Mary Shelley & The Birth of Frankenstein, Part 5
SARAH PARKIN concludes her Mary Shelley and the Birth of Frankenstein series by describing the novel’s legacy
She was also an accomplished biographer, poet and editor of the works of her husband Percy, whose status as one of the major poets of the Romantic period was largely assured by her efforts.
Despite the significance of works such as The Last Man (1826), however, her full importance as a writer is only just beginning to be understood: it’s interesting that, when her later work was more critically acclaimed at the time, it has mostly been forgotten, while Frankenstein’s reputation continues to grow.
It’s one of the most accomplished Gothic novels of the period, borrowing heavily from the conventions pioneered by her father among others, but at the same time its voice is unique. Mary’s own chequered personal life provides themes and preoccupations which are not articulated as strongly by anybody else – her insight into the traumas of childbirth and parenthood, as well as her own struggle to live up to the reputations of her famous parents, shine through in Victor Frankenstein’s struggles to create a human being and then to make a man. The suggestion that the two are not the same is one of the keynotes of the novel.
Science fiction as a genre in English largely owes its existence to Frankenstein, which is probably the earliest and one of the most influential examples. Even modern writers acknowledge its influence; elements of Shelley’s work have been in detected in the shocking twist of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and Stephen King’s It. Perhaps most interesting is that fact that science itself has been influenced by Mary’s thinking: the technology she envisioned became an inspiration for real innovations.
There are as many reasons for the novel’s perpetual success as there are readers, but the truth is that everyone who comes to Mary’s masterpiece now brings with them certain expectations. The image of Frankenstein’s Monster is burned into our cultural memory thanks to nearly two hundred years of adaptation for stage and screen and even in modern music: think of Metallica’s ‘Some Kind of Monster’ or Alice Cooper’s ‘Feed My Frankenstein’. The name has entered everyday use, and we all have our own idea of what it means.
In fact, it’s often surprising to encounter the novel for the first time and notice how it differs from the image we’ve inherited. The ‘monster’ isn’t green. There are no bolts through his neck. There are no hysterical screams of “It’s alive!” and, most importantly, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist and not his creation. Still, that the creature and his maker are identified with each other would have pleased Mary: it supports her argument that corrupt political systems make victims of the empowered and disempowered alike.
It’s the politics that are often overlooked by Shelley readers, mostly thanks to the Victorian habit of domesticating women’s writing and relegating Mary’s work to the status of ‘romance’. In many ways, though, the political element is what holds the rest together: questions of responsibility, control and the abuse of power remain at Frankenstein’s core.
Over the intervening years, it has continued to strike a chord in the wake of scientific as well as political progress – whether it’s the governing class or the scientist in the laboratory, in the end, Frankenstein explores the consequences of men playing God with the lives of others, and that theme never dies.
Here are links to the complete five-part weekly series “Mary Shelley and The Birth of Frankenstein” with SARAH PARKIN, examining how England’s greatest gothic horror novel came to be.
PART ONE: Examines Mary Goodwin’s childhood and how her relationship with her parents, William Goodwin and Mary Wollenscraft, influenced the novel, Frankenstein.
PART TWO: Looks at the teenaged Mary Godwin’s budding relationship with Percy Shelley and the surrounding scandal that led to the birth of Frankenstein.
PART THREE: Focuses on events surrounding the famous visit to Lake Geneva, where Mary Shelley conceived the gothic classic Frankenstein.
PART FOUR: Looks at the mixed reaction the gothic novel Frankenstein received when it was released in 1818.
PART FIVE: Describes the legacy the novel Frankenstein has had on the world.
COMING SOON: In August, The Spooky Isles will release Sarah Parkin’s collected Mary Shelley & the Birth of Frankenstein series as an ebook with exclusive, never-before-seen articles by authors celebrating the gothic masterpiece. Stay tuned!
SARAH PARKIN in West Yorkshire and Durham, where she is currently studying for a Masters degree in English Literature at Durham University. You can follow her on Twitter here.