Fascination with Frankenstein

A recent piece in the New York Times caused a flurry on Twitter because it included the sentence ‘With Jules Verne and the publisher Hugo Gernsback, he invented the genre of science fiction’. The ‘he’ in question was H.G. Wells and the piece was a review of a new biography The Young H.G. Wells. Changing the World by Claire Tomalin. The words appear to come from the pen of the reviewer Charles Johnson rather than from Claire Tomalin. Indeed, it would be surprising if she wrote this as she is also the author of a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley who, as academic Mame-Fatou Niang pointed out (in a post which quickly received more than 14.3k likes and 4k plus retweets), was the author of what is considered by many today to be the first science fiction novel Frankenstein. She commented: ‘This article continues the long tradition of erasing her’. 

While Mary Shelley may have been forgotten in some quarters, her creation Frankenstein certainly has not been, inspiring literature, film and popular culture, with a peak in 2018 around the time of the bicentenary of the novel’s first publication. The character of Mary herself has appeared in books for children and adults and in film – Mary Shelley(2017, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour) and on TV – an episode of Doctor Who (The Haunting of Villa Diodati) features an encounter that the Doctor has with Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Dr Polidori and Claire Clairmont in the place where the challenge by Byron to write a ghost story came about.

My own fascination with Frankenstein began with watching black and white movies on TV when I was a teenager. [Weird fact – actor Boris Karloff who played the creature in the 1931 film directed by James Whale was born in a flat above a fish and chip shop close to where I live now!] I remember buying a battered paperback copy of the book in the Book and Record Exchange in Hull and can still clearly picture the cover – an illustration of the monster’s square head with bolts sticking out of his neck as he appears in the films and a price sticker of 5p. I was also intrigued by Victor Erice’s 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive which opens with children gathering for a village community screening of the 1931 film and includes a scene that echoes one from the earlier film. 

During my librarianship training in the 1970s I wrote an essay on Mary Shelley as part of a course on the development of popular readership and it was then that I became aware of the idea that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel when I read Brian W. Aldiss’s 1973 history of science fiction Billion Year Spree (an updated edition Trillion Year Spree was published in 1986) in which the first chapter is entitled ‘On the Origin of Species: Mary Shelley’. Aldiss says: ‘The last word on Frankenstein will never be said. It contains too many seemingly conflicting elements for that.’

The novel and the ideas within in it certainly live on. Earlier this year I compiled an annotated list of books for children and young people relating to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein which can be found here: 

Mary Shelley’s own life and her story of Frankenstein continue to inspire writers and I’ve described a number of those written for children and young adults in the booklist mentioned above. However, more keep appearing, offering interesting new angles. In Catherine Bruton’s Following Frankenstein the narrator is Maggie Walton, daughter of Captain Robert Walton whose letters to his sister begin and end Mary Shelley’s novel and who, in this new book, is obsessed with seeking out Frankenstein’s creature who was last seen ‘borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance’. In Walton’s quest he is accompanied by Maggie who stows away aboard the ship Moby Dick (there are many intertextual links with other literature in addition to the central ones with Frankenstein) and it leads to a journey which enables exploration of issues relating to parental abandonment and the consequences of perceived ‘otherness’ in the context of a gripping tale.

Another new manifestation is Frankenstiltskin in the Fairy Tales Gone Bad series by Joseph Coelho and Freya Hartas which is a magical mixture of humour and the macabre with a strong central female character. It follows the pattern of the Rumpelstiltskin story and features vegan taxidermist Bryony in the role of the girl who has to complete three tasks and then guess the name of the demanding ‘creature’ who has aided her by bringing dead creatures to life. 

Other new versions include what seems an unlikely addition to a Baby’s Classics board book series by A. H. Hill and Greg Paprocki. Also the number of graphic novel versions has swelled recently and I’m looking forward to checking out at least some of the following: Mary Shelley, Monster Hunter by Adam Glass, Frankenstein (Manga Classics) by M. Chandler and Linus Liu, Disney Frankenstein, Starring Donald Duck by Bruno Enna and The Modern Frankenstein by Paul Cornell & Emma Vieceli, all published during the last couple of years. Looks like a long overdue visit to Forbidden Planet or Gosh! Comics might be on the cards!

So does the ‘long tradition of erasing’ Mary Shelley continue? Her most famous book is deeply embedded in popular culture and there is certainly interest in her life too although this is entangled with the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and also Byron both of whose work is probably still more widely studied academically than hers. The fact that it was so easy for a reviewer to state that a later male writer ‘invented science fiction’ suggests that recognition for her work rather than for her romantic relationships is still not as deep or widespread as it should be. 

Currently reading:

Making the Monster. The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup

The Stubborn Light of Things. A Nature Diary by Melissa Harrison

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

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