Contents Index

Shelley and Frankenstein

Christopher Small

Chapter 5 of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1973), 100-121

{100} The two people directly responsible for Mary Shelley's writing Frankenstein were Byron and Shelley himself. It was Byron who suggested that everyone in the party at Geneva should "write a ghost story" [Introduction 6]. It was the conversation between Byron and Shelley about "the principle of life" [Introduction 9] that gave Mary her starting point. For Byron the ghost story project was a diversion, and one he soon tired of. ("The illustrious poets", says Mary in her Introduction, ". . . annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task" [Introduction 6].) But for Shelley no kind of writing, least of all Mary's, could be regarded merely as a diversion. His own story aborted, but he took the keenest interest in hers; it was he who encouraged her, gave her the continued stimulus that (if Godwin was right) she needed, and helped her at every point up to and including negotiation with the publishers and provision of the original anonymous Preface. How far his help went in actual composition we cannot be sure. According to Mary, she owed her expansion of the idea into a novel to his "incitement". ("At first I thought of but a few pages . . . but Shelley urged me to develop the idea at greater length".) But she was clear and insistent that not "the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling" was his [Introduction 12]. Shelley's own references to the book, in dealing with the publishers, indicate that he did nothing more than make a few corrections in proof1 and some earlier corrections in his hand appear in the original manuscript. The actual writing seems to have been done mostly when Shelley was not there. Entries in Mary's Journal show that she usually worked on the story when he was out of the house; two years later, when they were living in Italy and Shelley, being away for a few days, wrote to Mary {101} urging her to employ the time on another work, he spoke of Frankenstein as "fruits of my absence".2 It is curious that he should describe it in such a way; for he did very much more than push Mary into writing. He provided the subject.

Frankenstein himself is clearly and to some extent must intentionally have been a portrayal of Shelley, and Shelley can scarcely have been unaware of it, if only on account of his name. Frankenstein's first name is Victor, the same (presumably in earnest of a life of mental fight and spiritual conquest) that Shelley took for himself on a number of occasions in boyhood and later. His first published work was the volume of poems shared with his sister Elizabeth (and also, if inadvertently, with "Monk" Lewis) printed as by "Victor and Cazire"; the hero of another poem of this time, "The Wandering Jew", was called Victorio; even the pseudonymous "editor" of the anti-monarchical burlesque, The Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, published while Shelley was at Oxford, was "John Fitzvictor". To these may be added a feminine version, Victoria, who briefly appears as a murdered sister in the early prose-romance, St Irvyne.

Shelley dropped the pseudonym soon, of course, and nearly all his published work, these juvenilia apart, appeared either anonymously or under his own name. But the name Victor was absorbed, so to speak, into the work itself. "Victory" is a word that occurs with striking frequency in his poetry, especially in the later period. Almost every one of what may for the moment -- if very roughly -- be called his "political" poems includes at some point aspiration towards or invocation of "Victory". It is the last word of Prometheus Unbound, and it sounds, though more ambiguously, all through Hellas, of which the epigraph is a line from Sophocles, the Oedipus Coloneus: "I am a prophet of a victorious contest." What it meant for him we shall try to see later; in the meantime it can be asserted that anyone who knew Shelley or his writings well could scarcely have thought of victory or a victor without thinking of him.

But it is not only in name that Frankenstein resembles Shelley. It cannot be said, perhaps, that their characters are {102} alike, since Frankenstein has scarcely any character in the ordinary sense, and the very fact of his inadequacy in this respect, his want of solidity in fictional terms, is something that must be taken into account. But if he does not appear in the story as a "real" human being, he very vividly is there (if one may make such distinctions within a work of art) as an "ideal" one; and the ideal he represents is in many very striking ways a Shelleyan one. If he is not Shelley he is a dream of Shelley, and one that he would not have been averse to dreaming himself, as an improvement, up to a point, on experience.

Frankenstein, like Shelley, is an ardent and high-spirited youth, of early promise and "vehement passions". If his upbringing does not much resemble what we know of Shelley's early years at Field Place, it is possible to see in it, in its atmosphere of perfect love, harmony, and parental indulgence -- "I was their plaything and their idol, and something better -- their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven . . . to bring up to good" [1.1.3] -- not only a stock model of romantic family principles but also an idealised and transformed version of Shelley's childhood, the childhood that he felt and must often have said that he ought to have had. No doubt it was also a compensation for some of Mary's deprivations as a child: as in this beginning, so throughout, the story of Frankenstein serves for both, he is a visible sign of their identification with each other.

