Celebrating the 200 Year Anniversary of Frankenstein

On this day in 1818, Frankenstein was first published to a bemused public.

Mainstream serious publishers had refused to take it as it was felt to be impious and immoral, but was eventually taken by Lackington, a more populist bookseller, whose massive store was known as the Temple of the Muses.

It was published anonymously in a three volume edition, as was usual at the time, and 500 copies were printed. Mary Shelley’s share was one-third of the profits, which came to £41.13.10 which would be about £10,000 in today’s money.

Many reviews were damning…

‘The creator, terrified at his own work, flies into one wood, and the work, terrified at itself, flies into another. Here the monster, by the easy process of listening at the window of a cottage, acquires a complete education…– it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; ……leaving the wearied reader, after a struggle between laughter and loathing, in doubt whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased.’ -The Quarterly Review

‘We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror which abounds in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime. The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment’..-The British Critic

But a few saw the the literary merit…

‘…this extraordinary tale, in which the author seems to us to disclose uncommon powers of poetic imagination. Upon the whole, the work impresses us with a high idea of the author’s original genius and happy power of expression’ – Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine

‘….it has an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times. .……there is much power and beauty……. ………..some of our highest and most reverential feelings receive a shock from the conception on which it turns’ – The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany

Luckily the public loved it!

Read the full story of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and her turbulent relationship with the poet Percy Shelley and her jealous step-sister Claire in Almost Invincible.


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Essential Reading Before You Watch the New Mary Shelley Biopic

Great news that movie Mary Shelley will be showing at the Toronto Film Festival. It is based on Mary Shelley’s tumultuous and scandalous life when she was a young woman, and wrote the iconic novel Frankenstein.

This still shot shows Elle Fanning as Mary, sitting by her mother’s grave. The movie also stars Maisie Williams, Bel Powley, Joanne Froggat, Douglas Booth and Tom Sturridge.

Before you watch this much anticipated film, read the full story of Mary Shelley and her turbulent relationship with the poet Percy Shelley and her jealous step-sister Claire in Almost Invincible. (available on-line or in store.)

An impressive fictional tale of Mary’s creative but tragedy scarred life (Yorkshire evening Post).

Afresh and gripping portrayal of this enigmatic literary genius (Lady Magazine)

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The Evolution of The Mummy!

As another Mummy movie hits the big screen it is interesting to look back at the first iteration of the genre. The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century is an 1827 novel written by a 20 year old – Jane Webb. As with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which partly inspired Jane, It was unusual for such topics to be tackled by women. At that time in London there had also been a fashion for everything Egyptian as well as an exhibition of mummies in the capital after the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt.

Jane’s father had been a wealthy manufacturer, but when she was in her teens he lost his fortune and died when she was seventeen. There was a pressing need to earn money, so she turned to writing to support herself and her family.

While Frankenstein has a pessimistic outlook about society and human behaviour, The Mummy! has a more optimistic tone and some satirical digs at London society. Cheops, the Mummy that comes to life by means of galvanism, is more benign than Mary Shelley’s monster, and readily gives advice on politics and life. The twenty second century in which the novel is set is full of creative ideas such as women wearing trousers, automated surgeons, moon colonisation and a form of internet.

It also has an surprising invention, the steam mower, which was sufficiently revolutionary for The Gardener’s Magazine to positively review the book. John Louden, the most famous horticulturalist of the day then asked to meet the author. Louden was forty seven, crippled with arthritis and had lost an arm after a botched operation. As the book had been published anonymously, he was amazed and impressed to find that the author was a woman and he promptly married her.

Jane abandoned her science fiction career and worked with her husband on his gardening projects with spectacular success. She realised there were no gardening books for ordinary people who were not professionals in the field, so she wrote the hugely successful The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden in 1821, which she illustrated herself and which sold over 20,000 copies.

Their marriage lasted sixteen years until Loudon’s death from lung cancer, and Jane went on to support herself and her ten year old daughter by writing and editing a woman’s magazine.

I’m not sure how Jane Louden Webb would have enjoyed the latest version of The Mummy, with a its villainous resurrected female princess, but then in the fourteen or so Mummy movies, none of the eponymous characters have ever been benign. Time for a rethink?

Suzanne Burdon is author of Almost Invincible, A Biographical Novel of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. She is currently working on a novel about Lord Byron.

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Protest, Poetry & Song

As Bob Dylan has finally accepted his Nobel Prize, (though not yet given his Nobel performance) I was reminded of the essay In Defence of Poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in which he claimed that:

“poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Shelley saw it as his mission to redress political and social evils through poetry. In the early nineteenth century, poetry was part of pop culture, albeit a sophisticated culture only available to the intelligentsia and upper classes.

