Do you share my madness?
The spark that lit the imagination of an eighteen-year-old girl during a bleak summer on Lake Geneva gave life to the Gothic novel. The Castle of Otranto may have started it, but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is without doubt the genre’s seminal work. Scanning (with amusement) some of the one or even zero star reviews on Goodreads from readers seething with rage over expecting a horror book and instead finding a (God forbid) melodrama, I wonder if it should not be reclassified as as romance; although that might result in a shirtless Fabio as the creature with a fainting Elizabeth in his arms, and there is already enough confusion about a brilliant story eclipsed by monster B-movies, comic books, and a brilliant comedy called Young Frankenstein. All of these have, of course, little to do with the actual novel, which is perhaps why the outrage. But if readers can possibly clear their minds of prejudice, they will find one of the finest novels in the English language. Its themes are deep, its symbolism vast, and that a young woman was able to conceive all of this and write it down in elegant prose and moves the reader’s eye effortlessly along the page to its devastating conclusion is a wonder as profound as Victor Frankenstein’s creation.
The backstory is as titillating as the novel’s outrageous plot. In short, in the summer of 1816 Lord Byron and his personal physician, Dr. Polidori, Mary and Percy Shelley , and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont (Byron’s lover) all met at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva to hang out and party, I suppose. The weather was harsh, forcing them all indoors, so to past the time those crazy kids embarked on a ghost story challenge brought about by Bryon’s reading of the Coleridge poem “Christabel” sending the sensitive Shelley into a paroxysm over a vision in which he imagined a women’s nipples turned into eyes. One imagines they were hitting the laudanum pretty hard that summer (the novel contains an allusion to it). Eventually, I suppose, they grew bored of the game and Mary and Polidori were the only ones to finish their stories. His became The Vampyre which went on to inspire Dracula, and hers Frankenstein. So essentially the greatest literary monsters were conceived at the same time, galvanized by the imaginations of the young rock stars of the literary world. If only they had all finished, we’d have quite a boxed set!
The novel’s often overlooked subtitle A Modern Prometheus, is the key to the main theme. Knowledge equals suffering. It’s a cautionary tale to anyone, like Walton the explorer whose tale of misadventure to the North Pole bookends the novel, about to sail one’s ship into uncharted waters (passions, dreams, desires–could be anything really). Maybe it’s smarter to just stay home. Young Mary may have been, consciously or not, referencing her own love affair with Mad Shelley. Shelley was the quintessential romantic poet; freedom was paramount. They traveled extensively together, and parts of Frankenstein do read like a travelogue through the Alps, Germany, the British Isles, and the frozen North. Whatever her experience with the passionate poet (his other wife killed herself while they were away) her writing portrays an incredible range of insight for a teenager, especially the pangs of self-recrimination and guilt, the resentment of a parent for the burden of a child, and the child’s ultimate revenge.
The romantic circle of friends dissipated when Shelley died while sailing his boat the Don Juan in Italy; his body (found clutching a copy of Keats’s poetry) was burned on the beach in the presence of Mary and Byron. In true Gothic fashion, Shelley’s heart too pure to burn was retrieved from the flames. Byron died of fever in the Greek isles soon after that. One has to wonder how well the Romantics tenet of free love served Mary who suffered through difficult pregnancies and the deaths of two children. Only one son, Percy, lived.
As a companion pieces to the Gothic Reading Challenge, I highly recommend two films. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh and Gothic by Ken Russell. Both films take liberties with the story, with Branagh playing up the romantic angle (not a bad thing) and Russell plunging the infamous Lake Geneva summer into a depths of decadence only he can fathom. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you’re at all twisted you’ll enjoy it immensely.
Frankenstein, the novel, probably has more in common with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (one of the books the Creature reads–and weeps over– in his hovel) than in what constitutes a horror novel today. Rereading it this time around I was still gripped by the intense suffering of both Victor and the Creature, and isn’t that the nature of true horror–the agonies of our own minds.