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The background to a seminal myth @BodPublishing #frankenstein

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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 cliché; 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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…in which the Birthday Fairy and Santa deliver – big time…

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Well, I did promise book pictures, didn’t I? And so here they come… I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with having a birthday quite close to Christmas so the gifts double up at this time of year, and despite everyone’s best intentions, there are always books!

First off, some modest arrivals for my birthday:

These lovelies came from OH and my BFF J. (amazingly, the Offspring managed to avoid books altogether for the birthday!)

The Peirene title is from J. and she very cleverly managed to pick the one I probably most want to read from their list! OH was also very clever in that he managed to find a BLCC I haven’t got or read, and also a book (the Godwin) which ties in with my current interest in things with a sort of link to the French Revolution (plus it has a *wonderful* David self-portrait on the cover). The crossword book? I love a crossword – I kid myself it keeps my brain alert…

As for Christmas… well, here are the bookish arrivals…!

First up, I always take part in the LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa and this year my books came courtesy of the lovely Simon at Stuck in a Book and these are they:

Simon knows that we share a love of a certain kind of writing and so picked some wonderful books I don’t have by A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock and Saki – I’ve already been dipping and giggling… And it wouldn’t be a gift from Simon if there wasn’t a title in there by his beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett! I confess to owning several titles but not having plucked up the courage to read one yet – and fortunately I didn’t have this one, which is a beautiful edition, so maybe this should be where I start with Ivy… 😉

Next up a few treats from J. She reminded me when we met up recently that it was actually 35 years since we first met (gulp!) and she knows me and my obsessions and my reading habits well. These were wonderful bookish choices – an Edmund Crispin classic crime novel (can’t go wrong with Gervase Fen), a Sacheverell Sitwell set in Russia, and a marvellous sounding book of pastiches which has already had me giggling – these humorous books are obviously putting the merry in Christmas this year!

The Offspring decided Christmas was the time for books for me (as well as some other lovely gifts) and the above was the result – “The Futurist Cookbook” was from Youngest, the Plath letters (squeeeee!) from Middle and “The Story of Art” plus the Mieville from Eldest. Very excited about these and wanting to read them all at once…. 🙂

Finally, not to be left out, OH produced these treats! Yes, *another* BLCC I don’t have, a fascinating sounding book on Chekhov and a really lovely book on Surrealist art. The latter is particularly striking and has a plate of the most marvellous Magritte painting which I hadn’t seen before and I can’t stop looking at:

It’s called “The Empire of Lights” and it’s stunning and this doesn’t do it justice…

So, I have been very blessed this Christmas – thank you all my lovely gift-giving friends and family! And once I shake off this head cold I’ve also been blessed with, I really need to get reading… 🙂

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