Died: 18th of July 1822, by drowning in Lerici, Italy
Percy Bysshe Shelley is a strange and even a little elusive character; not destructive like Byron, but certainly not without his own brand of violence and willfulness. Elusive actually is probably a fair assessment, he is only elusive in the same way that most of us are, in that we can’t really guess at his motivation for many of the actions he takes, some of which seem totally inexplicable.
The young Percy was born into a family of means and went to Syon House Academy in London for his early education where he showed a particular interest in science, and a violent response to bullying. This may have planted the seed that lead to the poet pushing back against all forms of control and governance, which he saw as a form of bullying, for the rest of his life³. This anti authoritative streak inevitably drew him to the great antiestablishment thinker of his time, the often anarchsitic writer and philosopher, William Godwin (The father of Mary Godwin, later Shelley). But before we end up at William Godwin’s residence in The Polygon we must first address the often pushed aside figure in this story¹:
Harriet Westbrook was born on the 1st of August 1795. She was intellegent, witty and the daughter of a coffee house owner in Grosvener Square². Harriet forged a friendship with Shelley’s younger sister Helen, and the match appears to have been encouraged, at least by the Westbrook’s as a marraige between the two would mean an elevation in class for their daughter². The two eloped to Scotland when Harriet was 16 and Percy, 19. The legality of the marraige was dubious so they remarried 3 years later. They had two children, Charles and Ianthe together, but not long after the birth of their first child Percy began disappearing for long periods of time. Supported by her family, and given financial support from Percy, the rapid and messy separation did not leave her financially destitute, but emotionally the whole ideal had caused a great deal of distress and trauma. This grief, for grief we must call it, was intensified when Percy and Mary ran off together. There is talk of her taking a lover, and it is documented that she took lodging away from her family as she had become pregnant again, this time out of wedlock.
At some stage after this, still pregnant, in 1816, the year of the events in the Villa Diodati, she wrote emotional farewell letters to her family, and drowned herself in the Serpentine River.
I think we’ll end this post here with the death of Harriet Shelley nee Westbrook and pick up on Percy’s narrative another time, because this tragedy is too often glossed over.
‘This light was lent to me for a very short period, and is now extinguished for ever!’
William Godwin’s memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1798
There is a reason that the rebellious authors, poets and thinker of the Shelley circle were drawn to Mary Shelley’s Dad. William Godwin was considered quite the radical with views of individuals and self-moderation that advocated a kind of communalism or anarchy. He was a prolific writer, who wrote often anonymously to journals, newspapers and magazines providing a dissenting voice in the face of the Prime Ministerial governance of William Pitt the younger. These ideas intrigued and enthralled many of the creatives of the romantic movement who often pushed against societal norms and were themselves a dissenting voice.
I know very little about political systems, so if you can help me to understand this a little better please get in touch!
He believed that an overreaching governing body would inevitably turn tyrannous (this is all sounding a bit liberation at this point, maybe I’m explaining it poorly) and that small self-governing communities would be able to serve the best interests of the individual (a little less libertarian perhaps). He believed in the inherent good in mankind, but that the honesty and integrity of a person were systematically corrupted by social constructs.
Wollstonecraft and Godwin had a very intense relationship which started about a year before they married. It seems as though when Wollstonecraft fell pregnant with Mary Godwin who would later be Mary Shelley, William Godwin thought it necessary for them to marry, when they did Wollstonecraft was about three months pregnant. She died from complications after the birth. Godwin was devastated, they had been together less than two years. He set about publishing her remaining works and writing her biography.
Here is his preface from “Posthumous Works of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, it makes me cry every damn time I read it:
The public are here presented with the last literary attempt of an author, whose fame has been uncommonly extensive, and whose talents have probably been most admired, by the persons by whom talents are estimated with the greatest accuracy and discrimination. There are few, to whom her writings could in any case have given pleasure, that would have wished that this fragment should have been suppressed, because it is a fragment. There is a sentiment, very dear to minds of taste and imagination, that finds a melancholy delight in contemplating these unfinished productions of genius, these sketches of what, if they had been filled up in a manner adequate to the writer’s conception, would perhaps have given a new impulse to the manners of a world.
The purpose and structure of the following work, had long formed a favourite subject of meditation with its author, and she judged them capable of producing an important effect. The composition had been in progress for a period of twelve months. She was anxious to do justice to her conception, and recommenced and revised the manuscript several different times. So much of it as is here given to the public, she was far from considering as finished, and, in a letter to a friend directly written on this subject, she says, “I am perfectly aware that some of the incidents ought to be transposed, and heightened by more harmonious shading; and I wished in some degree to avail myself of criticism, before I began to adjust my events into a story, the outline of which I had sketched in my mind.” The only friends to whom the author communicated her manuscript, were Mr. Dyson, the translator of the Sorcerer, and the present editor; and it was impossible for the most inexperienced author to display a stronger desire of profiting by the censures and sentiments that might be suggested.
