Last fall, a colleague from History and I undertook our own experiment with Frankenstein: was it really possible to teach an entire course on just one novel? The results were illuminating. We discovered that far from running short on material, one semester was not nearly enough—Mary Shelley’s text crosses disciplines, media, and centuries, inviting study from multiple perspectives and straining the bounds of any attempt to contain it within a standard syllabus. Our experience with the extraordinary reach and resonance of Shelley’s novel only increases my respect for Christopher Frayling’s ambitious work, Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years. Any such attempt at a comprehensive account must cover both the origins and afterlives of Shelley’s influential text, and Frayling’s admirably organized volume does both, proving to be especially strong on biography, the scientific context, and popular culture adaptations in cinema and art.
Frayling’s tenure as Rector of London’s Royal College of Art is evident in his book’s striking visual elements. The first thing the reader encounters, after the title, is a full-page black-and-white photo of the scientist at work amongst his retorts and beakers, the ominous shadow of the Monster’s reaching hand on the rough wall behind him (Colin Clive from James Whale’s 1931 film, 2). In the second image, also full-page, Boris Karloff’s craggy face and angular form emerge from darkness into light; in this case, the shadow on the wall is the outline of Dr. Frankenstein (5). This opening pairing visually reinforces the interlocking nature of the original Victor Frankenstein and his creation, while paying tribute to the dominance of the cinematic afterlife of the novel in the modern imagination. With that reference point established, Frayling’s book moves back to the novel’s genesis, exploring the lives and characters of those closest to Mary Shelley when she first began transcribing the contents of her famous “waking dream.” Images again come to the fore, as a gallery of contemporary portraits allows the reader to keep track of the “cast of main characters”: Percy Shelley, soon to be Mary Shelley’s husband; Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s step-sister; Lord Byron, the celebrity poet; and Dr. John Polidori, Byron’s young personal physician (13).
Frayling’s tenure as Rector of London’s Royal College of Art is evident in his book’s striking visual elements. The first thing the reader encounters, after the title, is a full-page black-and-white photo of the scientist at work amongst his retorts and beakers, the ominous shadow of the Monster’s reaching hand on the rough wall behind him.
The story of how this particular set of talented young people came together at Byron’s villa on the shores of Lake Geneva in the chilly summer of 1816 has been told many times. Frayling’s account is notable for its clarity, insight, and respect, doing justice to the tumult of Shelley’s teen years and offering a sympathetic perspective on the hardships that 18-year-old Mary Shelley (still Mary Godwin, at that time) had already endured. The gathering was not simply a glamorous intellectual house party. Mary and Percy were estranged from her father, the political theorist William Godwin, who strongly disapproved when they ran off together in 1814. Her mother, feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, had died from complications arising from Mary’s birth, and Mary herself had already lost one infant. Money was tight, and living with a married man while caring for her second child exposed her to gossip and criticism. Frayling makes extensive use of primary sources to evoke this intense period, quoting not only from Mary Shelley’s journal, but also from Polidori’s—as well as from various letters written by Byron to friends in England and by Claire to Byron. We get direct access to interpersonal connections and tensions: Claire, who had initiated an affair with Byron back in London, writes to assure him that continuing their relationship will not interfere with any other liaisons he may have in view: “nothing can afford me such pleasure as to see you happy in any of your attachments,” including one with Mary, she implies (37); Lord Byron, while delighted by Percy’s company (and not interested in pursuing Mary), quickly tires of his physician, rejoicing at one point over his absence during a lakeside tour: “Thank God! Polidori is not here” (34).
Polidori was there, however, on the night of the reading that sparked the invention of Frankenstein. According to Mary Shelley’s later account, perusal of a volume of gothic tales prompted Byron to issue a writers’ challenge of sorts: “We will each write a ghost story” (44). On June 17, Polidori’s journal contains the somewhat anxious entry: “The ghost stories are begun by all but me” (45). Mary Shelley, too, clearly felt both excitement and pressure in regard to her tale. On rare occasion, Frayling offers a detail that seems superfluous, as when he notes the sad fate of Byron’s sword-cane, which accidentally “tumbled into the lake” (35), but on the whole he succeeds in evoking the charged atmosphere of the summer of Frankenstein’s creation, helping readers to grasp the immediate autobiographical concerns evident in Shelley’s novel, including familial estrangement, the dangers of birth and reproduction, and the desire for intellectual accomplishment.
The story of how this particular set of talented young people came together at Byron’s villa on the shores of Lake Geneva in the chilly summer of 1816 has been told many times. Frayling’s account is notable for its clarity, insight, and respect, doing justice to the tumult of Shelley’s teen years and offering a sympathetic perspective on the hardships that 18-year-old Mary Shelley (still Mary Godwin, at that time) had already endured.
