What is Frankenstein Day
Frankenstein Day celebrated on the 30th of August, is an unofficial holiday commemorating life and times of English writer Mary Shelley. Shelley is best known for her 19th-century novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
Mary Shelley’s Early Life
Born in Somers Town, London on 30 August 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin parents were radical philosopher William Godwin and philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. She had an older half-sister, Fanny Imlay. Fanny was the result of a brief affair Wollstonecraft had with American speculator Gilbert Imlay. Wollstonecraft died days after Mary’s birth from puerperal fever, the result of postpartum infection.
Plagued by constant debt, Godwin felt incapable of raising the girls on his own. He looked about for a new wife and, when Mary was four years old, he married a neighbour, Mary Jane Clairmont. Clairmont brought her two illegitimate children, Charles and Clara Mary Jane, or Claire as she preferred to be addressed. Clairmont was a well-educated woman whom Godwin’s friends described as cross with a belligerent demeanour. Godwin, however, was devoted to her and they had a solid marriage. Mary’s relationship with her new stepmother was strained, and she grew to detest her. Charles Kegan Paul, Godwin’s biographer, implied Clairmont’s preferential treatment of her birth children as the root of the discord between them.
Apart from attending a dame school as a child and Miss Caroline Petman’s school for the daughters of dissenters at Ramsgate, in 1811, for seven months, Mary was homeschooled under the tutelage of William Godwin. He instilled in her a belief in her power and responsibility to help change society through activism. Between her father’s lessons and those of visiting instructors, Mary gained a firm foundation in history, mythology, literature, the Bible, art and French. She also studied Latin, unusual for girls of her time. Godwin’s many friends and acquaintances, which included authors, scientists and political reformers, exposed Mary to ideas and discussions that few students would have experienced.
Mary and Percy Shelley
In 1814, aged 16, Mary became romantically involved with one of her father’s political followers, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 22. The two conducted their affair in secrecy as Shelley already had a wife. They met often at her mother’s grave in St. Pancras Churchyard and soon fell in love. In the early morning of 28 July, Mary and her stepsister, Claire rendezvoused with Shelley. With little money in their pockets, the three departed in secret for France, leaving Shelley’s pregnant wife, Harriet behind.
Six weeks later, on 13 September, the trio returned to England, penniless and with Mary pregnant with Shelley’s child. William Godwin, who disapproved of the relationship, refused to help his daughter. Shelley’s estrangement from his aristocratic family, due to his radicalism, made it difficult for him to access money from them. Mary, Shelley and Claire eventually settled into lodgings in Somers Town, then, Nelson Square. The living arrangement roused jealousy in Mary as it was almost certain Claire and Shelley were lovers.
Mary gave birth on 22 February 1815 to a premature girl. The child died twelve days later, plunging Mary into a severe depression. By the summer, she was with child again and her mood lifted. With the death of Shelley’s grandfather, he received an annual income of £1000. They moved to Bishopsgate and Mary gave birth to a son, William, on 24 January 1816. Not much is known about this period in Mary’s life as her journal from May 1815 to July 1816 is lost.
In May 1816, Mary, Shelley, their son and Claire spent the summer with Lord Byron and John William Polidori near Geneva, Switzerland. It was then that Mary envisioned the idea for her novel Frankenstein.
They returned to England in September and took up residence in Bath to prevent the Godwins learning about Claire’s pregnancy.
The remainder of 1816 proved tumultuous for Mary and Shelley. On 9 October, Fanny Imlay, Mary’s older half-sister, was found dead in a room at a Swansea inn. Near her were a suicide note and a bottle of laudanum. One month later, on 9 November, Shelley’s wife, Harriet, drowned herself in the Thames. When her body was discovered on 10 December, she was in the late stages of pregnancy. Both these deaths were covered up. Less than three weeks later on 30 December, Mary, who was pregnant again, and Shelley married. This was on the advice of Shelley’s lawyers who felt that marriage would strengthen his case for obtaining custody of his and Harriet’s children. Despite this, the court denied Shelley custody because he was morally unfit. The children were placed with a clergyman’s family. Mary gave birth to a daughter, Clara Evarina, on 2 September 1817.