In revising these sheets for the press, it was necessary for the editor, in some places, to connect the more finished parts with the pages of an older copy, and a line or two in addition sometimes appeared requisite for that purpose. Wherever such a liberty has been taken, the additional phrases will be found inclosed in brackets; it being the editor’s most earnest desire, to intrude nothing of himself into the work, but to give to the public the words, as well as ideas, of the real author.
What follows in the ensuing pages, is not a preface regularly drawn out by the author, but merely hints for a preface, which, though never filled up in the manner the writer intended, appeared to be worth preserving.
This is not going to be a bio of Mary Wollstonecraft or an impartial critique of her works and impact. No this is going to be a straight-up piece of hero worship. There aren’t many heroes in the text of Frankenstein or surrounding its author. But Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley’s mum who she never really met is a force to be reckoned with. Her legacy looms large in Shelley’s life, with the author often remarking on the expectations that she would do great things because of her lineage. Whilst William Godwin, Shelley’s father lived long enough to grow conservative and gradually let his radical views fall by the way-side, Mary Wollstonecraft did not have that chance, as she died, still a relatively young woman, from complications after giving birth to Mary Godwin (later Shelley).
Mary was not Wollstonecraft’s first daughter, she had a daughter named Fanny who she raised as a single mother at a time when that was just not the done thing. She felt no need to become attached legally to the fathers of her children but did marry Godwin prior to Mary Shelley’s birth. She believed strongly in female emancipation and the necessity of educating girls so that they were not dependent on husbands or other male family members. Her most notable work is probably “A Vindication of The Rights of Woman” which was a follow up to her original work “A Vindication of the Rights of Man”. “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” laid out an amazing protofeminist agreement for, not only the reasons that women should be educated, but that girls had been socially conditioned into being demure, fragile “idiots”. It is a thrilling book to read when you put it into the context of its time. She was telling the reader, who at that stage was assumed to be a man due to the low levels of female literacy, that female education and empowerment was their problem too, and that they should be encouraging their sisters, wives and daughters to take an interest in things outside the domestic sphere.
She was in France during the French revolution, she had many affairs and she also had a friend named Fanny Blood (which is an AMAZING name might I add) in her youth and they had that type of intense friendship that can become completely co-dependent until Fanny died.
This is basically turning into a non-chronological list of why I love Mary Wollstonecraft. Her novel “Maria: Or the Wrongs of Woman” (1798) is a tragedy that also serves as a damning indictment of the power imbalances in marriage, with men being literally able to lock up their wives under the pretence of them being hysterical. She was also a prolific letter writer, whose letters were published in volumes that sold remarkably well.
I’m going to come back to Wollstonecraft again another day because she is just so important to not only the creation of Frankenstein, but crucial to early feminism.
We owe so much to her. Let’s try not to forget her.
In 1816 the after-effects of a devastating eruption of Mount Tambora the year beforehand were seriously messing with weather patterns and consequently the harvest. Farmers across the globe were struggling to make ends meet and cost of food and produce skyrocketed. Byron was still travelling. He left England in disgrace and he would never go back until they transported his cold lifeless corpse back to England against his wishes. Mary, her husband Percy and her stepsister Claire were travelling too. Referred to as the Shelley Party, or Shelley and his two little wives. The two parties would cross paths between 10 June to 1 November 1816 at Lake Geneva that would be intensely documented and scrutinised.
Whilst Mary and her novel may be our primary point of interest, she is not the driving force behind the gathering of these remarkable people. No, it is her persistent and enamoured 18-year-old step sister, who had organised for the two parties to meet up using the kind of Machiavellian manipulation that only a strong-willed 18-year-old woman can orchestrate. Claire Clairmont had, through written correspondence, pursued Lord Byron and, he, exhausted from the constant scandal was absolutely willing to have an affair with a pretty, chaperone-less young lady who was the stepdaughter of one of the most esteemed thinkers of his age.