His poem The Mask of Anarchy, for instance, is a response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester, when solders fired into a peaceful protest which was calling for democratic reform.

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

In The Times they are a-Changin’, Dylan echoed Shelley’s call to the underdog: For the loser now/will be later to win/For the Times they are a-changin’

As I research more into the Romantic period I am continually struck by the plus ca change, plus sa meme chose nature of human and social behaviour. Though poetry is not such a potent force this century, its mission, as Shelley envisaged it, has migrated into mass culture by means of the singer-songwriter. Dylan, is, of course, an exemplar of songwriting as a means of social and political protest. Blowing in the Wind is equally powerful and memorable poetry:

Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too may people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Shelley thought of poetry as instinctive. He spoke of the poetical process as the “… power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature.” Dylan echoed this when he remarked, “Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural.”

Many songwriters have had strong social and political influence in the past fifty years, fighting injustice, begging for peace and calling for help for minorities and the disadvantaged. Some of the more iconic songs that come to mind are Joan Baez: We Shall Overcome; John Lennon: Imagine, Pete Seeger: Where have all the Flowers Gone; Live aid: We are the World; U2: Sunday Bloody Sunday; Michael Jackson: Man in the Mirror; Midnight Oil: Beds are Burning; Lady Gaga: Born This Way; Woody Guthrie: This Land is your Land; Tracy Chapman: Talking about a Revolution.

Everyone has their own list of songs that have pricked their social or political consciousness. It would made Percy Shelley proud, and he would have reeled at the size of the audience!

However, Joan Baez, interviewed recently in Rolling Stone about protest in the Trump era said of protest music ‘ there’s not enough right now. It’s terribly important, because that’s what keeps the spirit. Carping and shouting, much as it gets things off your chest ..you really need something uplifting.The problem right now is that we have no anthem’.

Suzanne Burdon is author of Almost Invincible, A Biographical Novel of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. She is currently working on a novel about Lord Byron.

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Mary Shelley and Motherhood

William Shelley aged 3 ‘He ..gets dearer and sweeter every day’

William Shelley aged 3
‘He gets dearer and sweeter every day’

Mary Shelley had five pregnancies and only one surviving child. She was, though, an instinctive and devoted mother. When I give talks about Mary and the nine years of her relationship with her poet, Shelley, I quite often hear someone automatically dismissing any deep sympathy. “Well, they were used to children dying young in those days, so they didn’t get as emotionally attached” is a typical comment.

Mary’s own words give the lie to that stereotype. Her letters and journals show her deep love for her children and her overwhelming sorrow when tragedy took them from her.

When Mary eloped with Shelley, at sixteen, she almost immediately became pregnant, and was either pregnant or breastfeeding for much of the next nine years. Unusually for the time, Shelley was very keen on Mary breastfeeding their children and even though she usually had a nurse to help with the children she was a very involved mother.

Their first child, who they called Clara was a seven-month baby and though not expected to live, survived eight days. Two weeks after her death, Mary wrote in her journal: “Dream that my little baby came to life again – that it had only been cold and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived – I awake and find no baby – I think about the little thing all day.”

Then, at eighteen she gave birth to William, nicknamed Willmouse. His parents adored William. Mary’s wrote: ‘Blue eyes – gets dearer and sweeter every day – he jumps about like a little squirrel’. William was with his mother in Geneva when she conceived Frankenstein, and then in Bristol as she finished her masterpiece.

The next year Mary gave birth to Clara Everina, and for a time it was a happy, nuclear family in a big old rambling house in the English countryside. Then they decided to move to Italy and Clara became sick and died as they travelled, and Mary writes of their rush to Venice to find a doctor, ‘when nerves were strung to their utmost tension by mental anguish.’

When William also died in Rome nine moths later at the age of three and a half, it nearly broke Mary. She went into a deep depression. As they watched over his last hours, Mary wrote to a friend; ‘The misery of these hours is beyond calculation –The hopes of my life are bound up in him.’ Shelley suffered as much. He wrote a poem: ‘My lost William, thou in whom/Some bright spirit lived/ ….if a thing divine/Like thee can die,/ thy funeral shrine/Is thy mother’s grief and mine.’

After William died, when she was twenty-one, she gave birth to Percy Florence. However, Mary was wracked by concern in case fate would also snatch this child from her. ‘It is a bitter thought that all should be risked on one yet how much sweeter than to be childless as I was for 5 hateful months’, wrote Mary – a strong testament to her devotion to her children.