In March 1818, the Shelleys, Claire and her illegitimate daughter, Clara Allegra, left chilly England for the warmer clime of Italy hoping to treat Shelley’s pulmonary illness.
The Shelleys in Italy
Upon arriving, Claire left Allegra with her father, Lord Byron, who lived in Venice. He agreed to raise the child on the proviso that Claire have limited contact with her. Claire agreed. He would later deny her any contact with Allegra.
During their time in Italy, the Shelleys devoted themselves to travelling, writing, reading, sightseeing and socialising. It was during their Italian years that Mary wrote Matilda, Valperga and the plays Proserpine and Midas.
The deaths of their children, Clara from dysentery in September 1818, and William from malaria in June 1819 left Mary in a deep depression which isolated her from Shelley. She turned to her writing for solace. The birth of her fourth child, Percy Florence on 12 November 1819, brought her a measure of happiness, but she would mourn her lost children till her death
In 1822 Shelley, Mary, pregnant with their fifth child, Claire and Edward and Jane Williams moved to Villa Magni near San Terenzo in the Bay of Lerici. It was there Shelley broke the news to Claire that Allegra had died of typhus.
On 16 June 1822 Mary miscarried the child, loosing so much blood she nearly lost her own life as well. Without waiting for the doctor’s arrival, Shelley placed Mary in a tub of ice to stem the bleeding. An act, the doctor said, saved her life.
Afterwards, their relationship became strained. Rather than tending to his sickly wife, Shelley spent more time with Jane Williams. Many of his poems of this time were written with Jane in mind rather than Mary.
Two weeks after Mary’s miscarriage, Shelley, Edward Elleker Williams and Captain Daniel Roberts sailed to the coast of Livorno on 1 July 1822. While there, Shelley, Byron, and Leigh Hunt talked of the launch of a radical magazine called The Liberal. A week later, Shelley and Williams and their boat boy, Charles Vivian set sail for the return journey.
A letter from Leigh Hunt, dated 8 July, arrived at Villa Magni. As Mary read it, she began to tremble. ‘Pray write to tell us how you got home,’ Hunt wrote, ‘for they said you had bad weather after you sailed monday & we are anxious.’ She and Jane rushed to Livorno, then to Pisa hoping to find their husbands still alive. Approximately two weeks after the storm, three bodies washed ashore near Viareggio. Trelawny, Byron and Hunt cremated the remains of Shelley on the beach there
Life After Shelley
After Shelley’s death, Mary stayed in Genoa with Hunt and his family. She met with Byron frequently and transcribed his poems. On 23 July 1823, Mary and Percy Florence returned to England. She stayed with her father and stepmother in the Strand before moving to nearby lodgings and devoted herself to her son and her writing career. She edited her late husband’s poems, worked on her novel, The Last Man (1826) and helped friends with memoirs of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.
Between 1827 and 1840, Mary stayed busy as an editor and writer. She wrote The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), contributed five volumes to Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia on the lives of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French authors and wrote stories for ladies’ magazines. When her father died in 1836, aged 80, Mary gathered his letters and a memoir for publication, as per his last will. She eventually dropped the project after two years.
Between projects, Mary espoused Shelley’s poetry, promoted their publication and used quotes in her writing. By 1837, his works were notable and held in high regard.
Mary’s Final Years
During the early 1840s, Mary and her son, Percy travelled the continent. Mary recorded their travels in Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843.
Percy married Jane Gibson St. John. Mary and Jane had a warm relationship, and she lived with the happy couple at Field Place, Sussex, the Shelley ancestral home, and at Chester Square, London. Mary also accompanied them on their travels.