Their affair was short-lived and Byron unceremoniously ditched her. Claire, however, was not done with him and she began to utilize all the social capital she had at her disposal. If you haven’t caught on yet Byron is an arse. He was accused of all sorts of adulterous and licentious behaviour including a rumoured affair with his half-sister. He spent his time hopping from scandal to scandal, leaving a path of destruction in his wake. His behaviour was particularly devastating to the women he had affairs with as the scandal could ruin their lives. He was very assured of his own genius and place in the world and he thought nothing of dismissing the affections of this young woman until she introduced Percy and Mary into the mix.
Byron, like Percy and numerous other young writers of the time, was fascinated by Mary. This daughter of two literary greats must be special indeed. And Percy had previously sent Byron a copy of Queen Mab in which the older poet saw a budding poetic voice emerging. Plus Byron had dealt with his fair share of public scandal so he felt a certain affinity with the young unwed couple.
However, Byron was leaving for Geneva and Claire was not going to give up just yet. She asked for the address.
He said no.
She asked again but this time she offered to bring Mary and Percy along.
This idea appealed to Byron and an invitation was extended to the Shelley party who by this stage was essentially on the run from Percy’s creditors and the scandalous reputation they had acquired in England.
Byron was not travelling alone, his laudanum addiction provoked him to retain the services of a doctor to accompany him in his travels, one Doctor John Polidori. Literary lore and Polidori’s own account of his time with the genius poet depicts a Byron as a potential sociopath who would constantly berate and belittle his paid companion, whilst demonstrating an easy charm and playfulness with others. He enjoyed toying with the young doctor, delighting in his failures and missteps. But Polidori had a secret; he had been paid quite a large sum of money by publisher John Murray to document the trip for publication. Byron gossip was a high priced commodity, and though his motives were far from pure, it is Polidori’s notes to which we owe a large portion of what we know of the events that transpired at the on the holiday…
This is the accompanying article for another one of those solo FrankenPod’s that I do to fill the gaping void in the main episodes. In this, we continue an exploration of Mary Shelley’s Gothic Masterpiece, Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus.
In this episode, I am going to introduce the myth of Prometheus as it is so critical to Frankenstein or the modern day Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Many of you who are familiar with the myth may have found it the same way as I did in those very dense omnibuses for children that retold stories of myth and legend. In the spirit of childlike wonder and sheer bald-faced laziness, I was going to retell the story of Prometheus the same way I first read it, in a 1920s children’s adaption very similar to the kind I used to read at my Nanna and Grandpa’s house when I was a kid. But I hadn’t anticipated how woefully inaccurate this retelling would be. So instead I’m going to attempt to break the myth down myself. Please bear in mind I’m no Jason from The Myths and Legends Podcast so this could be pretty rough going.
Also, I opted for modern rather than Ancient history in high school so I could tell you about the role of propaganda in world war 2… but I had to double check whether Zeus or Jupiter was the Greek one.
Like I said this could be rough.
Post-Olympian-Titan Kerfuffle Landscape
The creation of the universe had been rough and the war between the Olympian gods and the Titans had been a pretty messy affair resulting in the Titans being imprisoned on Tartarus.
Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus were two Titans who had been spared imprisonment as they did not get involved in the war. In fact, later versions of the myth have Prometheus engaged in a kind of espionage against the Titans, securing Zeus’s victory.
Zeus was an arsehole. A horny, narcissistic arsehole, who rapes women and other female creatures throughout Greek mythology. When it comes to Greek mythology he is the worst. But he was also the King of the Gods so everyone was supposed to head his every whim.
It’s Good to Have a Hobby
Prometheus may have done Zeus a solid but he was far from being just another Olympian servant towing the line of the Gods. Prometheus was a Titan. And he had a project. Pottery. Well kind of. Prometheus is credited with fashioning mankind out of clay. Some myths say it was him, some say it was a collaborative effort between the Gods.
Whoever made humankind there they stood. And Prometheus and Epimetheus set about attributing evolutionary edges to the animals of the earth. Leopards were given speed, tortoises were given shells and if the Greeks had ever seen a Platypus they would have attributed their poisonous barbs as a gift of Epimetheus and Prometheus. But when it came to mankind there was nothing left. Prometheus was sure that without a gift mankind would be eaten the first time they strayed too close to the forest or went for an ill-advised paddle in the shark and jellyfish infested water.
So Prometheus fashioned himself a torch or picked a stalk of fennel (sources vary) and stole fire from Zeus’s lightning. He gave fire to mankind and viola instant civilization. Zeus WAS NOT HAPPY. Fire was for the gods, not Prometheus’s night school pottery project. He was pissed. But not as pissed as he would be when Prometheus told mankind to stop giving the best meat and crops they had as a sacrifice to the gods.
Prometheus was like “guys you are getting a little carried away. Giving thanks to the gods is great but uh, not dying of starvation is better.”
And they took Prometheus’s advice and offered up offal wrapped in something more appetizing to trick the gods.
You Mad Bro?
In an act of extreme overreaction, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock and gave him a liver that would continually replenish, so that every day, for eternity a vulture could come and feast on the liver. Inflicting tremendous pain on the titan that he would have to bear as punishment. All for helping humans lead a less shitty existence.
But Zeus wasn’t done
He then decided that two can play at this pottery game and decides to create a woman, the idea being she would ruin everything. Yes, Zeus is the definition of the fucking Patriarchy. Anyway, this lady he fashioned from the earth was called Pandora. It’s pretty widely thought that she was an unwitting participant in Zeus’s shitty plan.
Zeus in the grand tradition of treating women as property gives Pandora to Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother as a bride.
Epimetheus seems to be more than fine with this and nowhere near as suspicious of Zeus as he should be. Because as I said. Zeus is the worst.
Pandora didn’t really have any belongings with her when she arrived at Epimetheus’s place. Except for this inconspicuous jar that she is told not to open. And like a button that says do not push or a piece of fruit that a god says do not eat, temptation eventually gets the better of her and she opens the jar. Out of the jar explodes all the sorrows of the world, that mysteriously, had not existed until this point. And after all those misfortunes floated away to plague mankind, all that was left in the jar to console mankind was Hope.
Linking Prometheus to Victor
And that is very basically the story of Prometheus. He may or may not get rescued by Hercules or reconcile with Zeus later but that is not particularly important to the story.
What is important is that both Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein are architects of creation that results in a creature that is an affront to one deity or another.
Both creature and creator suffer.
Although I would argue that Prometheus is far more compassionate towards mankind than Victor is towards his creature. But I suppose Prometheus was a Titan and Victor was just a mortal human Doctor.
What I find particularly interesting is that Mary Shelley has used a story in which the god in question is entirely unsympathetic and entirely culpable in the suffering of the creature and its creator. Interesting when we consider that Mary’s partner Percy Shelley was kicked out of at least one university for highly controversial atheist beliefs, beliefs which were antithetical to respectable English society at the time, but was an exciting point of discussion in the literary circles that both Mary and Percy ran in.
Hopefully next week we will release a little something about Mary Shelley.
Before our podcast release next week I thought it might be a good idea to have a bit of a chat about Gothic literature and what exactly that entails. I am not assuming that everyone knows or doesn’t know about the gothic genre and this certainly won’t be a deep dive because I am simply not qualified. This is just to define the parameters of the initial genre we will be focusing on with Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
First up we need to acknowledge that the gothic genre is super problematic. There are stories that give a strong voice to people of all shapes, sizes, gender identifications, sexual orientations and nationalities but this progressiveness is a pretty recent development. Gothic literature can be racist, homophobic and is frequently classist and misogynist. Whilst we could dismiss these issues as being products of the time in which they were written I think it is important that we are aware of the problems in the things we love and to acknowledge them. The only way we can move forward is to understand the issues of our past. Frankenstein is classist, misogynistic and racist. It is my favourite novel of all time, but I completely acknowledge it’s flawed.
Let’s get into my barebones overview of Gothic Literature.
Particularly popular in the 18th and 19th century, Gothic literature typically draws on a spectre of evil
from the distant past that threatens to reach forward and destroy the present. Bram Stoker creates a particularly threatening creature who oozes ancient evil in Dracula. With vampire myths existing in every culture, some tied to the bible, some tied to ancient Egyptian mythology Bram Stoker had a wealth of ancient evil to draw from. His Count is descended from Attila the Hun and himself is a spectre of ancient or at the very least medieval evil, being virtually immortal. He has been around for centuries, but in Stoker’s narrative, he ventures into Victorian industrialised society to act all creepy around the ladies of London.
The Corruption of the Innocent
The predatory sexuality of Dracula is one of the most blatant examples of the corruption of the innocent, a trope that is revived again and again. He preys on young vulnerable and virginal women in the same way that monsters of his kind will again and again in the novels we cover. But the innocent does not have to be a young virginal woman. The good Doctor Jekyll is corrupted in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the innocent Dorian is corrupted by his own vanity, Sir Henry and a supernatural lack of accountability, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is usually a girl or a woman who gets shortchanged. Even in contemporary gothic tales, the innocent vs. the beast is trotted out regularly, look at Buffy and Twin Peaks. I promise this will not become a Twin Peaks podcast but that won’t be the last reference to the series.
Locked Doors and Secret Passageways
Often gothic literature features mysterious castles, decrepit houses or monasteries. Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) is commonly cited as the first gothic novel, which is a whole ridiculous story that we will get to in another episode. The Castle of Otranto has a lot of the features that would come to be prevalent in the gothic novels that would come after it; an old castle, a family curse, the corruption of the innocent, the supernatural and the sublime.
The Other Goths
The word Goth does allude to a mysterious Scandinavian people who come into the verifiable historical record suddenly in the first century A.D. and this part of the story I am horrifically underqualified to talk about, even more than everything else I have been talking about. If you know a lot about the Goths, the Visigoths or the Ostrogoths please get in touch. Absolutely willing to revisit this! All I know is that as a teenage goth it was a source of very real and deep disappointment that the goths were not pale skinned eyeliner wearing robed people with black hair lounging about nonchalantly waiting for The Cure to be formed.
The Gothic became a pejorative term that was used to dismiss architecture as ugly or barbaric which is a little harsh not to mention more than a touch racist. I also know basically nothing about this aspect of the gothic so again… if you know your way around gothic architecture please get in touch. Gothic literature has a lot more to do with the emergence of the goth subculture as we know it today than the Germanic Goths and gothic architecture.
This architectural notion of the terrible, dramatic and brutal has carried over into the gothic as it pertains to literature. With gothic plots being frequently brutal and dramatic in their content. Gothic literature also blurs the lines between the natural and the supernatural.
The Indefinable Threat
The gothic does not require a ghost or a ghoul but needs an analogous threat. In fact, some of the most ambiguously supernatural gothic novels are the most troubling. Oscar Wilde’s protagonist does not have to wrestle with a literal physical monster, but with his own bargain with a malevolent force and we never conclusively find out if the governess of Henry James’ Turn of The Screw (1898) is actually experiencing a haunting or a psychotic break.
Stemming from the romantic supernatural gothic novel is the detective novel which dabbles in the macabre and the mysterious. These stories might start with a supernatural interpretation, as in the Sherlock Holmes novels, and a shown by the genius detective to be wholly natural, however improbable. The blurring of the gothic and the detective novel is particularly prevalent in The Hound of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which we get an appearance of the moors which feature so heavily in gothic fiction, they are like naturally occurring labyrinthine castles full of mystery and unpleasant surprises.
The gothic film genre is closely tied to horror as it often features a lot of evil, death and destruction, however, it is also closely tied to the genre of period drama as the movies that draw inspiration from the classic gothic novel often keep their narratives within the same time and space as the original narrative. Most of the films we will focus on will have a Victorian or Vintage flavour, but the neo-gothic and gothic noir film has moved the gothic movie into the city and the modern world so there is a rich vein, no pun intended of material to work with.
So what makes Frankenstein gothic?
Well aside from the cliché that it happened on a dark and stormy night. Victor Frankenstein is beholden to a deep ancient desire to create life from whole cloth. The Doctor’s drive to emulate god has a lineage tracing back to ancient Greece. Mary Shelley even renders the curse of the doctor explicit in the title of the novel Frankenstein, or the modern-day Prometheus. The Prometheus myth is a huge thing to unpack so I might have to do that another time. The creature of the novel is not born of God, so while he is a creature of science and consequently science fiction he is also a supernatural innocent that seeks to find his way in the world. There is the corruption of the innocent, death and the fall of a great noble family.
So what do you ideally need for a gothic novel or film? Not all novels will have all these but these are the factors to look out for…
The Gothic Text Wish List
□ A Haunting
□ A Curse
□ A Challenge to the conventional
□ An Artefact imbued with magic or supernatural properties
□ The Corruption of the innocent
□ Creepy architecture
□ Preferably a labyrinth of some kind
□ And an Ancient Evil
*Bats and ambiguous shadows optional
I’ll see you next week with Brent to compare the 1931 movie Frankenstein and the 1818 novel in which we officially apply the concepts of galvanism to the unsuspecting creature that is our podcast.
How could this possibly go wrong?
You can watch the fall out from this act of hubris in real time @thefrankenpod on twitter and thefrankenpod.wordpress.com has all the resources I was diligent enough to include.
In the meantime hit up Project Gutenberg and Librivox for a free copy of Frankenstein and any other gothic tales in the public domain.
Smith, Andrew. Gothic literature. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
My copy of many gothic texts discussed are drawn from:“A Gothic Treasury of the Supernatural: The Castle of Otranto; Frankenstein: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Dracula; The Turn of the Screw” 1981
The feature image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 17 August 2008, 12:59 by Yuriybrisk. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.