Frankenstein – Mary’s Best Known Story
Mary Shelley is mainly remembered for writing Frankenstein. She was eighteen when she started it and the idea came from a challenge from Lord Byron as to who could write the best ghost stories. She and Shelley were staying in a small cottage next to Byron’s Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva.
With them was her step-sister, Claire, who was Byron’s mistress at the time. Gothic romances and ghost stories were very fashionable, and they read them as light relief from studying greek philosophers and political theory.
The gothic mood was heightened because that year, 1816, was known as the year without a summer. A volcano erupted, Mount Tambora in Indonesia, sending volcanic ash into the atmosphere which spread around the work and blocked the sun. It was an average of 13 degrees, one of the coldest summers on record! There were crop failures, famine, rioting and predictions of doom.
Frankenstein was published in 1818 in three volumes, as was usual at the time. In 1831 Mary revised it and the illustrated single copies appeared, as in the picture.
Stage and Screen
In Mary’s novel, Victor Frankenstein created a monster which has become an iconic representation of the monster in horror fiction.
Just a few years after publication of the book, it was already wowing audiences with stage adaptations. Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, written by Richard Brinsley Peake, was produced at the English Opera House in London in 1823. One of the first things Mary did when she came back to London from Italy, was to go to a performance.
The 1931 portrayal of the monster by Boris Karloff in the Universal Studio movie created the image we all recognise.
There have been hundreds of stage and screen adaptions since then, as well as satires, sequels and comics. One of the latest was the 2012 National Theatre of London production with Benedict Cummerbatch and Johnny Lee Miller.
Not just Frankenstein!
Mary became a bankable author after Frankenstein. After Shelley’s death she supported herself and her son with her writing.
In her lifetime she wrote eleven novel and travel books, dozens of stories and essays and several biographical pieces as well as editing a complete edition of Shelley’s works.
A complete list of her works is on the Mary Shelley page.