What really inspired Frankenstein?

What really inspired Frankenstein

I recently read a New York Times article which said that Frankenstein resulted from a cold summer of debauchery on Lake Geneva, fuelled by ghost stories, wine and laudanum. Well it was certainly cold, and there were ghost stories galore, but Mary Godwin and Shelley didn’t drink and nor did Byron at the time. Laudanum was commonly used on those days as a medicine and sleeping draft. The debauchery was that eighteen year old Mary was not yet married to Shelley, though they had a four month old baby, and Mary’s step sister, Claire, was having an affair with Byron.

Unconventional for the time but not riotous.

The inspiration for Frankenstein doesn’t need to be salacious to be fascinating.

It was the result of the apocalyptic weather, the dark sky and the storms from the volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. This meant longs days around a fire, with candle lit at noon, in mid July, reading ghost stories and then a challenge from Byron for them each to write one themselves. In her second edition, Mary said the idea came to her in a dream, but as we know, dreams have their source in real life.

First of all there was their obsession with the gothic, and the recent release of Coleridge’s poem, Christabel. Then there was Percy Shelley’s personal love affair with science, and his experiments set up on dining tables. In London there was an atmosphere of science as theatre, with ‘shows’ demonstrating phenomena such as galvanism, the supposedly life giving powers of electricity. They also loved the philosophy of Rousseau, who wrote that man’s ideal state is that of an uncorrupted ‘noble savage’ and Percy Shelley was an atheist whose criticism of religion made it easy for Mary to consider the idea of man playing God.

When Mary and Shelley had first eloped to Switzerland, they returned on a boat along the Rhine through Germany, and passed Castle Frankenstein, once occupied by Jonathan Dippel, an alchemist reputed to have experimented on dead bodies. Polidari, Byron’s doctor who was also living in Byron’s Villa Diodati, also told stories of his the cadavers used in his medical training.

Finally there was Mary’s own need to produce something to justify the heritage of her literary superstar parents. She also had a good commercial sense, always trying to get Shelley to write something with wide appeal – not least to pay the bills!

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What Would Mary Shelley Think?

what would mary shelley think.

In November there will another representation of the Frankenstein story in cinemas with James McEvoy and Daniel Radcliffe. (Read more in this Q & A with the stars )  Since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein there have been more than 100 performances, adaptions. parodies and satires on stage and large and small screen. In 1931 Boris Karloff created the iconic image of the monster in the Universal Pictures production of Frankenstein. One of the most recent acclaimed stagings was in 2012, with the National Theatre’s Frankenstein starring Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating roles as the monster and the scientist. ­­

I think Mary would have enjoyed the varied performances on their merits and would not have been precious about interpretations. She certainly was very tolerant of the stage production that she saw in 1823.  After Shelley died in Italy, Mary went back to London and on August 29th saw a performance of ‘Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein’ at the English Opera House. It was very successful, and although Mary thought they had taken liberties with the story, she enjoyed the performance and found it amusing. As well, even 200 years ago new media exposure had benefits in reinvigorating the book sales! These are her comments to Leigh Hunt after seeing it.

“But lo and behold! I found myself famous! – Frankenstein had prodigious success as a drama and was about to be repeated for the 23rd night at the English Opera House. The play bill amused me extremely, for in the list dramatic personae came –– by Mr T Cook: this nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good. On Friday, August 29th Jane my father William and I went to the theatre to see it. What like looked very well as F – he is at the beginning full of hope and expectation – at the end of the first Act. the stage represents a room with a staircase leading to F workshop – he goes to it and you see his light at a small window, through which a frightened of servant peeps, who runs off in terra when F exclaims “it lives! “– presently F himself rushes in horror and trepidation from the room and while still expressing his agony and terror – throws down the door of the laboratory, makes the staircase and presents his unearthly and monstrous person on stage. The story is not well managed – but Cooke played –– ‘s part extremely well –is seeking as it were for support – he’s trying to grasp at the sounds he heard – all indeed he does was well executed. I was much amused, and it appeared to excite breathless eagerness in the audience – it was a third piece, A scanty pit filled at half price – and all stayed till it was over. They continue to play it even now”


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Sorry, Mary Shelley, I missed your birthday! Belated remembrances for August 30th!

marys bday post pic
On that day, Tuesday, in 1814, Mary, Shelley and Claire were travelling back to England through Germany, after their elopement, on a boat on the Rhine. Mary turned seventeen. The river was “violent”and “swollen with high waves” Shelley wrote in their joint journal: “It is Marys birth day. we do not solemnize this day in comfort. We expect to be not happier, but more at our ease before the year passes.” In spite of their discomfort on the boat, Shelley writes: A ruined tower with its desolated windows stood on the summit of another hill that jutted into the river. beyond the sunset was illuminating the mountains and the clouds, and casting the reflection of its hues on the agitated river. The brilliance and contrast of the shades and colourings of the circling whirl pools of the stream was an appearance entirely new and most beautiful.” This was not the only castle they saw on that journey. They also passed Castle Frankenstein, where an Alchemist, Dippel, was reputed to have exhumed bodies for anatomical research. Inspiration comes from many sources! This is my picture of the now ruined Castle Frankenstein. I love the way the leaves hang to resemble a bat….

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Readers Thoughts…Feedback from the Wishing Shelf Awards


How pleasing to have such wonderful feedback from the readers and reviewers of ‘Almost Invincible!’

Courtesy of ‘The Wishing Shelf Awards‘ where ‘Almost Invincible’ was awarded GOLD in Adult Non-Fiction 2014.

