Skip to main content
Opening times this week:
Two performers on stage in Frankenstein.

Creating Frankenstein: The Story of the Story

With Frankenstein coming to Northern Stage between 30 April – 2 May, Dr Lauren Randall explores the story behind Mary Shelley’s iconic novel. 

‘I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so very frequently asked me, ‘How I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?’’ Mary Shelley from Author’s Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition, Frankenstein (1831 ed)

Since its first anonymous publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus has had a ferocious influence and impact on storytelling and popular culture. Cited as the first science-fiction novel and regarded as a titan of both Gothic and Romantic literature, Shelley’s contemplation of the human condition has captivated and terrorised imaginations, becoming a template and touchstone for similar narrative explorations and a reference ingrained in society. It is likely that a person who might not have read the novel itself would still be familiar with the machinations and components of its story, consciously or not: the creation gone wrong, exploring the possibilities and boundaries of life and death, the beauty and brutality of the natural world, the responsibility of parenting. Frankenstein speaks to the ever-changing world within and around it, while acknowledging the unknowns that haunt the past, present and progress. That is the enduring legacy of the novel: a story full of endless possibility, wonder and fear.

And Shelley was just shy of her nineteenth birthday when she began writing her story that changed the world. The tale of Frankenstein’s genesis is marvellous, a ghost story within a ghost story that feels too good to be true. (Indeed, it has even inspired stories and films of its own, including Ken Russell’s bombastic Gothic in 1986, starring a young Natasha Richardson as our authoress). Perhaps there is some artistic license taken but it comes from Shelley’s own hand, recalled in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel: ‘In the summer of 1816 we visited Switzerland and became the neighbours of Lord Byron…’ (p.6). Known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’, 1816 saw storms and cold temperatures sweep central Europe. Confined indoors while the ‘incessant rain’ (p.6) raged outside, Byron, Shelley, her lover Percy Bysshe (P.B.) Shelley, and Byron’s physician John Polidori decided to see who could write the best ghost story, inspired by a German collection they had been reading together. P.B. Shelley and Byron (who had suggested the competition) produced fragments of stories, whilst Polidori incorporated one of Byron’s (allegedly) abandoned ideas into his more developed narrative. The Vampyre was published in 1819, one year after Frankenstein; one of the earliest iterations of a vampire tale printed in the English language, it forged long-lasting tropes for those that followed, particularly the image of a powerful, sexual, corrupting aristocrat vampire. In other circumstances, Polidori’s creation would have been the most memorable creation of that contest.

Mary Shelley was the last to contribute a story until a late-night conversation with Byron turned to the ‘the nature of the principle of life’, the possibility of reanimating a corpse and the theory of galvanism: ‘perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth’ (p.8). Her Introduction describes how later that night, not quite asleep or awake, her imagination conjured up this creation and its repercussions on the creature’s maker: ‘[The] success would terrify the artist […]. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which had communicated would fade’ (p.9). Delighted that ‘what terrified’ her would ‘terrify the others’ in her company, Frankenstein was born.

Yet, as Shelley writes: ‘Every thing must have a beginning […]; and that beginning must be linked to something that went before’ (p.8). Though Shelley’s ‘waking dream’ (p.9) brought her creation to life, Frankenstein, much like its Creature, is made from many parts, brought forwards from the past. The essence of Shelley’s novel might appear simple – a scientist strives to create a new form of life – but it is bound in complex narrative threads and contemplations fused from the literary, philosophical and political influences, and personal tragedies, acquired by the author throughout her nineteen years.

These influences include, but are certainly not limited to: the visceral, terrifying beauty of the sublime in the natural world, as explored in the Romantic works of Shelley’s contemporaries; the mythology of Greek titan Prometheus, who delivered knowledge and technology to humanity, and whom Roman poet Ovid depicts in Metamorphoses (8 AD) as making mankind out of clay; the fall of man and banishment of Satan in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), which appears in Frankenstein as a tool for the Creature to develop language and learning; Shelley’s mother, writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, who died eleven days after giving birth to her daughter and whose seminal essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) argued that fair education and opportunity for women was vital to society’s progression; Shelley’s father, William Godwin, whose anarchist writings scrutinised institutional powers; the Age of Enlightenment and its ideology that knowledge could be pursued and obtained by reason – which Shelley challenges by proposing that humanity is not rational, capable or responsible enough to understand some of the discoveries it might make; Shelley’s travels through Europe with her lover Percy; the loss of her own child when she is just seventeen and the birth of a second by the time they arrive at that villa in Geneva in the summer of 1816.

Of course, the story of Frankenstein does not end there. The novel was an almost immediate success, so much so that Shelley was able to see a thriving stage adaptation by Richard Brinsley Peake just five years after its first publication, which she writes of having enjoyed. It received its first cinematic treatment in 1910, a thirteen-minute silent film by J. Searle Dawley thought lost for decades, before James Whale’s iconic and groundbreaking 1931 horror film for Universal Pictures, starring Boris Karloff in Jack Pierce’s legendary make-up. An astonishing amount and array of adaptations have followed, from faithful recreations to interactions with Kaiju, Grand Guignol, Blaxploitation, postmodern storytelling, stop-motion animation, the modern day, the future and some classic Mel Brooks humour. Frankenstein has also appeared in stories that do not even say its name, becoming the blueprint for the mad scientist and unloving maker, the amalgamation of horror and science and the
seemingly monstrous as a victim of society.

The mutability and continued relevance of Frankenstein is a product of how Shelley builds a body of eternal questions. Why are we here? What is our place in the world? How do we move forwards? What are our responsibilities as both created and creators of life? And the true horror of Frankenstein is what happens when those questions are not treated with respect. ‘I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper,’ writes Shelley in her 1831 introduction (p.10). Sent out in the world, nurtured and full with the foundations of life, Frankenstein thrives as an integral part of our cultural fabric. You could argue that the way in which her progeny has prospered is beyond her wildest dreams – but then we know just how wild her dreams were.

Dr. Lauren Randall
Mary Shelley, ‘Author’s Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition [1831]’, Frankenstein (Penguin Group: London, 1994), pp. 5-10.

Book your tickets for Frankenstein at Northern Stage to experience more of Shelley’s thrilling story.