Henningsen: Frankenstein At 200

Mar 7, 2018

The volcanic eruption of Tambora, in today’s Indonesia, produced an early modern example of climate change, causing catastrophic weather events that gave 1816 the title “year without a summer.”

During that summer, in faraway Switzerland, a turbulent group of literary rebels sought refuge from weather and scandal on the shores of Lake Geneva. Led by the notorious Lord Byron – at 28 already called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” - they included the as yet unknown poet Percy Shelley, his partner Mary Godwin, and her step-sister Claire Claremont. Though not yet married, 18-year-old Mary had already borne Shelley two children; Claire, also 18, had been carrying on affairs with both Shelley and Byron. Sealed in a dreary villa lashed by cold rain they sought refuge from external and internal turmoil by competing to see who could come up with the best horror story.

From this cauldron of bad weather, illicit passion, and creative effort emerged Frankenstein, which the by-then-married Mary Shelley published in 1818 – a wild and chilling gothic masterpiece emblematic of the emerging romantic movement in which the Shelleys and Byron played significant roles.

Widely regarded as the first modern science fiction novel, Frankenstein’s hold on the popular imagination has never weakened, nourished by countless plays and movies – even a ballet - to say nothing of the sustained attention of literary critics. Several new books and at least one movie will mark this year’s bicentennial anniversary.

Mary Shelley subtitled her novel The Modern Prometheus, inviting readers to focus not on the monster, but on his creator, portraying Dr. Frankenstein as a contemporary version of he who stole fire from the gods and suffered grievously for giving it to man. Published as Britain confronted the upheaval of industrial revolution, it forced readers then – as it pushes us now – to consider what the hand of man can produce and to reflect upon the unintended but often horrible consequences of what some might call progress. That this challenge was issued by a brilliant, independent woman commanded even greater attention. No Jane Austen she.

“It’s alive! It’s alive!” cries Colin Clive, playing Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 movie classic. And indeed it is. Frankenstein continues to stalk our imagination, still demanding answers to questions it raised two centuries ago.