There is no physical description of Frankenstein, and again one might say that he has no physical body, he is all spirit and restless, inquiring mind. These are sufficiently described, in childhood and later. As a child, he says, "my temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law in my temperature they were turned, not towards childish pursuits, but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately" [1.1.6]. Compare the impressions of Shelley's boyhood collected by Hogg and given in his Life:

From his earliest years, all his amusements and occupations were of a daring and, in one sense of the term, lawless nature. He delighted to exert his powers, not as a boy, but as a {103} man. . . . His understanding and early development of imagination never permitted him to mingle in childish players. . . . But he was always actively employed; and although his endeavours were prosecuted with puerile precipitancy, yet his aim and his thoughts were constantly directed to those great objects which have employed the thoughts of the greatest among men.3
Frankenstein is brought up with his "more than sister" [1.1.4], Elizabeth, the name also of Shelley's mother and of his favourite sister. Frankenstein's elderly father, on the other hand, the revered, high-principled learned Syndic, entirely mild and benevolent, is an exact reverse image of the tyrannical father who, to whatever extent he existed in real life, haunted Shelley's imagination. In fact this sort of wise, kindly, silver-haired old man, altogether un-authoritarian, the somewhat enfeebled counter-balance to the hated Lord God Father Almighty -- too old, it may be observed, to be any sort of rival to a young man -- crops up again and again in Shelley's writings, most notably in The Revolt of Islam (1817): the aged "hermit", "grand and mild" who rescues the hero, Laon, from prison, cares for him and instructs him, though only as his "passive instrument".

In the biographical (apart from the psychological) ancestry of this ideal father William Godwin undoubtedly had a share; but more probably was owed, both in Shelley's and Mary's representations of him, to Dr Lind, the elderly savant who befriended Shelley at Eton and who, in one of the ill-attested stories of his schooldays -- one can never be sure how far Shelley's accounts of persecution were founded on fact -- is said to have intervened with his actual father to prevent his being sent to a madhouse. Whether or not this incident was pure fantasy on Shelley's part is immaterial in the present context; it clearly established a connection between the "hermit" and Dr Lind, and that the "hermit" was a "memorial" to him is indeed testified in Mary Shelley's own notes to The Revolt of Islam. Dr Lind, "exactly what an old man ought to be. Free, calm-spirited, full of benevolence and even of grateful ardour", as Shelley described him, according to Hogg, is also very like the eider Frankenstein, of "upright mind" [1.1.3] and calm integrity, {104} whom his son loves and reveres. He also enters into the person of Waldmann, the second of Frankenstein's professors at Ingolstadt, of "mild and attractive" [1.2.7] manners, dignity and kindliness, who is chiefly responsible for engaging Frankenstein in the study of science.

At this point the parallel between Shelley and the young Frankenstein becomes even more evident. Shelley, like Victor Frankenstein, had an early passion to learn "the secrets of heaven and earth": one may say that in both the drive was inherent (like Caleb Williams's "curiosity", and possibly of the same unconscious origins), although in Frankenstein's case the particular direction it takes is the result of small original accidents, "ignoble and almost forgotten sources" [1.1.6]. Oddly enough, and with a logic by no means immediately apparent, the first of these is a chance exchange between Victor and his father which confirms him, not in scientific pursuits but in his interest in magic and alchemy. It seems less odd when we remember that Shelley too had the same interest: when Frankenstein describes his compulsion to penetrate the "secrets" both of the material and immaterial worlds -- "whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my enquiries were directed to the metaphysical or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world" [1.1.6]-- it might be Shelley speaking.

Shelley's "passionate attachment" to "the study of the occult sciences, conjointly with that of the new wonders, which chemistry and natural philosophy have displayed to us" is amply testified by Hogg: both at Eton and at home, "Shelley's pocket money was spent in the purchase of books relative to these daring pursuits -- of chemical apparatus and materials. The books consisted of treatises on magic and witchcraft as well as those more modern ones detailing the miracles of electricity and galvanism". As a child, at Field Place, he made up stories about alchemists, and his home was later "the chief scene of his experiments. He there possessed an electrical machine, he contrived a galvanic battery, and amused himself with experiments, which might well excite delight and wonder in so ardent a mind". Shelley's interest in "the miracles of electricity and {105} galvanism" remained with him all his life, furnishing a recurring metaphor in his poetry, where it occurs in a "metaphysical or in the highest sense physical" manner as a symbol of thought and life. We may reasonably guess that his interest in and knowledge of the subject came out, if not at other times, in the crucial conversations at Diodati, which included galvanism. Frankenstein's own interest in electricity is traced to an accident when, during a violent thunderstorm, he sees "an old and beautiful oak" completely shattered by lightning, "entirely reduced to thin ribands of wood"; a "man of great research in natural philosophy" [1.1.9] happens to be present, and improves the occasion with a dissertation on electricity and galvanism which profoundly impresses Frankenstein.

A number of sources seem to be combined in this story: the tremendous electrical storms the Geneva party saw and "enjoyed" have already been noted; there may also be a connection with an anecdote of Byron's of having seen a dead tree restored to life by a "thunder-bolt". There is also a likely association with the story of Shelley's schooldays when he himself either exploded with gunpowder or set "on fire" with a burning glass a tree at Eton. The Quarterly Review, telling the story, aptly saw in it an adumbration of Shelley's opposition to tyranny and superstition -- in a word his Promethean aspirations.

Shelley's double preoccupation with occult and scientific "secrets" remained with him, moving one with another, though magic became for him gradually more of a joke. By the time Hogg met him at Oxford he was, or professed to be, wholly devoted to "science", putting it far above the humane studies. "'The study of languages'", Hogg remembers him saying during their first conversation, "'. . . is merely the study of words and phrases, of the names of things; it matters not how they are called; it is surely far better to investigate things themselves.'" (One recalls here Frankenstein's close friendship with Henry Clerval, whose interests are literary, historical, and linguistic; though Clerval may be said principally to represent another aspect of Shelley himself, there seems here to be something derived from Hogg and also possibly from Peacock.)

{106} Continuing the conversation on this first meeting between himself and Shelley -- an occasion which remained extremely vividly in Hogg's mind -- Hogg asked how "things" were to be investigated, and Shelley, in great animation, "his face flushing as he spoke", replied "'through the physical sciences, and especially through chemistry'". Hogg goes on to describe the resumption of this talk a little later, when Shelley enlarged on his enthusiasm for science as the benefactor of mankind; admitting that recent discoveries were "rather brilliant than useful" but "asserting, however, that they would soon be applied to purposes of solid advantage" (the cant-term "spin-off" had not yet been invented, but the line of argument was well established). Shelley then went on, according to Hogg, to speak fervidly of the future prospects opened by scientific discovery: an end to toil, an age of plenty, aerial transport and exploration, the synthetisation of food, the irrigation of the desert and transformation of climate and geographical regions: all the ordinary marvels of science fiction at its most optimistic. We may suppose Hogg's memory to be substantially correct, since Shelley himself was soon to be writing these visions of the vast benefits of science into his first long poem, Queen Mab.

Nor, to be sure, should we be too ready to dismiss them as fiction, or fantasy; apart from those which were reasonable projections from general knowledge of scientific advances at the time, others can hardly now be treated, as Hogg tended to treat them, merely as the vapourings of youth. A particular passage in his account of Shelley's discourse is worth giving more fully:

The generation of heat is a mystery, but enough of the theory of calorific has already been developed to induce us to acquiesce in the notion that it will hereafter, and perhaps at no very distant period, be possible to generate heat at will, and to warm the most ungenial climates as readily as we now raise the temperature of our apartments. . . . We could not determine, without actual experiment, whether an unknown substance were combustible; when we should have thoroughly investigated the properties of fire, it may be that we shall be qualified to communicate to clay, to stones, to water itself, a chemical recomposition that will render them as inflammable as wood, {107} coals, and oil, for the difference of structure is minute and invisible, and the power of feeding flame may perhaps be easily added to any substance, or taken away from it. . . . These speculations may appear wild, and it may seem improbable that they will ever be realised, to persons who have not extended their views of what is practicable by closely watching science on its course onward; but there are many mysterious powers, many irresistible agents, with the existence and with some of the phenomena of which we are acquainted.
Shelley knew nothing, probably, even of the then state of atomic theory, and can hardly have had any theoretical view of its subsequent development and results; he argued from "phenomena with which all are acquainted". But the shadow of some things to come is hardly, now, to be ignored in this speech; nor the Promethean zeal of the young hypothetical firebringer who spoke of the way "electrical kites" could "draw down the lightning from heaven" and who exclaimed, "'what a terrible organ would the supernal shock prove, if we were able to guide it; how many of the secrets of nature would such a stupendous shock unlock!'"

In the same part of Hogg's descriptions of Shelley as he first knew him at Oxford occurs the further curious detail of his "contempt" for mathematics; Frankenstein also will have nothing to do with mathematics. Or rather, he takes them up for a time, and later looks back on their abandonment with regret as bringing "unusual tranquillity and gladness of soul". Mathematical studies, and his temporary abandonment of the "tormenting" pursuit of occult knowledge, represented -- so he believes in retrospect -- the suggestion of his "guardian angel", the last and unavailing "effort of the spirit of good". He subsequently gives up mathematics, and is thus doomed to "utter and terrible destruction" [1.1.10].