Percy gave her great pleasure after Shelley’s death: ‘a fine tall boy’ who she thought ‘might have the art of painting in his tiny fingers’ and was ‘amiable and vivacious, and I dare to hope for some comfort from him.’ When his grandfather, Sir Timothy Shelley, offered financial support on condition he take charge of the boy, Mary chose to make her own living through her writing rather than give him up. Percy survived, to marry happily and to take care of his mother in her later years.

Motherhood was clearly a very strong bond for Mary, and each child was loved and valued. There was no support here for the perception of ‘emotional distance’. They were as much part of her life as her writing and her love for Shelley.

Quotes taken from The Journals of Mary Shelley (Feldman and Scott-Kilvert 1987) and The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Volume I (Betty T. Bennet ed 1980).

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Almost Invincible featured on The Book Podcast

The Book Podcast with Rosemary Puddy features Australian Women Writers of fiction and non-fiction and is inspired by the The Stella Prize which is a major literary award that celebrates Australian women’s writing and an organisation that champions cultural change.


Listen in to Episode 3 as Suzanne chats with Rosemary about her debut novel Almost Invincible.

Listen HERE

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WATCH: ‘Almost Invincible’ – An impressive fictional tale of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, who led a creative but tragedy-scarred life.

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200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Part 3

200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Notes on July and August 1816 in Cologny, on the shores of Lake Geneva.


3. The light and the dark.

In August the group on lake Geneva were visited by ‘The Monk’ Lewis. His nickname is a reference to his famous scandalous gothic horror story, with bleeding a nun spectre, dungeons, witchcraft torture and seduction. He told them ‘mysteries of his trade’ and they ‘talk of ghosts.’ Lewis told them four ghost stories.

Lord Byron in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers wrote of Monk Lewis: ”Even Satan’s self with thee might dread to dwell, And in thy skull discern a deeper hell.”

Mary Shelley was not always part of the audience, because her ‘little babe’ was not well, though Shelley discussed it all with her later. Mary was a very fond mother and when away on trips would write ‘“I longed to see my pretty babe”. The ‘little babe’ was William, just over six months old. Critics have always found it odd that Mary also named Victor Frankenstein’s young brother William, in her story, especially as she had him strangled by the Creature. A horribly prophetic inclusion.

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200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Part 2

200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Notes on July and August 1816 in Cologny, on the shores of Lake Geneva.


2. Celebration and secrets.

In that eventful August while Mary was beginning to write ‘her ‘story,’ the others in the group on the lake had a secret. Claire, Mary’s stepsister, told Shelley that she was pregnant to Byron and Shelley tried to negotiate with Byron on her behalf. Byron had already begun to hate Claire and was not prepared to commit to anything, so Shelley quietly made a new will with provision for Claire and her child. He did not tell Mary of the situation immediately because he knew she would be angry, and neither could foresee just how badly it would affect all their lives.

When Shelley had his 24th birthday on 4th August, Mary bought him a telescope and they celebrated with a boat trip on Lake Geneva, during which Mary read to him from Virgil (a 19C Roman poet). Ah, how romantic … before the next bombs landed.

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200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Part 1

200 years on from the genesis of Frankenstein – Summer 1816 in Cologny, on the shores of Lake Geneva


1.Ghost Story Challenge

It was the ‘Year Without a Summer’. Endlessly dark, stormy and apocalyptic. Byron threw out a ghost story challenge and Mary conceived Frankenstein.

It is some weeks later before Mary first refers to ‘writing her story’. During this time she and Shelley and sometimes Claire were exploring the Swiss mountains. As the weather improved they set off on mules to climb to Montanvert one of the large glaciers that forms the Mer de Glace (the Ice Sea), in the Chamonix Valley. In her journal Mary called it ‘the most desolate place in the world’. Mary used the setting in chapter ten of Frankenstein, where Frankenstein first encounters the Creature, his now independent creation, ‘bounding over the crevices of ice’ with ‘superhuman speed’…

“The ascent is precipitous, but the path is cut into continual and short windings, which enable you to surmount the perpendicularity of the mountain. It is a scene terrifically desolate. In a thousand spots the traces of the winter avalanche may be perceived, where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground, some entirely destroyed, others bent, leaning upon the jutting rocks of the mountain or transversely upon other trees… The surface (of the glacier) was very uneven, rising like the waves of a troubled sea, descending low, and interspersed by rifts that sink deep” – Mary Shelley. Frankenstein.

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