Mary Shelley And The Night That Birthed Frankenstein

In the summer of 1816 a cold spell swept across Europe and North America.   The unusual chill caused snowfall in July and unparalleled thunderstorms.   Pamphlets were passed around predicting the end of the world.

During June of that year,  five of the most famous persons in the world gathered together in a summerhouse in Villa Diodati, on the southern shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.  “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know”*- Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, ethereal Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont (eighteen years-old and pregnant with Byron’s child), and her stepsister, Mary Godwin (mistress to the married Shelley).

Mary Godwin (later Shelley) was born on August 30, 1797 to the radical political philosopher William Godwin, and  founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (authoress of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”).   Mr. Godwin never got over the death of  his wife who died due to complications during childbirth.  He taught young Mary to spell her name by tracing the letters on her mother’s tombstone.

Although both Godwin and Wollstonecraft had been disciples of the free love movement, he was outraged when his own daughter began a love affair with the married poet and refused to speak with her.

Mary had spent her childhood haunted by the idea that she’d murdered her mother and  was determined to prove her consequent life worthy.   It had not been easy growing up the child of famed revolutionaries.   Now,  practically disowned by the father she adored, and in the company of  the poetic geniuses, Byron and Percy, Mary felt an even greater need to prove herself.

On June 16, 1816, as candles flickered and lightning illuminated the room, Byron read from Fantasmagoriana,  a volume of German shudder stories translated into French.  Upon finishing, he challenged everyone in the room to write a ghost story.  This was just the incitement Mary needed.

Mary wrote, “I busied myself to think of a story,- a story to rival those which had excited us to this task.  One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror.”  

However, Mary was unable to think of an idea until June 22nd.   On that evening, the conversation turned to, “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.”  They discussed the experiments of Erasmus Darwin who had, “preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.”

Mary began imagining a corpse re-animated.    Past midnight, she found herself unable to sleep.  “My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.”   Her eyes closed, she saw, “a pale student of unhallowed arts….kneeling beside the thing he had put together.  I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

Mary opened her eyes, but she was not able to dismiss the “hideous phantom”.  She later recalled thinking, “O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night.”  A few moments later she realized,  “I have found it!”

The next morning, Mary announced she had thought of a story.  Along with the dream, she brought with her  a lifetime spent devouring the works of Goethe, Dante, Schiller, Shakespeare, Milton, and Matthew “Monk” Lewis.

In writing, Frankenstein ; or, The Modern  Prometheus, she would further utilize the theory of vitalism which held that a life force separated living things from  non-living things.  Some believed in a connection between vitalism (or elan vital) and electricity.  In 1803,  Giovanni Aldini had claimed to make dead bodies sit up and raise their arms by applying electricity. 

Mary’s first words were, “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.” ( This opening spoken by Dr. Victor Frankenstein would later become the opening of chapter 4 in the 1818 edition and chapter 5 in the revised 1831 version).

Dr. Frankenstein discovers the secrets of creating life.  After gathering human parts from charnel houses, he infuses the spark of life into the being.  However, Frankenstein is immediately horrified at the ugliness of his own creation.    He casts the Monster out into the unfeeling world.  This Monster- sensitive and tender- seeks understanding from Man but is constantly spurned until he chooses suicide.

The Monster cries out,”I shall die.   I shall no longer feel the agonies which now consume me, or be the prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched.”

As Mary began penning what at first was only intended to be a short story, she could have no idea that she was creating one of the most enduring characters ever invented.   The  unnamed Monster, rejected by his own father, (as Mary had been rejected by hers) would outlive all of the five men and women gathered together in that villa on the shores of lake Geneva.

*quote by Lady Caroline Lamb- lover to Lord Byron


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26 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Curious that the one scene in all the movie adaptations, the most famous scene connected to the story is in fact not present in the original work. Mary omitted the actual process of the revivification of the “Monster”.

  2. Hey Ralfast,

    Very good point. I think she made the right choice. It leaves it up to the reader’s imagination. And the less she tried to explain it scientifically, the less chance of people coming along and saying, “that couldn’t work that way because blah blah blah…”

    But it does work perfectly in the film. “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

  3. The learning to spell her name tracing it on the gravestone is definitely creepy but powerful all the same.

  4. Colby,

    I know. Isn’t it? I can’t remember how my parents taught me, but I know it didn’t involve strolls through the cemetery. 🙂

  5. Another fascinating post. See, if we’d covered stuff like *this* in my history classes, I might have bothered to take more in college…

    I wonder what it says about me that while reading this my first thought was: “man, I need a writing group like that.”

  6. Amy,

    Thank you so much! I’m really glad you liked the post. I plan on writing pieces on everyone mentioned here in the next couple of weeks.

    “I wonder what it says about me that while reading this my first thought was: “man, I need a writing group like that.”

    Amy- me, too. me, too. I love people who live passionately.

  7. I would be too intimidated by a group like that to even show up for the meetings! I haven’t read the book. I guess like many people I felt I knew the story so well already after years of various cinematic productions. I’m still reading “Dracula” at the moment.

