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Meeting Mary Shelley and her ‘Frankenstein’

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at KCL chapter.

Frankenstein is an ideal food for thought on a winter night. It touches upon timeless themes, such as love, solitude and acceptance and poses questions about the nature of humanity and relations between the creator and its creation. 

Yet, if my short description has not convinced you to read this masterpiece, I hope the following facts will intrigue you enough to do so. 


Fact number one: Frankenstein refers to the name of the creator, not the creation.

Many people confuse the monster with its creator. In pop culture, the word ‘Frankenstein’ very often refers to the ugly creature people dress up for during Halloween. However, ‘Frankenstein’ is actually the family name of Victor, the creator of the terrifying monster. The monster itself does not have any name at all and is referred to, throughout the whole book, as ‘the creature’ or ‘the monster’.


Fact number two: Mary Shelley is deemed the precursor of science fiction.  

Yes, you have read me correctly. A WOMAN was the initiator of the sci-fi genre. 

In the book, Frankenstein’s creature was a product of science – not a supernatural or ‘god’s given’ occurrence. Victor Frankenstein was a scientist, and it is strongly highlighted in the book that he used scientific knowledge when creating his monster. Nothing magical or supernatural about it. 

When writing the story, Shelley was inspired by the latest scientific accomplishments, especially Luigi Galvani’s works on electricity and galvanism. The Italian physicist discovered that once an animal tissue is electrocuted, the muscles twitch. He attributed these contractions to so-called ‘vital force’ or ‘animal electricity’ and suggested that understanding this ‘vital force’ will make it possible to reanimate the dead. Mary Shelley built on that idea. In her book, it is suggested that this technique was used by Victor Frankenstein to bring his creature to life.

Therefore, because the book was inspired by scientific discoveries, Frankenstein is the very first science fiction novel. 


Fact number three: the book has two editions.  

There are two different versions of Frankenstein. The first version was published anonymously in 1818. The second version of the book is a little bit more developed – Mary Shelley changed certain aspects of the story and added a preface, where she describes the circumstances in which the story was created. Finally, in 1832 the novel was published under Mary Shelley’s own name. 


Fact number four: Mary Shelley cites a fragment of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Frankenstein because she heard Coleridge himself recite it.  

Mary Shelley was a daughter of radical philosopher William Godwin. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a famous feminist and the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Unfortunately, Mary Wollstonecraft died a few days after giving birth to her daughter, therefore Shelley never really met her mother. Being raised only by her father, Mary had a chance to meet a lot of distinguished writers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. During one of Samuel T. Coleridge’s visits at the Godwins’ house, Mary overheard Coleridge recite his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, fragments of which appear in Frankenstein


Fact number five: The story Frankenstein was created during a ghost-story writing competition. 

Mary Shelley started working on Frankenstein during the summer of 1816.  

Due to the eruption of Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora in April 1815, the weather throughout the next years was very unexpected. The ash from the volcano remaining in the atmosphere dimmed the sun, causing a ‘year without summer’. Due to the weather, travel was impossible and that’s why Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and her future husband Percy B. Shelley, spent the whole summer in Geneva, meeting up in Villa Diodati, discussing literature and science. As Mary Shelley recalls: “Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered communicated”.

On one of the stormy and dark nights at Villa Diodati, Lord Byron suggested a ghost-story writing competition. That’s when Mary Shelley started composing her story, yet the idea for it was inspired by a nightmare she had one night. In the nightmare, she had seen a “pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together“. As you can see, the creation of the novel Frankenstein is a bit of a gothic story itself.   


Frankenstein is a fantastic and gripping novel. Knowing the context of its creation adds new dimensions and frames the whole story as a very well-thought masterpiece. 


I'm Julia, a passionate English Language and Linguistics student. As a vegan "eco-terrorist", I want to spread awareness about how on a daily basis we may contribute to helping our planet. My writing focuses on some of my greatest passions: food, literature and love towards other languages and cultures.