Mary Shelley, born on this day in 1797, had a life as Gothic as her novels: her mother died when she was less than a month old, she engaged in a romantic relationship with a married man whose wife committed suicide, the death of three children, and her husband’s death by drowning, before she died of a brain tumor at the age of 53 after a short life that saw her ostracized, debt ridden, blackmailed by multiple parties around issues of legitimacy, personal letters and published works, and a life spent suffering frequent and long terms illnesses. Even after death hers is a somewhat Gothic tale when on the first anniversary of her death her box desk was opened to reveal a variety of dark romantic items such as her dead children’s hair, and remains of Shelley’s.
While of course best known known for her seminal work Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Shelley wrote a number of other novels, including the unappreciated at the time, but arguably as ground breaking a work, ‘The Last Man‘ (1826)- a post-apocalyptic tale which only began to receive critical recognition in the ’70’s. As well as novels, Shelley wrote short stories, and works in drama, biographies, travel and was perhaps one of the earliest independent PR agents in her editing and promotion of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley’s works.
However, it is Frankenstein that remains Shelley’s abiding legacy. The conception of the story is almost as much a part of legend as the story itself. In May 1816, Mary (then Godwin), Percy Shelley, Lord Byron met in Geneva where they spent their time writing, relaxing on the lake and telling ghost stories into the night. When Byron set the challenge for each of them to write a ghost story of their own, Mary struggled for an idea until they talked long into the night one evening around the principles of life, and on retiring for the evening and unable to sleep her ‘waking dream’ gave rise to what she originally thought would be a short film around the re-animation of a human body. Encouraged by Shelley to build on the idea she produced her first novel. She later wrote that it was this event, “when I first stepped out from childhood into life”
The events of Geneva have themselves become rich tapestries for drama , including the Ken Russell 1986 Gothic (with Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley, Gabriel Byrne as Byron and Julian Sands as Percy Shelley). Rowing with the Wind in 1988 (Lizzy McInnerny as Shelley), and later fictionalized pieces such as Haunted Summer and Frankenstein Unbound.
The events leading to the novel are nothing compared to the story itself, and even more particularly, the Monster himself that have become staples in so many aspects of art since the book’s publication – from the original film version in 1910: directed by J. Searle Dawley.
to James Whale’s classic Universal version starring Boris Karloff in the role as the monster
All the way to Peter Boyle’s performance in Mel Brooks’ classic Young Frankenstein in 1974.
Header Image by Esao Andrews