Few books have gripped the popular imagination as fiercely as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). In the two centuries since its publication, Frankenstein has been adapted hundreds of times, appeared in different languages and in every conceivable genre. There are Frankenstein novels, poems, plays, operas, ballets, musicals, films, computer games and manga comics, as though each new artistic medium calls for its own version. You can furnish your home with Frankenstein-inspired furniture, listen to Frankenstein rap, wear Frankenstein jeans and, particularly around Halloween, consume Frankenstein sweets. As I write this, a Museum of Frankenstein is about to open in Bath, to join existing Frankenstein museums in Scotland, Germany, Canada and the US.
Frankenstein’s indirect influence is greater still, echoing in literary classics such as Dickens’s Great Expectations and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, but also in episodes of Scooby Doo, Star Trek or Doctor Who. Shelley’s creation’s fame overshadows both the writer and the book itself, just as the unnamed monster in the novel eclipses his creator, Victor Frankenstein, and usurps his name. As a supernatural archetype, a global brand, perhaps only Bram Stoker’s Dracula bears comparison, but Shelley is surely a more innovative writer than Stoker. Her reshaping of the Gothic tale created the new literary genre of science fiction.
In spite of her worldwide renown today, Mary Shelley would have been an unlikely choice for the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in its foundation years. Frankenstein was published anonymously, but even had the author been named, the Society would have looked askance at a spine-chiller written by a teenage girl.
Shelley was 18 in June 1816 when she accepted Lord Byron’s challenge to write a ghost story, and 21 when Frankenstein – her response – was published. She was not only too young, but also too radical in her beliefs, too unconventional, and the wrong gender to be elected. Her atheism would not have pleased the clergymen who founded the Society any more than her republicanism and sympathies for the French Revolution would have appealed to its royal patrons. Neither would her equally radical and vocal parents, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the philosopher William Godwin, nor her own scandalous private life, have helped. She was 16 – and soon pregnant – when she eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was just 21 himself, and not only married to someone else but also already a father. Percy’s life was no less outrageous than Mary’s, but the world, then as now, is more forgiving to men.
However, neither Percy Shelley, nor his friend Lord Byron, were ever Fellows of the RSL, although new members of the Society can nowadays elect to sign the roll with Byron’s pen. The 1820s, the first decade of the Society’s existence, was also the decade in which both men died far too young: Byron in Greece, fighting for its liberation; Shelley by drowning in Italy, leaving Mary a widow at 24. If the best poetry of the age was not considered worthy of the Society’s attention, what hope was there for an author of anonymously published popular novels?
Of course, we see Mary Shelley’s work differently now. She is every bit as famous as the great Romantics, studied just as closely as they are, probably read more than them, and she undoubtedly has more impact on popular culture. And her writing encompasses more than Frankenstein. Before she died in 1851, at the age of 53, she published travel books, more novels, short stories and biographies, and edited her husband’s work.
Although most of these works are forgotten, and although I believe that just Frankenstein is enough, the RSL’s current rules stipulate that its Fellows should have produced at least two significant volumes. Mary Shelley offers that too, in an uncannily prescient form. Her novel The Last Man, published in 1826 and set between 2073 and 2100, imagines a global pandemic which almost wipes out the human race. It is perhaps the earliest example of dystopian fiction, placing her in the vanguard of another vastly popular literary genre.
“I am not summarising the news headlines about Covid 19,” the New York Times contributor noted in one of the many pieces about Shelley’s novel published last year, “I am recalling the plot of a great work of literature.” The Last Man has been revisited as prophetic and reissued in many languages. A TV adaptation is in the works. If we survive into the twenty-second century, we may yet see The Last Man in just as many guises as Frankenstein.
Vesna Goldsworthy is a writer, academic and broadcaster. She was born in Belgrade and she writes in English, her third language. Her internationally bestselling books, a memoir, Chernobyl Strawberries, and a novel, Gorsky, were serialised for the BBC. Her latest novel, Iron Curtain: A Love Story, was published in February 2022.
Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and the author Mary Wollstonecraft. Her best-known work, Frankenstein (1818), was inspired by a ghost story-writing contest on a stormy night in 1816. The novel’s success led to a Shelley pursuing a career as a novelist, biographer and travel writer following the death of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.