Courtesy of Publishers Weekly…
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, conceived by nineteen-year old Mary Shelley, and published before she was twenty, may be the most famous, most enduring imaginative work of the Romantic era, even of the last 200 years. First issued in a mere 500 copies in 1818, it has never been out of print, and has gone on to inspire legions of writers, theatrical producers and film-makers, to rewrite the fable of man-creating Prometheus to reflect the excitements of scientific idealism and the anxieties about ambitious schemes run disastrously out of control. Frankenstein continues to generate cautionary tales, to haunt allegories of aliens and alienation, and to name any half-acknowledged human “other.”
The young woman who after this stunning debut would sign herself “The Author of Frankenstein” was born in 1797, with complications that killed her mother ten days later. Her name was Mary Wollstonecraft, famous (or infamous) as one of the powerful “feminist” political philosophers in English letters. The infant’s father was William Godwin, also famous for controversial anti-government polemics. In his grief, he may have viewed little Mary as a dreadful error, inadvertently instructing this motherless child what it was to come into the world as a painful confusion. Although Frankenstein is about much more, it is deeply rooted in the primary catastrophe of a creator dismayed by his Creature on its first breath — so dismayed that he abandons the being he brought to life.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin met Percy Shelley when she was fifteen. Although he was married, they fell in love and became lovers when she was sixteen. Mary’s life with Percy was intimate, liberating, exciting, stressful and often painful. She was soon pregnant, but their infant died a few weeks later on the night of March 5, 1815. In acute grief, on March 19 she wrote in her journal, “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived—I awake & find no baby—I think about the little thing all day.” The dream would return more than once in Frankenstein, as warmth or fire animates the dead, or near dead, into life. The next pregnancy led to the birth in January 1816 of a child she named William, her father’s name.
In summer 1816, Mary, little William, and Percy headed to Switzerland to meet Lord Byron at his villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. He and Percy Shelley had admired each other’s poetry and were eager to know one another. During this visit the group read volumes of ghost stories to each other. Byron then proposed that they try their own skill. Except for Byron’s personal physician, who worked with an idea from Byron about a vampire, turning it into a story that later in the century would become the seed of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, everyone gave up. Not Mary. “I busied myself to think of a story,” she recollects (in an introduction to a new version of the novel published in 1831). But she hit a writer’s block, a dead “mortifying negative” to everyone’s question Have you thought of a story? –until one night her “imagination, unbidden” came to life with “vividness”: