Mary Shelley, from a miniature by Reginald Easton (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Mary Shelley's Monster Turns 200

June 2018

Like the New York State Library, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2018. Exploring literature from 1818 can give us a unique window into the world as it existed at the State Library’s birth: Frankenstein can be read as evidence of scientific, political, social and artistic ideas of the time.

Left display case, with books and biographical information about Mary Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was the daughter of eighteenth-century intellectuals: her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, writer and women's rights advocate, perhaps most famous for her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and her father was the journalist and political philosopher William Godwin. In 1814, Mary and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley eloped to France. William Godwin had previously forbidden his daughter to see Percy Shelley, who was married with children. Even after Mary and Percy returned to England, Godwin did not speak to her for four years.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus was published in London in 1818. The novel reflects influences of the Gothic genre and the Romantic movement and is widely considered an early example of science fiction. She was 18 when she began work on the novel; it was published two years later.

Center display case, with books related to the novel Frankenstein

Frankenstein is an epistolary novel, framed by three levels of narrative. Adventurer Captain Walton opens the novel with his journey to the North Pole in search of fame through scientific prowess. Walton's crew rescues scientist Victor Frankenstein, who has been attempting to locate the escaped Being of his creation. Victor relates the stories of his upbringing, personal tragedies, and eventual creation of the Creature. His narrative is situated alongside a warning for Walton to avoid seeking scientific fame, lest similar disasters befall him. The third narrative is that of the Creature himself: this functions as a defense, not only for the Creature’s actions, but also for the Creature’s right to exist, interact with the world, and respond to social stimuli. The Creature's narrative is intelligent and relates his sad attempts at connection with humans, and later, his desire and demand for Frankenstein to create a female companion.

book cover: The Vampyre by John Polidari

The story of Frankenstein’s writing is significant: Mary was at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in June 1816 with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. The April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa (present-day Indonesia) resulted in abnormal weather for the following three years, with substantial effects during the summer of 1816, or what became known as "The Year Without a Summer." Cooler temperatures and persistent heavy rains led European crops to fail; food prices increased, and famine and riots followed.

The group challenged one another to write supernatural stories during their time at Villa Diodati—from this, Frankenstein emerged. The unique meteorological atmosphere inspired other writing in addition to Frankenstein: Polidori wrote "The Vampyre" during this summer, and critics have argued that Byron's poem "Darkness" and Keats's "To Autumn" reference the Indonesian volcano. With "The Vampyre," Polidori is widely credited with establishing the vampire romance literary genre. It is thought that Lord Byron was the inspiration for the story's aristocratic vampire, Lord Ruthven.

book cover: The Frankenstein Legend

Frankenstein has been adapted for film, radio, stage and television, taking the form of science fiction, horror thrillers, parodies, musicals, novels, comics, video games, satires and sitcoms.

Shelley's monster has become a staple of pop culture that stretches beyond straightforward adaptations: the 1962 song "Monster Mash" is sung by a Boris Karloff-like scientist and his dancing monster, and in 1971 General Mills named a strawberry-flavored cereal "Franken Berry."

Though Shelley is most widely known as the author of her first novel, Frankenstein, and her 1826 novel, The Last Man, she also wrote the novels Valperga (1823), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837). Her novella Mathilda was published posthumously in 1959, after Shelley's father refused to either submit it for publication or return the manuscript to her, rejecting its themes of incest and suicide by drowning. (Shelley later thought this novella an ominous sign after her husband drowned when his sailing boat sank in a storm on the Gulf of Spezia.) She wrote essayistic accounts of her travels in History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817) and Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844). Her husband contributed to the 1817 travel journal, and she assembled the latter in the form of letters. Rambles was her last full-length book.

Right display case, with other books by Mary Shelley and two audio books from TBBL

She published short stories in The Keepsake, an annual Christmas literary publication that counted William Wordsworth, Thomas Moore, and Walter Scott among its other contributors. Shelley's work covers a breadth of genre and topic, including examinations of gender and society, conventions of science fiction, the gothic literary tradition, sensibility and sentiment, as well as political commentary, the historical novel, and biography. Between 1832 and 1839, Shelley wrote biographies for Dionysius Larder's Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men, part of a series called Cabinet Cyclopaedia intended to inspire the masses toward self-education and self-improvement. Shelley's contributions, which constituted three quarters of the final collection, included biographies of notable French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish men and women. Her biographical work reflects her interests in language, history, feminist historiography, and the professionalism of her work as a woman writer, as she was contracted to produce several volumes and was well compensated.

Shelley was well-read and dedicated to her intellectual life. She kept detailed notes of her daily reading and compiled lists of works she read each year. Texts she would have been familiar with at the time of Frankenstein's writing and publication include John Milton's Paradise Lost, the works of Shakespeare, Ovid’s Promethean myth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and political writings of the French Revolution. She was interested in emerging scientific theories of the time, including Enlightenment theories about natural philosophy and chemistry, as well as early nineteenth-century experiments with electricity. She was familiar with Humphry Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy and the experiments of Erasmus Darwin. Discussions from the 1816 summer at Lake Geneva, noted in Polidori's diary from the period, included questions about mankind as either a material product of the universe or as a being with a soul intentionally created by God. In other words, are humans predominantly bodies or souls? This central question of Shelley’s novel echoes eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century debates about vitalism versus scientific materialism.

Title page of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Books on display included:

  • Bigland, Eileen. Mary Shelley. 1959.
  • Byron, George Gordon, Baron. The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron. 1905.
  • Forry, Steven Earl. Hideous Progenies; Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present. 1990.
  • Gerson, Noel Bertra. Daughter of Earth and Water: A biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 1973.
  • Glut, Donald F. The Frankenstein Legend: A Tribute to Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff. 1973.
  • Godwin, William. The Elopement of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. 1911
  • Kelly, Tim; Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Frankenstein: A Play in Two Acts. 1974.
  • Massingham, Harold John. The Friend of Shelley: A Memoir of Edward John Trelawny. 1930.
  • Montillo, Roseanne. The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece (Talking Book and Braille Library digital cassette). 2013.
  • Polidori, John William (attributed on cover to Lord Byron). The Vampyre: A Tale. 1819.
  • Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. 1984.
  • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus. 19--.
  • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein (Talking Book and Braille Library digital cassette). 1983.
  • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Midas and Proserpine. 1922.
  • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Lives of the Most Eminent French Writers. 1840.
  • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Last Man. 1965.
  • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft; Betty T. Bennett (editor). The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 1980-1988.
  • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft; Frederick L. Jones (editor). Letters of Mary W. Shelley. 1944.
  • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft; Frederick L. Jones (editor). Mary Shelley's Journal. 1947.
  • Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. 1989.

Exhibit curated by Kristin Fitzgerald, Diane Madrigal and Pat Jordan

Last Updated: September 5, 2018