Frankenstein has been identified as the first science fiction novel, and indeed the scientific context of the novel is as important as the personal. In order to retrieve for 21st-century readers the nature of Shelley’s engagement with the science of her day, Frayling provides an overview of the disputes and discoveries that animated Enlightenment and Romantic science, including the vitalism debate, galvanic experiments, sophisticated automata, and advances in chemistry. Mary and Percy Shelley’s own doctor, William Lawrence, debated John Abernathy of the Royal College of Surgeons on whether the vital force of life proceeded from God or from biology. Arguing against Abernathy’s views that the “will of the Omnipotence” was the source, Lawrence proposed a strictly materialist explanation, claiming that “the vital properties [of an organism] are all derived from their organic structure” (22). Further support for the materialist position could also be drawn from the public experiments of Luigi Galvani and his nephew Giovanni Aldini on the effects of electricity on dead bodies, both animal and human. As one of Frayling’s illustrations demonstrates, Aldini succeeded in making the corpse of an executed murderer respond to stimulus from a “galvanic pile”: convulsions caused an eye to open and one arm to raise, creating at least the appearance of imminent reanimation (26). While galvanism is not directly mentioned in the original text, Shelley does refer to it in her 1831 Introduction. As Fraying observes, “because Frankenstein was based on a real scientific debate … it was of a different genre to ‘mere’ tales of the supernatural: a new kind of literary fiction” (22).
In the realm of technology, sophisticated automata were imitating life with uncanny results. Jacques de Vaucanson created a copper duck that appeared to eat (and excrete), while Pierre Jaquet-Droz crafted clockwork figures whose eyes, fingers, and arms moved as they wrote, drew, or played the keys of a harpsichord (24). But, as Frayling notes, “the creature of Mary [Shelley’s] imagination was no sculpture or automaton.” Part of what was distinctive about Shelley’s invention was that he was a constructed being, but one whose parts were organic rather than mechanical. “He was an organism pieced together from ‘materials’ found in graveyards, charnel-houses, slaughterhouses and dissecting rooms—a piece of biological rather than mechanical engineering” (25). An essential source for this new idea was Humphry Davy’s treatise on modern chemistry, in which he contrasted the empty promises of the “alchemists” of earlier centuries with the efficacy of a “new” and modern science, capable of explaining the properties of gases and the actions of “animal organs”—sounding strikingly like Victor’s mentor, Professor Waldeman (27). While both alchemists and cutting-edge enlightenment scientific researchers might appear antiquated to the modern reader, this analysis helps us to see that Victor Frankenstein adopts his grand ambitions from the former (creating an elixir of life) and his methodology from the latter, becoming “the last of the alchemists and the first of the modern scientists” (28), thus helping to explain the novel’s staying power in an era of genetic manipulation and prostheses driven by neural impulses.
Given the thoroughness with which Frayling treats the scientific context, his handling of the literary context is disappointing. While literary influences are not entirely neglected, they are given surprisingly short shrift. A book that makes the space to quote Davys and Aldini at length should also find room to quote Milton in a comparable manner–and perhaps supply an appropriate image. Paradise Lost, after all, appears on the novel’s 1818 title page as well as supplying the Creature’s model for thinking about the roles of creator and creation. Shelley herself airdropped a copy of Milton’s poem into the Creature’s hands by way of a leather portmanteau found in the woods, and her journal shows that she and Percy read the text in 1815. As the Creature struggles to understand his place in the world, he turns repeatedly to Milton’s characters, musing that although he should be like Adam, “who had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature … guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” his abandoned and isolated state makes Satan “the fitter emblem” (159). The Creature’s diction and cadences (his eloquence is one of the novel’s surprises for modern readers) are Miltonic throughout. In Book 4 of Paradise Lost, the fallen Satan, lamenting his status as an “outcast,” resolves to claim power where he still can: “All good to me is lost./Evil, be thou my good.” Similarly, the man-made monster explains that after the death of Elizabeth, “Evil thenceforth became my good” (186), as he embraced his demonical design and gave up hope of being loved and fulfilling his “dreams of virtue” (186). Milton’s epic helped to define Romantic notions of filial rebellion and heroic alienation. Readers would surely benefit from additional evidence of its influence.
In order to retrieve for 21st-century readers the nature of Shelley’s engagement with the science of her day, Frayling provides an overview of the disputes and discoveries that animated Enlightenment and Romantic science, including the vitalism debate, galvanic experiments, sophisticated automata, and advances in chemistry.