Finally we may remember Frankenstein's general desire to penetrate both "inner" and "outer" secrets, the "metaphysical" and "physical", and place it beside Shelley's reply when Hogg asked him his view of metaphysics:

"Ay, metaphysics", he said, in a solemn tone, and with a {108} mysterious air, "that is a noble study indeed! If it were possible to make any discoveries there, they would be more valuable than anything the chemists have done, or could do; they would disclose the analysis of mind, and not of mere matter!"
Frankenstein's intellectual development, if one may so call it, his progress from one branch of study to another, is more systematic, but in essence the same as that of the young Shelley. It is also a kind of model of the history of science. He starts with alchemy and the occult, reading Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. He dreams of finding the Philosopher's Stone and even more the Elixir of Life -- "Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" At this time he also studies necromancy and dealing with spirits: "The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfilment of which I most eagerly sought" [1.1.8]. Shelley also went in for ghost and devil raising, at home and school, at least half seriously, as Hogg recounts ("Sometimes he watched the livelong nights for ghosts") and as Shelley himself admitted to Godwin in the letter of 1812 in which he introduced himself, "ancient books of Chemistry and Magic were perused [in his childhood] with an enthusiasm of wonder, almost amounting to belief"; it was Political Justice, according to this account, that, like Frankenstein's meeting with his professors, "opened to my mind fresh and more extensive views".4

Frankenstein is turned from magic first by the incident of the lightning-stroke already described, which leads him temporarily to mathematics, the Pythagorean or perhaps the Newtonian phase of his development, but one which, as we have seen, he subsequently abandons. When he goes to the University of Ingolstadt "Chance -- or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which asserted omnipotent sway over me from the moment I turned my reluctant step from my father's door" [1.2.4] (a most curious mixture of filial deference and emancipation from {109} parental restriction of knowledge) leads him to the physical sciences. He first interviews the professor of "natural philosophy", the rude and unattractive Krempe, but is referred by him to Waldman, and there is immediately seduced -- the word is not too strong -- to the study of "true science". Waldman's "benevolent" aspect, and his kinship with Dr Lind and the ideal wise and kindly old men of Shelley's imagination, have already been mentioned. It is worth noting in addition that his particular attraction lies in his voice, "the sweetest I had ever heard" [1.2.6], says Frankenstein. There seems likely here to be a memory of Carwin in Wieland, who deludes and draws his victims to destruction by his "biloquial" and alluring voice; but behind both can be seen Milton's Tempter who

. . . with Serpent Tongue
Organic, or impulse of vocal air,
His fraudulent temptation thus began
[Paradise Lost, IX.529]
This version of the Snake in Eden, disguised as natural philosopher, delivers a lecture which is itself a general "history of chemistry", and concludes with "a panegyric upon modern chemistry the terms of which", says Frankenstein, "I shall never forget":
The ancient teachers of this science . . . promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little, they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over microscopes or crucibles, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows [1.2.6].

Such were the professor's words -- rather let me say such the words of fate, enounced to destroy me. As he went on, I felt as {110} if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one 'the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being; chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein, more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation [1.2.7].

The resemblance of Professor Waldman's claims and Frankenstein's eager projection of them to Shelley's rhapsody in his talk with Hogg is striking enough. Shelley's fervour as Hogg describes it was when he was at Oxford, at the age of eighteen. He did not go on to become a natural scientist, and there does not seem any real likelihood that he might have done. He retained a keen interest, however, in scientific discovery and technical advance, on which in a strong sense of the word he let his mind play. His delight in playing with fire-balloons -- at once potent symbols of fiery aspiration, vehicles for dissemination of the revolutionary word, and pure toys -- is famous, and was still with him years after the time when he hoped to broadcast his political pamphlets by their means; Mary records making "a balloon for Shelley" during their Geneva stay.5 A more practical piece of engineering was the proposed steamboat to ply between Genoa and Leghorn, a project in which Shelley invested and lost a considerable sum of money in 1820; its significance for him, of which more will be said later, was not perhaps very different from that of the fire-balloons.

Much more copiously, however, Shelley's writing provides evidence of exactly the kind of quasi-scientific speculation expressed by Frankenstein in his words and his history. It can be found throughout his work, and must be examined in greater detail later, not only as it touches the question of a model for the character of Frankenstein but as illustration of the whole theme we are following. A few examples may be given at this point from Queen Mab, the long visionary poem Shelley wrote in 1812 and which in 1816 still represented the most extensive and systematic statement of his beliefs. He had, it is true, come {111} to dislike it (he was to describe it, when trying to suppress the pirated edition of 1821, as "villainous trash"6 but more, probably, for personal reasons and on account of its technical immaturity, than because of any substantial changes in his thinking.) The dedication, with its pledge of unchanging fidelity to his first wife, Harriet, was certainly something he preferred later to forget; but otherwise, except for modification of the extravagant hostility to Christianity which gave Queen Mab its first notoriety, it contains, though in undisciplined and juvenile form, much of the subject-matter of all the poetry he was subsequently to write.

