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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

A short article on the life of Roald Dahl.
Image of the cover and title page of the 1886 edition of Frankenstein
© Public Domain

Read about the life of Mary Shelley and her most famous work, the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

2018 was the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, written by the English author Mary Shelley. Started when she was just eighteen years old and published when she was just twenty, it is a novel which has had an enormous influence and is often described as the first real example of science fiction.

Frankenstein has remained popular ever since its first publication and has been adapted into stage plays, films, animations, video games and more. There are few people who would not instantly recognise the name Frankenstein or who, upon hearing it, would not have a clear picture of ‘the monster’ in their heads (although that image may be very different from the one portrayed in the novel). So how did Mary Shelley come to create one of the most original and enduringly popular stories of all time? What is it about the story that has gripped the imagination of readers for two hundred years and continues to inspire writers and film makers to this day?

Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin on 30 August, 1797 in London. Her father, William Godwin, was a philosopher and novelist, and her mother was the noted feminist writer and philosopher, Mary Wollestonecraft. Tragically, her mother died as a result of complications following the birth. Throughout her childhood she received an extensive, if relatively informal, education and began writing at an early age. She met and fell in love with the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was sixteen and he twenty one. As he was already married, they eloped to France in the summer of 1814 and spent the next two months travelling through France, Switzerland and Germany before returning to England. Mary was pregnant at this time and the couple were more or less penniless. Their first child, Clara was born prematurely and died shortly after birth, resulting in Mary falling into a deep depression. However, she soon became pregnant again and their son William was born in early 1816. The couple travelled again to Switzerland that summer, with their son, to stay with the poet Lord Byron near Lake Geneva. It was there that the story of Frankenstein would be born.

1816 is often called the Year Without a Summer because the huge eruption of the volcano Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, had caused a volcanic winter across Asia, Europe and North America. Ash and chemicals thrown into the atmosphere resulted in low temperatures and persistent heavy rains, and meant that the group at Lake Geneva were forced to spend the summer indoors. They read ghost stories to keep themselves entertained during the long, dark evenings, leading Lord Byron to suggest they should each try to create their own. As Mary Shelley wrote in her own introduction to Frankenstein in 1831:

It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. “We will each write a ghost story,” said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us. I busied myself to think of a story, — one which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.

The idea did not come easily and for several days she suffered writer’s block until she was inspired by a discussion between Byron and Shelley on the nature of life and the experiments of Luigi Galvani, in which electricity was applied to dead tissue, such as the legs of dead frogs, causing them to move. According to the introduction mentioned above, this led to her being unable to sleep and during the night she had a vivid ‘waking dream’ which terrified her. In the morning she wrote a transcript of all she had imagined. At first she intended only to write a short story, but Shelley encouraged her to develop the idea further and she quickly wrote several chapters. It took a further nine months to complete the whole novel and a further eight months until its first publication on 1 January, 1818.

  • Have you read Frankenstein in English or in your own language? Or have you seen any of the films based on the book?
  • If you have, what did you like about it? Or what did you not like? Tell us in the comments below.
  • If you’ve neither read the book nor seen any of the films, would you like to after reading this article?
© British Council
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Exploring English: Language and Culture

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