The story of Frankenstein’s afterlives begins with the successful 1823 melodrama Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein, by Richard Peake. News of the play came as a surprise to Mary Shelley, who had nothing to do with its composition, having remained in Europe during the year after Percy Shelley’s tragic death by drowning. Frayling proposes, persuasively, that the Monster’s entrance into popular culture via the stage meant that Frankenstein was “in the process of turning from literature into myth.” The dramatic tradition—including, later, cinema as well as theater—created a kind of evolving “parallel text” to the novel, one which could respond to the changing “anxieties of the moment” in various eras (89). In his analysis, Frayling identifies some useful broader trends. To begin with, the silencing of the Creature in Presumption simplified his character and marked a reduction in sympathy for him; instead of an eloquent Creature who could tell his own story, audiences encountered a mute and violent Monster. This made it easier for the Monster to be figuratively associated, during the later nineteenth century, with a range of perceived social threats (rebellious workers, Irish peasants, even slaves) reversing the radical moral implications of the sympathy inspired by the Creature in Shelley’s original novel.
Twentieth-century cinema continued many of these trends, while sharpening the focus on fears about science, turning a “myth into a global brand” (97). The quintessential figure of the mad scientist is embodied by the white-coated, cackling “Henry” Frankenstein in the animation scene in James Whale’s 1931 film. Frayling provides an overview of both the Universal series in the U.S. (which introduces the figure of the electrically-styled Bride) and the Hammer series in Britain, arguing that the American films remain more interested in the figure of the Monster, while British films focus on a mature “Baron” Frankenstein as a figure of aristocratic decadence and duplicity, despite Victor’s youth and middle-class status in the original novel (109). Toward the century’s end, sympathetic renditions of the Creature return, in part in response to increasing cultural and political attention paid to previously marginalized groups. Evolving critical interpretations of Frankenstein within the academy and elsewhere affected its presentation in popular culture. In Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film, the Creature is an abandoned “grown-up baby,” who–as in the novel–acquires speech, overturning “longstanding conventions of ‘mad scientist’ films” (110). Nick Dear’s 2011 drama takes a similarly sympathetic stance. Such adaptations remind us that the Creature’s outsider status can be productively mapped onto many different identities –does he represent the cultural “secondariness” of women, the marginalization and oppression of racial minorities, the exploitation of the working class, the plight of those seen as disabled, the social exclusion of LGBTQ people throughout much of history? Arriving too late for Frayling’s consideration, Victor Lavalle’s Destroyer is a recent entry into this field, telling the story of a scientist-mother who reanimates her son, fusing Black Lives Matter with the Frankenstein myth.
Paradise Lost, after all, appears on the novel’s 1818 title page as well as supplying the Creature’s model for thinking about the roles of creator and creation. Shelley herself airdropped a copy of Milton’s poem into the Creature’s hands by way of a leather portmanteau found in the woods, and her journal shows that she and Percy read the text in 1815. … Milton’s epic helped to define Romantic notions of filial rebellion and heroic alienation. Readers would surely benefit from additional evidence of its influence.
In the end, readers who complete the book’s first five sections will have had a rigorous crash course in Frankenstein and its contexts and at that point are perfectly positioned to appreciate what is perhaps Frayling’s most unusual section: “VI. Frankenstein—a visual celebration.” The book closes with 80 pages of beautifully-reproduced images of Frankenstein’s afterlives. This photo essay includes black-and-white movie stills, film publicity posters from across the globe, make-up design sketches, comic book covers, cartoons, and advertisements. The order is roughly chronological, beginning with the Whale film in 1931 and concluding with a stage shot from the 2011 Dear/Boyle adaptation (in which the lead actors alternated roles, in a literalization of the novel’s doppelganger theme). In and of itself, the section makes a persuasive argument about the persistence of Frankenstein and its pervasiveness in 20th– and 21st-century culture. Remarkably, Frayling refrains from commentary, aside from brief captions. This vote of confidence in his audience, graduates of his earlier sections, pays off: the informed reader is free to browse the curated images and make independent connections.
One can, for example, trace the signifiers of constructedness across the representations of the Creature and his mate: Boris Karloff sports bolts and a scar, while his bride’s jawline is marked with stitches. The stitches, a sign of unnatural assembly, recur insistently in Frankenstein iconography across this collection. The face of the star of I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) is a mass of sutures, while the poster for the x-rated film Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973) shows the title held together by strokes of black thread. (Interestingly, the original novel contains no mention of stitching, but this visual shorthand is clearly here to stay.) The strength of this collection is its open-ended quality: readers can return to search for additional meanings, depending upon their interests. How are women depicted in relation to the Creature? Are they victims, predators, or (less frequently) satisfied mates? What does it mean that the pictures are so racially exclusive? How is technology represented? Taken together, these images show us a multiplicity of Frankensteins—sexual, political, comical, emotional, commercial—always changing, yet always recognizable. Having anatomized the key features of the first 200 years, Frayling’s appealing and scholarly work makes us confident that there will be a second 200—and that they will be anything but boring.