Regency Artist: Amelia Curran

While I was reading the great biography, “Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein” by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, I noticed these words beside a picture of Claire Clairmont:  ” The only known portrait of Mary Shelley’s stepsister.  It was painted in 1819 by Amelia Curran.”

Naturally, I had to learn more about Ms. Curran.

Amelia was born in Ireland in the year 1775.  Not much is known about her life, but when she was in her twenties she traveled to Italy to study painting.  There she befriended the radical  Percy and Mary Shelley.

In 1812, Amelia accompanied Percy back to Ireland where he campaigned against the British government’s injustices.

Three of her paintings of Percy now hang in London’s National Portrait Gallery and are noted for capturing his strangely beautiful androgynous features.

Amelia completed this portrait of Mary and Percy’s son, William, not long before he succumbed to illness in Rome.  He was only three years-old.  It is the only known portrait of him to exist.

In 1821, whilst living in Naples, Amelia converted to Catholicism and excelled in copying portraits of Renaissance Madonnas.   Presumably, she never married, and died quietly in 1847.  She is buried in the Church of St. Isadore in Rome.

A Mad Tea Party of Characters

Not so very long ago, I begged the question of which authors you’d invite to a tea party.  Now inspired by a discussion over at the fabulous Filling Spaces blog, I present the ten characters from novels that I’d invite to a tea party.

As with any list, this proved to be a challenge.  One, it’s hard to narrow down thousands of great fictional characters. Two, while I may love to read about a certain character, it doesn’t mean that I would want, let’s say Cathy or  Heathcliffe over for Earl Grey and scones.

But anyhow, without further ado:

1. Miss Jane Marple:  the white-haired,  perceptive, ever-knitting spinster.   She could relate firsthand her experiences at the Caribbean, Bertram’s Hotel, or how she discovered who killed the body that was found in the library.

2. Hercule Poirot:  I would love to watch the fussy, eccentric man with the “little grey cells” trade stories with the quiet yet sharp Marple.

3.  Nanny Ogg- she can bring something she baked from her The Joye of Snackes.  And can regale us with her infamous rendition of, The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All. 

4. Granny Weatherwax:  Nanny’s best friend.   Nanny, is by the way, probably the only friend Granny has.

Modern,” said Granny Weatherwax, with a sniff. “When I was a gel, we had a lump of wax and a couple of pins and had to be content. We had to make our own enchantment in them days. — from Wyrd Sisters

5.  Frankenstein’s Monster- yes, that poor soul who was cast out into the world alone, who taught himself how to read, who was continuously spurned by everyone- would have a welcome seat at my table.

6. The Crow Girls from the Newford novels by Charles de Lint.  The twins live in trees, eat candy for breakfast, love the scent of bacon, and wield switchblades.  Sure, I’d have to keep an ever present eye on them as they don’t understand the concept of stealing, but they are so full of utter joy that they’d be a must.

7.  Count Fosco- the tea party would require at least one villian. This cultured and  refined mastermind, with his love of bonbons, and a total devotion to his  pet mice, would definitely spice things up.

8. Allan Quartermain- to hear of all his magnificent adventures.  And to invite myself on his next trip.

9.  Marian Halcombe- before Mina Harker,  there was the brilliant and collected Marian who helped solve the mystery of The Woman in White.  And since Count Fosco was not-so-secretly in love with her…

10.  Carrot Ironfoundersson- the six-foot adopted dwarf from Disc World.   Utterly sweet and helpful to anyone in need, the always naive Carrot is hilarious in his proclivity of taking everything literally.

Who would you invite to your mad tea party?

How Contemporaries viewed Frankenstein

  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

1. “This novel is a feeble imitation of one that was very popular in its day,–the St. Leon of Mr. Godwin. It exhibits many characteristics of the school whence it proceeds; and occasionally puts forth indications of talent; but we have been very much disappointed in the perusal of it, from our expectations having been raised too high beforehand by injudicious praises; and it exhibits a strong tendency towards materialism.