Title: Almost Invincible
Author: Suzanne Burdon
Star Rating: 5 stars

Readers’ Comments

‘I personally thought this was the best book in The Wishing Shelf Book Awards. Lovely style of writing, strong cover and a sizzling look at the life of Mary Shelley. It is always so satisfying to understand the mind of an artist and this book helped me to do that. Being a big fan of Frankenstein I particularly enjoyed it.’

– Female reader, aged 62

‘I did not even know Percy Bysshe Shelley was her husband. But
I do now. Interesting and well-researched look at her life. I
particularly enjoyed the complex relationship between her and
her step-sister.’

– Female reader, aged 23

‘A bit slow to get going but, apart from that, a thoroughly absorbing read. It depicts life in the 1800s with clarity and the characters simply jump off the page.’

– Male reader, aged 54

‘I had no idea Shelley was so poor and spent much of her liferunning from debt. Fascinating.’

– Male reader, aged 56


Cover 8/10
Writing Style 9/10
Editing 9/10
Contents 10/10

Catchy Quote

‘A fascinating, often shocking look at the life of
Mary Shelley.’

– The Wishing Shelf Awards

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Petition from 150 years ago notes new noun: ‘wife-beating’

carlyle letters.PNG2
COAG in the news for communique on reducing violence against women yesterday … and coincidentally came across this while researching next book…. from a parliamentary petition of 150 years ago.
‘That newspapers constantly detail instances of marital oppression, “wife-beating,” being a new compound noun lately introduced into the English language, and a crime against which English gentlemen have lately enacted stringent regulations’
Read the full petition from ‘The Carlyle Letters’ HERE
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REVIEW The Big Book Club: Almost Invincible a biographical novel of Mary Shelley – author of Frankenstein by Suzanne Burdon


The novel starts in Mary Shelley’s eighteenth year, when she began writing her masterpiece Frankenstein. Daughter of feminist and author Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin, she was destined for a life of creativity and intellectual exploration.

Read the Full Review HERE

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Word for Word Festival – 11 September 2015


Thrilled to be a part of the Word for Word writer’s festival, giving a workshop Blending Fact with Fiction on Friday 11th September and In Conversation with Anne Manne, author of The Life of I.


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Mary Shelley grew up in a household in 1814 that might be a social services case study today!


Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, grew up as Mary Godwin in a family that was far from conventional. Many of today’s concerns – blended families, unconventional living arrangements, single mothers, child support, are all there in the Godwin household of Mary’s childhood, two hundred years ago.

There were five children, none of whom had the same two parents!

1. Mary Godwin: Daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstencraft, feminist author, who married after Wollstoncraft was pregnant with Mary – in spite of Godwin’s advocating the abolition of marriage. For the six months they were married (until Wollstonecraft died in childbirth), they occupied adjoining apartments so they could maintain their independence.

2. Fanny Imlay: Mary’s half-sister, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer, to whom Wollstonecraft was not married and who abandoned her in France, before she met Godwin.

3. Claire Clairmont: Mary’s step-sister, daughter of Mary Jane Godwin, Godwin’s second wife, and John Letheridge, a Somerset land-owner with whom Mary Jane had an affair prior to her marriage. We now have letters from Mary Jane demanding support for Claire, well into her marriage.

4. Charles Clairmont: Mary’s step-brother, son of Mary Jane Godwin and a Swiss called Gaulis, from another earlier, mysterious affair.

5. William Godwin: Mary’s half brother, son of William Godwin and Mary Jane Godwin.

Does your head hurt? Nothing is new, but imagine the fun Social Services would have today!

Read all about it in my book ‘Almost Invincible’

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Review by The Lady, UK Edition, 24th April

Thrilled to get a 4 Star review from the UK Edition of ‘The Lady’ last month!

The Lady PR

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Vaccination is in the news again

The Australian Government has recently announced ‘tough new measures’  to try and ensure that all children are vaccinated. It proposes withholding childcare payments and tax benefits from families who don’t get their children vaccinated.

Vaccination is said to have saved more lives in the past century than any other medical achievement, but since its inception there have always been objectors and scare campaigns about the side effects.

Mary and Shelley were early users of vaccination. They had their son William vaccinated against smallpox in 1816.

Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, had smallpox scars on her face, and Mary herself contracted a dose when she was 32, while she was visiting her lesbian friends in Paris. She was ill for three weeks, and then, when recovered but sill marked and having lost some of her hair, she went briefly into Parisian society. She says: ‘It was rather droll to play the part of an ugly person for the first time in my life, yet it was very amusing to be told- or rather not to be told but to find my face was not all my fortune.’

She was not anxious to repeat the experience though, and retired to the coastal resort of Hastings for two months where the doctors assured her that regular sea bathing would heal her scars.

‘My poor hair it is a wonder I did not lose it all -but it has greatly suffered.’.

Edward Jenner was the pioneer who discovered that a cowpox vaccination could protect against smallpox. Prior to that, in the 18th century in Europe 400,000 people died every year from smallpox, across all levels of society. If they didn’t die, sufferers either went blind or were disfigured with scars. The term vaccination comes from Vacca, the Latin for cow.

Nevertheless there were many objectors to the practice. Some parents were worried about the scar, some thought it unchristian, and some speculated on terrible side effects. The 1802 cartoon below shows how some people thought of the disastrous outcomes – cows emerging from patients. Others suggested that the children vaccinated might grow horns.











It wasn’t until 1853 in the UK that vaccination was made compulsory for children under 3 months, and in 1867, for up to fourteen years old.

Smallpox was finally declared eradicated in 1979… But human nature doesn’t change.


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