Ill health dogged Mary’s later years. From 1839 she suffered from headaches and paralysis in her arms. Occasionally, it was severe enough to prevent her from reading and writing. She died on 1 February 1851, from a suspected brain tumour
It was Mary’s wish to be buried with her mother and father. Percy and Jane, however, felt the graveyard at St. Pancras was ‘dreadful’. They exhumed the remains of Godwin and Wollstonecraft and buried all three at St. Peter’s Church, Bournemouth on 8 February.
On the first anniversary of Mary’s death, Percy and Jane opened her desk. Tucked inside were locks of hair from her dead children and a copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Adonaïs. A single page was folded around a small, silk package which contained some of his ashes and the remains of his heart.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
Considered a predecessor of modern-day science fiction, Frankenstein, is the story of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein whose highly suspect experiments result in the creation a monstrous, humanoid creature cobbled together from various corpses. Despite his monstrous appearance, the nameless creature is an intelligent, emotional being seeking acceptance.
Mary recalled the summer of 1816 when she, Shelley and Claire met with Lord Byron and his physician, John William Polidori, in Geneva as ‘a wet, ungenial summer and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.’ Sitting by the log fire at Byron’s villa, they would entertain each other with German ghost stories. Byron suggested they ‘each write a ghost story.’ Mary could think of nothing, and grew nervous. ‘Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.
During one of their fireside chats, the group discussed the nature of the principle of life. ‘Perhaps,’ Mary noted, ‘a corpse would be re-animated, galvanism had given token of such things.’
Long after saying their good-nights, Mary was still wide awake. Her imagination had taken hold of her, and she could ‘see’ the horror of her ‘waking dream’.
‘I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.’*
Mary had her ghost story.
Mary assumed this would be a short story, but with encouragement from Shelley, it became her first novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. It was published, anonymously, in 1818. She was 22
*Taken from Mary Shelley’s Author Introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein
Celebrating Frankenstein Day
Here are some suggestions for observing Frankenstein Day:
1. Read the Novel
Perhaps there’s a copy of Frankenstein lurking in the back of your bookcase, a forgotten and forlorn relic from your high school days. Why not dust it off and spend the day reading it? If you don’t have a copy knocking around the house, finding it online couldn’t be easier.
And let’s not forget, your local library is bound to have a copy you can borrow.
2. Read Mary Shelley’s Other Works
Although Mary Shelley is primarily known for Frankenstein, she has also written short stories, travelogues and historical novels. The Last Man (1826), regarded as her second best novel, is set in a 21st-century post-apocalyptic world devastated by a plague. Its sole survivor, Lionel Verney, narrates the tale.
3. Watch TV and Movies Adaptations
There have been numerous adaptations of this classic novel since its publication. Before Universal Studio’s Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and featuring Boris Karloff as the iconic creature, there was a 1910 silent film produced by Edison Studios and directed by J. Searle Dawley. Charles Ogle’s portrayal of the creature seems closer to Shelley’s description than the green-skinned, bolt-necked monster we’re familiar with.
Frankenstein (1910) HD
For a more light-hearted take, I recommend Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. While not a strict adaptation of the novel, it is still a delightful parody of the old ‘Frankenstein’ movies from Universal.
4. Host a Frankenstein-Themed Party
Turn up your creativity and have some fun with this. You can turn your venue into Frankenstein’s laboratory, complete with an operating table and electricity bolts a la Tesla providing a spooky atmosphere.
Bedeck the table with Frankenstein cupcakes, chips and dip, pizza and drinks. If you want some healthier options, there are plenty of Frankenstein recipes online made from fruits and veggies.
Have your guests dress up for the occasion. Remember, this is about Mary Shelley, after all, so the costumes don’t have to be scary and Halloween-y. They can come in period costumes as some of the Shelleys’ friends like Lord Byron. Perhaps Mary and Percy Shelley can make an appearance and talk about their time together. And, of course, you can show movies. (See No. 3 above.)
© 2018 Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon