Mary Shelley was one of a number of celebrated female writers of the early 1800s, which included Jane Austen, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. These writers marked a revolution in the publication and popularity of works by female authors – many of whom initially published their work anonymously or under a male pseudonym. Their writings became a powerful tool for women to make their voices heard outside of the home, take control of their lives and reflect on the position of women in society.
Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of the philosopher novelist, William Godwin, and the revolutionary feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft (who died shortly after she was born). She later went on to marry the Romantic poet Percy Shelley. Unlike her male peers, she had no formal schooling, but was educated at home and learned much from her father, his friends and from public lectures and demonstrations. These included the Italian physicist and philosopher Dr Luigi Galvani and his nephew Giovanni Aldini who demonstrated how to pass an electric current through the nerves of a dead body – undoubtedly an inspiration for her famous gothic novel Frankenstein.
Frankenstein tells the story of Dr Victor Frankenstein who discovers the secret of making objects animate and then goes on to create a ‘monster’. Frankenstein was not an instant success and received mixed reviews when it was published in 1818 – originally without Mary’s name. It became popular a few years later when it was picked up and re-worked as a stage play. But it was cinema that turned it into the sensation we recognise today. The first film adaptation was made in 1910. Since then, there have been around 150 further versions on different mediums. Today, ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ has become a familiar part of the English Language and remains an iconic image in popular culture (not least at Halloween parties!).
There have been many different interpretations of the story’s themes which centre around our very existence – why are we here? What is our purpose in life? The book is often seen as promoting the revolutionary ideas of the time – Victor challenges authority (God) by creating life himself. The Monster is also revolutionary in its hostility towards authority (its ‘father’). Others argue that Mary is being critical of political revolution since both the Monster and Victor are eventually punished with death.
Early nineteenth century books did not have illustrated covers: the frontispiece is what appears on the title page inside the front cover. This illustration was produced for the first popular (cheap, single volume) edition of the book in 1831.
Did you know..?
The idea for the story came to Mary during a stormy summer night, while telling ghost stories with her husband and friends – including the Romantic poet (Lord) Byron. It is often referred to as the first true work of science fiction.
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This object is in the collection of British Library