The main idea on which the story of Frankenstein rests, undoubtedly affords scope for the display of imagination and fancy, as well as knowledge of the human heart; and the anonymous author has not wholly neglected the opportunities which it presented to him: but the work seems to have been written in great haste, and on a very crude and ill-digested plan; and the detail is, in consequence, frequently filled with the most gross and obvious inconsistencies….

We have heard that this work is written by Mr. Shelley; but should be disposed to attribute it to even a less experienced writer than he is. In fact we have some idea that it is the production of a daughter of a celebrated living novelist.”- excerpt from Literary Panorama and National Register, June 1818


2. “…So concludes this extraordinary tale, in which the author seems to us to disclose uncommon powers of poetic imagination. The feeling with which we perused the unexpected and fearful, yet, allowing the possibility of the event, very natural conclusion of Frankenstein’s experiment, shook a little even our firm nerves; although such and so numerous have been the expedients for exciting terror employed by the romantic writers of the age, that the reader may adopt Macbeth’s words with a slight alteration:

“We have supp’d full with horrors
Direness, familiar to our “callous” thoughts,
Cannot once startle us.”

…It is no slight merit in our eyes, that the tale, though wild in incident, is written in plain and forcible English, without exhibiting that mixture of hyperbolical Germanisms with which tales of wonder are usually told, as if it were necessary that the language should be as extravagant as the fiction. The ideas of the author are always clearly as well as forcibly expressed; and his descriptions of landscape have in them the choice requisites of truth, freshness, precision, and beauty.

…Upon the whole, the work impresses us with a high idea of the author’s original genius and happy power of expression. We shall be delighted to hear that he has aspired to the paullo majorica; and, in the meantime, congratulate our readers upon a novel which excites new reflections and untried sources of emotion. If Gray’s definition of Paradise, to lie on a couch, namely, and read new novels, come any thing near truth, no small praise is due to him, who, like the author of Frankenstein, has enlarged the sphere of that fascinating enjoyment.”- Sir Walter Scott writing for the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, April 1818

Published in: on June 6, 2010 at 5:11 pm  Comments (11)  
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John Polidori and The Vampyre

 On a frigid June evening in 1816,  Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Shelley), Claire Clairmont, and Doctor John Polidori huddled together in their summerhouse on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.    With a  thunderstorm raging outside, Byron  passed the time by reading out loud from Das Gespensterbuch (The Ghost Book). Upon finishing, he challenged each occupant to write a ghost story.  Mary Godwin would go on to pen, Frankenstein.  

John Polidori would pen the first English vampire tale, The Vampyre.

 The darkly handsome physician had always been ambivalent towards the medical profession.   Sensitive and insecure, Polidori had been bullied as a child and turned to poetry for solace.  Now he wished to win Byron’s respect.   Unfortunately, the infamous poet never missed out on a chance to mock Polidori’s literary ambitions.

The day after the challenge was announced, Polidori wrote in his journal, “The ghost-stories begun by all but me.” 

Byron began a piece featuring a mysterious aristocrat named, Augustus Darvell, who made the narrator of the story promise to bury him after he died, but to tell no one of where.   More at home with poetry than prose, Byron soon abandoned his ghost story.

Mary Godwin Shelley later recollected, “Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole.”

Polidori abandoned that story and at some point turned his attention towards, The Vampyre.  Leaving behind the hideous features of Nosferatu, Polidori modeled his vampire into a sauve, sexually-attractive gentleman.  Naming the vampire, Lord Ruthven, (pronounced with a silent “th”) was hardly coincidental.  Byron’s spurned lover, Caroline Lamb, had used the same name in her own novel, Glenarvon, a fictionalized account of their affair. 

  Polidori cast himself as the innocent Aubrey who dies in a failed attempt to save his sister from the clutches of Lord Ruthven.

Evil triumphed.

The Vampyre first appeared in the New Monthly Magazine on April 1, 1819.   The story had reached the magazine editors along with a note regarding the circumstances of which it had come about during the summer of 1816.   The letter also claimed Byron as its author.  After Byron denied authorship, Polidori came forth, explaining in a letter to the magazine editor, “I beg leave to state, that your correspondent has been mistaken in attributing that tale, in its present form, to Lord Byron.  The fact is, that though the groundwork is certainly Lord Byron’s, its development is mine. . .”

