A Lesson in Fearlessness

Spilling out onto Euston Road on a drizzly, dreary Monday evening, I noticed an eerie purple light reflected in the misty air emanating from the display on top of the BT tower. The gentle rain called to my mind the freakishly stormy weather that raged over Lake Geneva when a teenage girl gave birth to a literary monster, an enduring nightmare and a 200 year old legacy that continues to enthrall and fascinate us.

Engraving depicting Frankenstein fleeing his creation

First published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus has cemented itself as part of the cultural conscience. The novel was a game changer with its pioneering combination of human nature, monstrous intentions and science. Reading it for the first time as a fifteen year old for a mini-thesis school project, it was not at all what I had expected and in turn altered my perception of horror fiction in general. Discovering the author Mary Shelley was not much older than I was at the time when she wrote it astounded me. She remains an absolute hero to me, and the more I have learned about her the larger her legend and higher her pedestal ascended in my mind.

The Villa Diodati where Shelley first penned the story

I had just attended a talk held at the British Library (located close to Shelley’s childhood home in Somers Town) as part of a series of events celebrating the bicentennial of the publishing of  Frankenstein, her first novel. Seating myself in the second row, like the super fan that I am, I couldn’t help but overhear the chatter of two other attendees behind me. They were commenting on the remote likelihood of Shelley’s creative tale being imagined in modern times let alone 200 years ago and I quietly had to agree.

The unmistakable entry gate

Cultural events organiser for the Library, Susannah Stevenson, began proceedings by mentioning upcoming events including a photographic exhibition relating to the bicentennial celebrations. She then gave a warm introduction to the speaker of the evening, Fiona Sampson, author of In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein as well as a poet, professor, editor, translator and violinist.

Titled Mary Shelley and The Romantic Self, Sampson’s fascinating and well thought out talk began with painting a thorough picture of the physical environment that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born into in 1797. Her parents, philosopher and political writer William Godwin and famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft were both radicals way ahead of their era. Her mother sadly died from infection shortly after Shelley’s birth, and studying the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and his Creature it’s clear this had a profound effect on her.

Shelley was raised by her father and step mother and began writing at an early age. She is quoted as saying: “As a child, I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories.'” She ran off to Europe with the already married poet Percy Shelley at the age of sixteen and it was during these travels the couple stayed on Lake Geneva and friend Lord Byron suggested they all write their own horror story. In her own words: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos”.

Sampson

Sampson explored how the romantic self was essentially a middle and upper class notion at the time since the industrial revolution had sought to oppress the poor and see them as more commodity than sensitive beings. She also commented that despite her achievements, Shelley was not at the centre of her own story. Having had her husband’s help in getting Frankenstein published in London while she was in Europe she was unaware of its success. Upon her return years later she said: “I found myself famous”, since the public had found out who the anonymous author was, which would have been a strange situation for her.

Poster from 1823 advertising a production 

Shelley’s life had been detailed by the men surrounding her and generally unfairly since she was a woman, and like her mother, also a political writer, meant she was not taken seriously. She was measured in terms of her husband and whether or not she was good for him and his career instead of as a talent in her own right. She worked as a biography writer following his death and luckily she kept a journal and corresponded too which meant she recorded her own life in her own words.

One can’t help but draw parallels between the Creature in the novel and Shelley’s own life. The nameless creation is ultimately a self who is a product of his environment, and while guilty of committing crimes is also an extremely vulnerable being. He learns, develops, has agency and rights granted to him by his moral responsibility; he has self awareness and knows when his actions are wrong. This feels profound when put into context. The character was imagined in a world where human rights didn’t exist and being female automatically meant you were a second class citizen.

Frankenstein is now also regarded as a pioneering science fiction novel and Shelley is also credited with writing the first dystopian novel with her 1826 work The Last Man. Shelley’s life was spent swimming against the current at a time when it was dangerous to do so. She planted some of the first subconscious seeds of feminism in my teenage mind and inspired me to believe in and persist with my passion for writing. I aspire to emulate even the tiniest portion of her originality and creativity in my own work some day. In the words of the creature: “Beware; for I am fearless and therefore powerful.”

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

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