  8. DD:

    It is a must read. Great story. I recommend it.

  9. One of my favorite books, although I haven’t picked it up in years. Terrific post. I’m with Colby, the creepiest part is Mary learning to write her name by tracing her mother’s tombstone.

    Once she’d written Frankenstein, she’d have done better to dump Shelley — I can only imagine being married to him would be like listening only to Depeche Mode for the rest of your life. When I was in high school and wanted to appear deep, I used to quote one of his poems. I think it was: “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity, until death shatters it into fragments.”

  10. Hey D D!

    How are you enjoying Dracula? The beginning of it in the castle is so creepy. Unfortunately, the middle becomes quite muddled. But all-in-all I think it’s a great story with some really sublime moments.

  11. Hey Ralfast!


  12. Hey Unfocused Me,

    Thank you so much! Your compliment is much appreciated. 🙂

    Regarding their relationship- it’s true that Shelley could be a major jerk. And being married to him was *definitely* not easy. But Mary always remained totally in love with him.

    All the people in that group had really painful lives, but at the same time were the type of people who thrived on emotional intensity.

    heh heh…I *like* Depeche Mode.

  13. Wonderful article. 🙂
    Thank you. 🙂

  14. Thank you, Steve!


    Oh, I was just over at your blog. I left a comment but it didn’t seem to post. (not sure if you have it set that it needs to be moderated or not). Anyway, your novel sounds really cool.

  15. Well, Dracula does kind of bog down in places, but it’s picking up steam now. I’m to the part where they’re nosing around the Count’s house in London. It’s interesting to read something penned by a man at that time, specifically when Van Helsing says Mina has “the brain of a man in the body of a woman” which I had to really kind of chuckle at.

    I’ll definitely pick up “Frankenstein”, I’m on a bit of a classics kick right now.

  16. Hey D D,

    Enjoy! And never fear- I have a long list of recommendations to feed your kick. 🙂

  17. Frankenstein — fab book! I’ve always loved the behind-the-scenes story of the creation of it. Thanks for retelling it here!

    Oh, and Amy — I was thinking the same thing, lol!

  18. Hey Jen,

    Glad you liked it. 🙂

    I know- the true story of all those fascinating figures gathered together is so delicious. How can any writer not love it?

  19. Always fascinating stuff here. I love taking a new look at old classics with you.
    I’m with the other folks who thought young Mary’s learning to spell her name by tracing it on her mother’s headstone was creepy!

  20. Thanks so much, Dominique! 🙂

    and yes- creepy, indeed!

  21. I have to say, this has been very great help to me. I’m a year 11 student and I have been trying to find out as much information as I can on Mary Shelley and the effect the ideas and events that happened during her life time had on her work (Frankenstein). I would be extremely grateful if I am allowed to use some of the information as a side reference to explain why Victor is the way he is and his similarities to Mary and her Father.

  22. Hi Moni,

    Nice to meet you. I’m really glad my article helped you. 🙂

    Oh, definitely feel free to use any info mentioned here. And there’s no need to mention me or my site, unless, of course, you quote me directly.

    Best of luck to you regarding your schoolwork- and stop by here anytime.

    I should also mention the infamous quote uttered about Byron, “Mad, bad,and dangerous to know”- was by his lover, Lady Caroline Lamb. I’ll add that info to the post now.

  23. Thanks oh so very much!

  24. You’re very welcome, Moni.

    Good luck with your school paper.

    It was very good of you to ask in advance.

    Just let me know if you do quote any of my own writing from it. I’d be curious where my words (and my name and blog) ended up. 🙂

  25. Hi Gypsyscarlett

    I love all these gothic stories and have been a fan of both Percy and Mary Shelley ever since I was about 17. Mary was a great annotator of Shelley’s poems and added some wonderful biographical notes to the edition published after his death. But he was a terrible novelist and he interfered too much (in my opinion) with her novel Frankenstein.

    I was very excited therefore when last year the Bodleian Library published Mary’s original draft for the first time. This has been carefully reconstructed by Professor Charles E. Robinson and the book includes both her original draft and the published version with Percy’s changes.

    It’s called The Original Frankenstein and you can buy it online at

    It’s well worth getting if you’re interested in Mary’s authentic voice.

    The full details are:

    The Original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (with Percy Shelley) edited by Charles E. Robinson, 448 pp, Hardback, £14.99, ISBN: 1 85124 396 8 / 978 1 85124 396 9.

    Love your blog.

  26. Hi Joseph,

    Nice to meet you. 🙂

    Thank you so much for all that great infomation. I’ll have to see about getting the book in the future. I have read that Percy favored a more ornate style, while Mary preferred more straightforward, simple Anglo-Saxon.

    Also, Mary’s original ending was “…I soon lost sight of him in the darkness and distance.” Which leaves it in the air whether the Monster dies or not.
    Percy took away that hope by changing it to, “…and lost in darkness and distance”.

    I’m very glad you like my blog. Much thanks!

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