An important part of this subject-matter, and the main theme of Queen Mab itself, was of course a projected vision of mankind's future, when human life should be transformed, in good Godwinian terms, by technical advance and political enlightenment. The Spirit of Ianthe -- an earthly girl a good deal like Harriet -- is transported in sleep to a point outside time and space where the Fairy Queen instructs her in all things past, present, and to come. She is given a panorama of human history to date in a series of horrific scenes of war, pestilence, and tyranny; the Fairy then turns to where "Futurity / Exposes now its treasure" [QM VIII.48] and shows what better things lie ahead. Expressed now in high poetic terms we have again the expectations Shelley spoke of to Hogg, and more: the desert fertilised by science, the climate transformed, the Poles unfrozen (a favourite hope of Shelley's, echoed perhaps in Walton's notion at the beginning of Frankenstein, that the North Pole may prove a temperate zone) and the oceans bearing "bright garden-isles" [QM VIII.101] for the surplus population, a charming idea that may be recommended to present science-fiction practitioners. Disease is abolished and death become no more than a "slow necessity" if not postponed altogether, as Godwin forecast in Political Justice; man's nature itself is transformed as "happiness / and science dawn, though late, upon the earth" [QM 227-8]. "Reason and passion" are no longer in conflict but together subdue all matter, though themselves subject to "necessity". Such a resplendent vision of sublunary perfection -- "O happy Earth, reality of heaven!" [QM IX.1] -- may be reckoned Shelley's special {112} personal contribution to politico-social optimism, and though it is not original in him, the combination of something like the expectation of Isaiah (the lion, now ostentatiously vegetarian, lies down with the lamb in Queen Mab, indeed becomes a lamb himself) with the scientific hope has never, perhaps, been put at higher pitch. It is Godwinism illuminated and given wings; but the means, it must not be forgotten, are just what Godwin prescribed, the discovery and recognition of "truth", by which is meant factual or scientific truth.

The actual process of scientific discovery was something that concerned Shelley very little; despite his reverence for Bacon, he seems to have absorbed almost nothing from him of the idea of experimental method. Frankenstein himself, needless to say, has no more notion of it; neither his crucial discovery nor his exploitation of it is stated in such terms, although the terms in which they are stated, both the sudden light, "so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple" [1.3.3], and its subsequent application in slow but "pointed" research, are not incompatible with the way many scientific discoveries have been described subjectively. Frankenstein, in a word, is not a real scientist any more than Shelley was; but he represents a man's surrender to something in the spirit of scientific inquiry that Shelley was aware of and that fascinated him as Frankenstein himself is fascinated by the intellectual allurements of Waldman.

Fired by these, Frankenstein is prepared to "dabble in dirt" [1.2.6], or more specifically in decay. "To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death", he concludes, and in his search for "the principle of life" he studies not only anatomy but "the natural decay and corruption of the human body", spending "days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses" [1.3.3]. Shelley similarly associated the attempt to discover "secrets" of almost any kind with "the secrets of the tomb". That is of course a stock phrase of Gothic romance and horror-story, and something must be allowed for the effects of mere literary fashion. But even taking it into account and reckoning on a certain natural contagion, the extent of Shelley's preoccupation with tombs and charnel seems extraordinary. If we go back to his juvenilia -- writings dating perhaps from about the time {113} when, according to Hogg, he planned to spend a night in the vaults of a church, watching the piled bones in case they should produce a ghost -- we find them concerned almost to the exclusion of all other matter with graves and corpses. The early poems in the Esdaile Notebook are a catalogue of such matters; one in particular, a first version of what appears in later collections as the lines On Death ("The pale, the cold, and the moony smile") makes an interesting association between "mortality" and the secrets of life:

The secret things of the grave are there,
Where all but this body must surely be,
Though the fine-wrought eye and the wondrous ear
No longer will live to hear and see
All that is bright and all that is strange
In the gradual path of unending change.
There is an echo here, no doubt, of Ariel's song in The Tempest; there is also a curious parallel with what Frankenstein says of the work immediately leading to his great discovery:
I saw how the form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me. [1.3.3]
Frankenstein, in fact, succeeds where Shelley was left asking only "Who telleth the tales of unspeaking Death?"; but they were looking in the same place. Another poem in the Esdaile Notebook, simply called The Tombs, begins:
These are the tombs. Am I, who sadly gaze
On the corruption and the skulls around,
To sum the mass of loathsomeness,
And to a mound of mouldering flesh
Say -- '"Thou wert human life!"
{114} The words are almost exactly those used by Frankenstein when he looks on the "filthy mass" [2.9.4] of his creation; but in his case life has returned to answer the question in a way that adds to his horror and disgust.

