabel.

Also present was John William Polidori, a young doctor with literary aspirations, whou would take Byron’s unfinished tale of his own monster and write of an aristocratic vampire. Thus that summer saw the dawn of two enduring gothic figures.

With meticulous detail, Markup explores Mary’s family history, too, and that of Shelley and their time together, leading to Shelley’s drowning death. The rest of her life became centered on the plays that were drawn from Frankenstein, and on her future writings, which while poplular, made her famous but did not increase her wealth substantially. Indeed, she never met her father-in-law, as Shelley’s father did not approve of their union.

Still, Mary must be admired for having the wits and courage to write such a story at a time when women were not given the status they are now.

As Markup notes: “Frankenstein stands out as something new and different because it tapped into contemporary advances in science. The terryfying spectacle of a creature brought to life from a collection of dead flesh, scavenged from dissection rooms and graveyards, was all the more terrifying because it felt all too possible.”

This is a fascinating look at one woman’s life, the influences on her, and the fruits of her imagination. Interested in this in-depth look at the life of a female writer who had a significant impact on gothic horror and science fiction? Leave a comment to be entered in a cahnce for a giveaway copy~

Advertisements