Sunday, 31 January 2010

Fantasmagoriana



It is alchemy that is Victor Frankenstein's first passion. He stumbles upon a book by the famous German alchemist Cornelius Agrippa and is hooked. From there he goes on to read Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. There is no doubt at all that he was fascinated by the occult.

The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought. . .

At university his professors dismiss these alchemists and he turns his attention towards 'natural philosophy' or the study of the natural world. But even though he uses physics and chemistry and mathematics, his urges is the same. He wants to discover the secret of life and to defeat death. The search for an elixir of life was another mainstay of alchemical research.

Victor does make reference to studying anatomy, but this seems to be only because he needs to understand the human form as a part of his work. Even then, he says that he thought about making a lower life form but a kind of arrogance made him go all out for creating a human. Interestingly in James Whale's sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein's mentor, Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), shows off some homuncili he's created.

Although the Shelleys were very interested in science - Mary had been taken by her father William Godwin to lectures by Humphrey Davy when she was fourteen and Percy Shelley had experimented with electricity while at university - they were also fascinated by the Gothic and the macabre.

The ghost story-writing competition in the summer of 1816 that gave birth to Frankenstein took place in Lord Byron's rented villa on the shores of Lake Geneva - the Villa Diodati. Byron, Shelley and John Polidori (Byron's travelling companion and doctor) held forth whilst Mary and her step-sister sister Claire sat apart listening. Electrical storms encouraged talk of galvanism but it also added to a charged atmosphere in which they read German ghost stories (collected under the title Fantasmagoriana) and frightened the wits out of each other. The Gothic novelist 'Monk' Lewis also visited that summer.

They were all very young, with mad, bad and dangerous to know Byron the oldest at twenty-eight. Shelley was twenty-four, Polidori twenty-one, Claire (who was pregnant with Byron's child) eighteen and Mary nineteen.

When Byron read an extract from Coleridge's Christabel, Percy Shelley had a fit and ran from the room screaming and had to be calmed by Polidori. That rainy summer of 1816 is also depicted at the beginning of Bride of Frankenstein, with Elsa Lanchester who plays the creature's mate, also playing Mary in conversation with Shelley and Byron.


Part science-fiction (a genre that arguably had never exited before) and part Gothic horror, Frankenstein also has a lot of Mary Shelley's life in it. The settings are almost all places that Mary herself visited. The novel was begun near Geneva where Victor's family lives. There is a fateful meeting with the creature on the Mer de Glace glacier at Chamonix - a place Mary visited that July. When Shelley had eloped to Europe with the then sixteen year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (and fifteen year-old Claire) in 1814, they had sailed back down the Rhine - a journey that Victor and Henry Clerval take on their way to England. As they floated down the Rhine, Mary and Shelley passed underneath Castle Frankenstein. The location is not used in the book, but the name seems to have caught Mary's ear. Castle Frankenstein actually accommodated an alchemist - Johann Conrad Dippel - but stories of his playing with cadavers seem to be a case of fiction influencing fact. Victor's character seems to have been superimposed onto Dippel's.

Death plays a big part in the book and in Mary's life. The nineteen year-old author also had more than her fair share of tragedy in her life. Mary's first child was premature and died shortly after. Between writing Frankenstein in 1816 and publication in January 1818, Percy's first wife Harriet and Mary's half-sister Fanny, both committed suicide. And things only got worse. Between the first publication and the second in 1831, Percy drowned at sea and Mary suffered the deaths of her baby daughter Clara and her young son William.

Authors never choose character names by accident - Victor is nicely ironic - and it seems strange that Mary chose the name William for the baby brother of Victor Frankenstein whom the monster murders. It certainly seemed a cruel twist of fate that her own son would subsequently die. It was also her father's name.

What would Freud have to say about all that I wonder?

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