I’ve been enjoying re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; this is at least the sixth time I’ve read it, as I was assigned the book once in college, was assigned it at least three times in grad school, and taught the book once a few years ago, which would make this the sixth time around. I’m not in the least bored by it, though. There is so much richness in the book, and I’m continually amazed that Mary Shelley was only 18 when she began writing it. She was 20 when it was published in 1818. The introduction to my edition discusses critical reaction to her youth, including the argument, made by Muriel Spark, that
… perhaps the wonder of it exists, not despite Mary’s youth, but because of it. Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s best novel, because at that early age she was not well acquainted with her own mind.
I don’t particularly like this argument; it sounds condescending to me, as though Shelley wrote a work of genius in spite of herself. But it does seem that, genius though she was, Shelley was lucky in the way she stumbled upon an idea that would resonate so powerfully for so long, in ways she surely had no conscious idea of. Could she have known how acutely aware of the dangers of science and technology people would become in future years? Sometimes authors are particularly in tune with the spirit of their time, or even of future times, and it’s mysterious what allows them that insight.
My introduction is good, though, at showing all the literary and philosophical influences on Shelley, and all the ideas about science and the nature of life and death that were floating around the group Shelley was living with when she got the idea for the novel, a group that includes not only Percy Shelley, but Lord Byron and John Polidori as well. This is how Byron describes the mood of the time:
I was half mad … between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unalterable and the nightmare of my own delinquencies.
Wouldn’t you love to have been able to observe this group and listen in on all their talk?
The story of how Shelley got the inspiration to write the novel is famous; during a stretch of rainy weather, Byron proposed that everyone tell a ghost story and Mary Shelley was unable to think of one until one night she had a vision:
I saw — with shut eyes but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.
Soon she realized that this vision could be the basis of the ghost story she had been seeking, and the rest is history.
I’m struck at everything she had absorbed while she was still in her teens. According to my introduction, in the years leading up to the writing of the novel, Shelley had been reading Byron, Samuel Richardson’s novels including Clarissa (whose influence we see in the epistolary structure of Frankenstein), the French writer Madame de Genlis, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, books on chemistry by Humphrey Davy, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (both of these at least twice), Rousseau’s Confessions, Emile, and Nouvelle Heloise (the latter two twice), Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, her father William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland, or The Transformation, and various Gothic novels including those by Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Charles Maturin, and William Beckford.
And those are only the book the editor mentioned; there may have been plenty more. That’s quite a list, isn’t it? In this case the recipe for a masterpiece seems to have called for genius, avid reading, the right group of friends, and a little luck.