The Making of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Daisy Hay

Although 2018 is being touted as the centenary of the end of the First World War, this year also sees a very notable bicentenary – that of the publication of Mary Shelley’s seminal work of Gothic literature, “Frankenstein”, which was of course first published in 1818. There have been a number of new publications to mark that anniversary, but Bodleian Library Publishing have rather taken the prize, in my view, with a beautifully produced and thought-provoking volume which takes a look at the genesis of Shelley’s great work.

Mary Shelley, of course, came from literary stock: her mother was the great feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was author William Godwin. Tragically, Mary junior’s mother died after giving birth to her, an event which informed the daughter’s life and work. And indeed, Mary Shelley’s life was anything but tranquil and dull, being punctuated by regular drama and tragedy. The loss of her children by miscarriage or death and the drowning of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, informed her life and work; she was indeed a remarkably strong woman to survive such blows.

Daisy Hay’s excellent book takes a look at the forces that formed the Frankenstein myth, and pivotal to that is the fact that it is a mythology of birth; a weird sort of birth, at that, with a creature constructed rather than born naturally, but still it is a birth. Hay’s five chapters focus on different angles of that genesis, taking in Time, People, Place, Paper and Relic to delve into what caused Shelley to write her book. Certainly, the context is vital to understanding why “Frankenstein” is what it is, and Hay does a wonderful job of placing Mary Shelley firmly into her landscape, with the events of the first French Revolution still fresh in people’s minds; as well as showing the maelstrom of scientific experimentation and discovery that was taking place.

“Frankenstein” in its turn constructs an allegory for the French Revolution in which first the potential and then the vainglorious corruption of Revolutionary ambition is laid bare. The novel reacts too to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, and to its unlooked-for impact on labouring communities.

The people in Mary’s life were of course important to the development of the book. Being surrounded by Percy, Lord Byron, John Polidori et al, in creative and atmospheric settings, is going to stimulate the brain. It’s clear from Hay’s writing here that it was a complex interaction of external forces (world events, inventions, science) and internal (family) dynamics which formed the final story. She also clearly delineates the effects of childbearing and loss on the narrative, and it’s hardly surprising that Shelley ended up creating a birth myth like no other.

Hay takes things further by exploring the manuscripts left behind; not only of “Frankenstein” itself, but letters, diaries and works of art, all of which tell their own story, adding to the greater tale. Poignantly, we also see images of the relics Mary kept during her life: locks of hair from Shelley and their son, as well as her own; Shelley’s watch and seals; and his pen. These bring home the reality of what she lost, and although she lived on to produce more work, she felt more in touch with the past than the future, leaving her legacy to be taken care of by her loving daughter-in-law, Jane Shelley.

“Making….” is of course a beautifully produced book, lavishly stuffed with colour pictures on glossy paper, which I’ve come to expect from Bodleian. Many of the striking images are drawn from the Bodleian Library’s extensive collections and they enhance the narrative wonderfully, bringing Mary and the story of her creation to life. However, the narrative itself is fascinating and erudite, and I found it really enhanced my understanding of the achievements of the book as well as its meaning. I read “Frankenstein” back in the day, as well as Stoker’s “Dracula” and was struck by just how powerful and damn good the books were. Up until that time I’d known them through Hollywood clichรฉ; well, the book is always better and that was certainly the case with these too. The excitement and suspense, as well as the exploration of ideas, with which these books were filled was miles away from Karloff and co.

Mary Shelley was a fascinating, inspiring woman, and her work left an immense, influential and lasting legacy. As Hay reminds us, the word ‘Frankenstein’ is in common currency, used for everything from Cold War symbolism to GM crops. The mainstream popular imagery surrounding her most famous book doesn’t do it justice, and “Making..” has made me not only keen to reread “Frankenstein” but also to explore Shelley’s life and work further; fortunately, as you can see from the image above, I have just the books on my shelves to do that…

(Review copy kindly supplied by Bodleian Library Publishing, for which many thanks)

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