Life, death, graves, worms, apparitions and suchlike paraphernalia are found in abundance in the short prose romance St Irvyne, written and published, anonymously, by Shelley at Oxford in 1811. This is a wild farrago of flight, persecution, seduction, and supernatural encounters (handled with considerable skill of the cliff-hanging kind); but it contains a character of interest for the present purpose in the double personage of Nempere-Ginotti, alternating aspects of satanic villainy. Ginotti says of himself, "From my earliest youth, before it was quenched by complete satiation, curiosity [Shelley's italics] and a desire of unveiling the latent mysteries of nature, was the passion by which all the other emotions of my mind were intellectually organised". (Curiosity, the reigning passion of Caleb Williams, is here explicitly directed to the discovery of general, not merely personal secrets; although pursued by extravagantly unscientific methods, it may be called a kind of scientific curiosity.)

The chief "mystery of nature" again, is death, which Ginotti simply rejects: "I must either dive into the recesses of futurity" -- an odd, but most suggestive refuge -- "or I must not, I cannot die." He explains that when he formed this resolution, "about 17 years of age" he was an atheist: "I had dived into the depths of metaphysical calculations. With sophisticated arguments had I convinced myself of the non-existence of a First Cause and, by every combined modification of the essences of matter, had I apparently proved that no existence could possibly be unseen by human vision." (It was soon after St Irvyne appeared that Shelley was sent down from Oxford for publishing his Necessity of Atheism.) Ginotti, whose alter ego Nempere pursues a supplementary career of seduction, turns out to have concluded a Faustian pact with Satan, gaining the secret of eternal life in return for his soul; the story ends among dead bodies in the vaults of a castle, with full chorus of horrors and {115} the final dragging off of Ginotti, "mouldered to a gigantic skeleton" to an eternity of torment.

The preoccupation with death and decay, and the persistent idea that "the tomb" held momentous secrets remained with Shelley when some at least of the Gothic furniture of his juvenile writing had been discarded; what was left was perhaps more truly his own. Alastor, the poem written in 1815, he certainly took very seriously indeed, and, as "allegorical of one of the most interesting situations of the human mind" (as he describes it in his Preface) is an important source for his internal or mental biography. The introductory lines apostrophise nature as earth-goddess, "Mother of this unfathomable world!" and go on:

      . . . I have watched
Thy shadow, and the darkness of thy steps,
And my heart ever gazes on the depth
Of thy deep mysteries. I have made my bed
In charnels and on coffins, where black death
Keeps record of the trophies won from thee,
Hoping to still these obstinate questionings
Of thee and thine, by forcing some lone ghost,
Thy messenger, to render up the tale
Of what we are. In lone and silent hours
Like an inspired and desperate alchymist
Staking his very life on some dark hope,
Have I mixed awful talk and asking looks. . . [18-33]
He is still waiting, half conjuring, half cajoling -- very much indeed like a child with his mother -- for his "Great Parent" [l. 45] to "unveil" or allow him to enter her "inmost sanctuary" [l. 38]. Frankenstein is more successful; he is also, of course -- and here we see an inescapable difference between him, imagined by Mary, and Shelley himself -- less prone to think of "secrets" as feminine possessions and penetration of them as the incestuous relationship of son with mother. It is remarkable, however, how little difference this makes. Nature is still for Frankenstein a feminine embodiment to be "pursued to her hiding-places" [1.3.6]; that these are underground, or only to be reached by subterranean ways, {116} holds good for one as much as the other. "I was like the Arabian," says Frankenstein, speaking of the stages of his discovery and thinking of one of the tales of Sinbad the Sailor, "who had been buried with the dead, and found a passage to life, aided only by one glimmering, and seemingly ineffectual, light" [1.3.4].

When Frankenstein returns "to life" from his underground labours among dead bodies he brings a monster with him. His motives remain, however, what they have been from the beginning, of the loftiest kind, inspired by exalted philanthropic ambition. When he makes his "discovery" and embarks on its application, "the creation of a human being" [1.3.5], he is uplifted, and his enthusiasm carries him along "like a hurricane" [1.3.6] -- a characteristically Shelleyan simile -- as he thinks, in truly Promethean terms, of the benefactions he will bring:

