Thursday, October 12, 2006

Mary Shelley and Frankenstein Part I

The story of how Frankenstein was written is nearly as famous as the novel itself. A nineteen year old girl is issued a challenge by her host to write a ghost story. The girl was Mary Shelley the then fiancée of the poet Percy Shelley and her host was Lord Byron.

Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in London, England, the second daughter of famed feminist, educator and writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the equally famous anarchist philosopher, journalist and atheist dissenter, William Godwin. She met Percy Bysshe Shelley, a political radical and free-thinker like her father, when Percy and his first wife Harriet visited Godwin's home and bookshop in London. Percy, unhappy in his marriage, began to visit Godwin more frequently (and alone). In the summer of 1814 he and Mary (then only 16) fell in love. They eloped, (though Percy was still married to Harriet at the time) to France in July.

During the snowy summer of 1816, the "Year Without A Summer," the world was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Tambora in 1815. In this terrible year, Mary visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor vacation activities they had planned, so after reading an anthology of German ghost stories, Byron challenged the Shelleys and his personal physician John William Polidori to each compose a story of their own, the contest being won by whoever wrote the scariest tale.

Mary conceived an idea after she fell into a waking dream or nightmare during which she saw "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." This was the germ of Frankenstein. Byron managed to write just a fragment based on the vampire legends he heard while traveling the Balkans, and from this Polidori created The Vampyre (1819), the progenitor of the romantic vampire literary genre. Thus, Lord Byron’s challenge created both the Gothic themes of Frankenstein and the modern vampire.

Come back tomorrow for Part II.

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