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator, and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. [1.3.6]
Such noble, if also impious thoughts sustain him through "the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay" [1.3.6]. Very soon, of course, he loses all joy in the pursuit, but his high ideals and general philanthropy remain, to influence further turns in the story. Even in his ruin he recalls these ambitions not so much in irony as continuing sources of self-esteem:
"When younger . . . I believed myself destined for some great enterprise. My feelings are profound; but I possessed a coolness of judgment that fitted me for illustrious achievements. This sentiment of the worth of my nature supported me, when others would have been oppressed; for I deemed it criminal to throw away in useless grief those talents that might be useful to my fellow-creatures. . . . Even now I cannot recollect, without passion, my reveries while my work was incomplete. {117} I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects." [Walton 3]
He is now sunk, "never, never again to rise" -- "'Oh! my friend'" he says to Walton, "'if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognise me in this state of degradation.'" Walton, however, has already seen that "He must have been a noble creature in his better days, being now in his wreck so attractive and amiable" [Letter 4.5]; and, completely captivated by him, returns again and again to dwell on his extraordinary qualities and attainments. "Even now", Walton writes to his sister, having just taken Frankenstein aboard, and learning his history,
. . . his full-toned voice swells in my ears; his lustrous eyes dwell on me with all their melancholy sweetness; I see his thin hand raised in animation, while the lineaments of his face are irradiated by the soul within. He is so gentle and yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated, and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence. Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet, when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit, that has a halo round him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures. [Letter 4.9]
In similar terms more than one of the many people fascinated by Shelley described him. Trelawny's story of his first encounter is famous: his observation in the shadow of "a pair of glittering eyes steadily fixed on mine", followed by Shelley's entry, or apparition, "gliding in, blushing like a girl", and then the effect of his extraordinary eloquence as he spoke about the book he had been reading.7 Hogg, describing Shelley's torrential talk, dwells on the shrillness of his voice -- something that does not seem to have struck anyone else so disagreeably -- but also on his features, which "breathed an animation, a fire, an {118} enthusiasm, a vivid and preternatural intelligence, that I have never met with in any other countenance". Hogg's attitude to Shelley was highly ambivalent at all times, and he is notoriously unreliable; but just because he is often crabbed, his enthusiasm when he shows it may be taken as the more genuine, as he remembers "the slender beardless stranger speculate concerning the march of physical science: his speculations were as wild as the experience of 21 years [Hogg was writing in 1832] has shown them to be; but the zealous earnestness for the augmentation of knowledge, and the glowing philanthropy and boundless benevolence that marked them, and beamed forth in the whole deportment of that extraordinary boy, are not less astonishing than they would be if the whole of his glorious anticipations had been prophetic; for these high qualities at least I have never found a parallel."

Like Frankenstein, whose "double existence" allowed him to be like a "celestial spirit" [Letter 4.7] even in the midst of his own miseries, Shelley, in Hogg's memory overcame scepticism; his "anticipations" were glorious even if they were not true. Frankenstein is also visited in his despair by "one comfort, the offspring of solitude and delirium: he believes that, when in dreams he holds converse with his friends, and derives from that communion consolation for his miseries, or excitement to his vengeance, that they are not the creations of his fancy, but the beings themselves who visit him from the regions of a remote world. This faith gives a solemnity to his reveries that render them . . . almost as imposing and interesting as truth" [Walton 2]. Shelley shared the same belief (attested by one of Hogg's informants on the basis of a single day's acquaintance with Shelley, which seems to indicate that it was something he spoke readily about) that "the surrounding atmosphere was peopled with the spirits of the departed".

Finally, what Mary herself said about Shelley may be looked at. She did not say much, except on practical matters, while he was alive, and until many years after his death preserved his memory in private. Her grief was expressed in her Journal and in letters to intimates, but was more a record of her own emotions than any description of him; naturally enough. She {119} did however make one entry in her Journal, not long after his death, which may be mentioned here, both because it refers directly to the time at Geneva and because it is perhaps the most poignant expression of her feelings of loss that she allowed herself. In October 1822 she saw and talked with Byron for the first time since the immediate aftermath of the drowning, and found that the sound of his voice particularly recalled Shelley to her, with "unspeakable melancholy that yet is not all pain", since it was so vivid. "I have been accustomed," she said, "when hearing it, to listen and to speak little; another voice, not mine, ever replied." Especially it reminded her of the "nightly conversations at Diodati" in which "incapacity and timidity always prevented my mingling"; now, listening to Byron alone, "it is as thunder without rain -- the form of the sun without heat or light -- as any familiar object might be, shorn of its best attributes . . .". This, she said, explains what otherwise would be an "enigma", the power of Byron "by his mere presence and voice" to rouse "such deep and shifting emotions within me".8 Her feelings about Byron himself, always conflicting, may be thought to have been a part of the cause; but there seems no reason to doubt what she said, that it was the association with Shelley, and Shelley particularly at the time when Frankenstein was conceived and begun, that had such a profound effect on her. It was his voice she remembered and his voice she longed to hear again.

Apart from that, even at this time, her recollection was not particularised, but was rather a general brooding on the qualities of one "brave, wise, gentle, noble-hearted, full of learning, tolerance, and love" who is not to be likened to any other under the sun.9 Her memories and struggles with her grief had already set into the form, gradually to become something like observance of a cult, of invocation of a being too good to live, having indeed "but one defect -- which was his leaving his life incomplete by an early death".10 Even here, however, the extravagant but conventionalised expressions of mourning have very distinct echoes in Frankenstein. It is rather startling to read in her Journal, on the last day of the year in which Shelley was drowned, her address to the "glorious spirit" with which {120} she looks to be reunited after death, and then to turn to Walton's elegy for Frankenstein: "what comment can I make on the untimely extinction of this glorious spirit? What can I say, that will enable you to understand the depth of my sorrow?" [Walton 11]

To sum up: that the character, or idea of Frankenstein was not at least strongly coloured by what Mary knew of Shelley's boyhood as well as their life together, and by her feelings about him, is hard to believe. It is also hard to believe that Shelley, reading the work he had pushed Mary to write, did not recognise in it a comment on himself. Perhaps he did; perhaps on the other hand he managed to dissociate himself as he often did in argument, even when the object of attack. In the case of Peacock's highly personal satire on him and his marital entanglements in Nightmare Abbey we have Peacock's word for it that he took the character of Scythrop to himself and managed to find it flattering; and he himself asked, "looking deeper into it, is not the misdirected enthusiasm of Scythrop what J. C. calls 'the salt of the earth?'".11 But whether he found anything personally congenial in Victor Frankenstein there is no knowing, nor even whether he saw himself there at all, though he can hardly have missed the name. If he did notice it, it throws an interesting light forward on the composition of Prometheus Unbound.

But in any case, that is not to the present purpose. Once again, it would be a large mistake, if the preceding arguments are allowed weight, to think of Frankenstein as a "portrait" of Shelley in a literal sense: certainly not in the sense in which Shelley turns up as a recognisable figure in Mary's later novels, for instance as Adrian in The Last Man, or in the more closely autobiographical Lodore. These are quite ordinary transpositions of an individual, or parts of an actual individual, into fiction. Frankenstein is in essence something different, an imaginative realisation not of an individual, however much in detail it may resemble him, but of the intellectual and emotional associations of a person. If it is objected that such is all any person is to others, at least degrees of abstraction may be allowed. Frankenstein is an abstract: he has, as has been said, scarcely {121} any physical body or material being, and consequently no "character". He does not need them: it is precisely in being without them that he most closely combines with Shelley.

For one should not say that Frankenstein is Shelley, he is the Shelleyan Idea; when he is seen as such his meaning becomes clearer and the linked feelings and thoughts concentrated in him greatly enlarge their scope. They can include all that went to nourish Shelley's mind and fix his opinions, from Godwin back to Plato. They can include what others thought about him and what he thought about himself. They can include, and certainly should include, Mary's own thoughts and character: that there is a great deal of herself in Victor Frankenstein is not to be doubted, and that there should be in no way contradicts the assumptions that have been made. In "objective" fact, if one can speak in such terms, Mary did resemble her lover in a remarkable degree. ("The important thing," as her chief modern biographer has said, "is that in essentials Mary and Shelley were the same."12) Much more importantly, the extent of her identification with him -- and his perhaps with her -- is one of the most striking things about their whole relationship.

But our view of Frankenstein can also include the Shelleyan Idea as it has grown up since Mary wrote, in the past 150 years. Once we see Shelley in Frankenstein and Frankenstein in Shelley two myths or mythological complexes come together, as many elements came together, "swift as light", in Mary's half-conscious mind at Geneva. The connections that make a new combination, the approach of poles that produces a spark, are present: it does not seem accidental that a recurrent image in the story of Frankenstein, itself a typically Shelleyan one, is the meeting of clouds and the flash of lightning.


1. Shelley, letter to Lackington Allen and Company (the eventual publishers of Frankenstein, after Ollier had turned it down) 22 August, 1817.

2. Shelley, letter to Mary, 20 August, 1818.

3. T. J. Hogg, Life of Shelley, London 1858.

4. Shelley, letter to W. Godwin, 10 January, 1812.

5. Mary Shelley, Journal, 1 August, 1816.

6. Shelley, letter to Charles Ollier, 11 June, 1821.

7. E. J. Trelawny, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, London 1858.

8. Mary Shelley, Journal, 11 November, 1822.

9. Mary Shelley, Journal, 31 December, 1822.

10. Mary Shelley, Preface to edition of Shelley's Essays and Letters, 1849.

11. Shelley, letter to T. L. Peacock, 20 June, 1819.

12. R. Glynn Grylls, Mary Shelley: A Biography, London, 1938.