Although Byron continued to deny authorship, and stated he disliked the whole subject of vampires and had no interest in writing about them, many readers still believed the famous poet was the author of the tale.  Byron’s suspected involvement in writing the tale, helped spur huge sales.   Polidori’s fragile ego was smashed once again.  To make matters worse, the book had been registered by the book publisher, which meant that Polidori lost the copyright.  The Vampyre became a bestseller.   Within two years, the novel was translated into German, French, Spanish, and Swedish. Polidori received a token payment of thirty pounds.

Polidori continued his literary pursuits.  In 1819 he published an unsuccessful play entitled, Ximenes.   This was followed by Ernestus Berchtold: The Modern Oedipus, a seamy tale involving the supernatural and incest.  Only 199 copies were sold.

 By 1821, Polidori was back living with his family in London, and deeply in debt.

On August 24th, 1821, John Polidori committed suicide.  It was a month before his twenty-sixth birthday.

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Passionate Life

“Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye. “- Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft  was born in London, England on  27 April 1759, the second eldest of six children.   Emotionally neglected by both parents,  she often slept outside her mother’s bedroom to protect  her from Mary’s father when he came home in drunken fits.    Neither parent cared about her education, resulting in Mary only having a few years of schooling. 

From an early age, Mary decided, “I must be independent and earn my own subsistence or be very uncomfortable.”   She escaped home at the age of nineteen and became a companion to a wealthy widow.   In 1783 , with the money she’d earned,  Mary opened a school at Newington Green, outside of London.   Around this time, she penned her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which advocated independent thought, self-discipline, and rationality.    It was published by Joseph Johnson in 1787.   After informing him of her plans of becoming a full-time writer, he helped Mary find an abode in London. 

There, Mary entered a new world of ideas and intellectual debate.  Invited to Johnson’s afternoon dinners she conversed with other writers, artists, and political revolutionaries.   The liberal Johnson had published works by Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and the mystical poet and painter, William Blake.  Mary fell madly in love with the artist, Henry Fuseli, most famous for his erotic painting, The Nightmare.   Mary was twenty-nine to his forty-seven.  He fascinated her with his  tales of visiting prostitutes and his pornographic drawings.   At a time when proper ladies were supposed to deny their own sexual desires,  Mary welcomed Fuseli speaking to her in such a frank manner.   And not treating her as a fragile doll who shouldn’t hear of such things.  She was devastated when he broke up with her and married one of his models, Sophia Rawlins.

To escape her pain, Mary threw herself into her writing.   The  French Revolution which had begun in 1789 inspired Mary and her circle.  Many believed it would spread to England.  Parliment member, Edmund Burke, condemned the destruction of the French aristocracy in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Mary defended the Revolution in Vindication of the Rights of Man.  In 1790, the second printing had her name attached to it, and she became a bonafide heroine to all English supporters of the cause. 

The Revolution with its dreams of liberty inspired many female writers to critique their subservient place in society.  Six weeks later Mary wrote, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.   In it she urged women to fight for their civil and political rights.  She claimed the only difference between men and women stemmed from upbringing rather than biology.   If girls were granted the same education as boys they would be able to find employment and be financially independent.    “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves. ”  She encouraged women to rise “from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away.”  The book made Mary one of the most famous women in Europe.

  In 1792  she traveled to France.    The common people had triumphed.  Joie de vivre spilled out through the streets.     Love affairs were encouraged; celibacy denounced as unhealthy and unnatural.  

But for all the mirth, the Revolution was entering a heightened, dangerous phase.  In January 1793, after King Louis XVI was guillotined, England and Spain declared war on France.  Now, in France,  foreigners were looked upon with suspicion.   Rumors  spread of guards arresting people in the middle of the night.  Mary feared for her life and almost  fled the country.  But she had met a new man: American  Gilbert Imlay.

Imlay, born in New Jersey, had fought in the American Revolution, and  now worked in business (much of it shady).   Even though Imlay admitted to having simultaneous relationships with other women, Mary fell deeply in love.  With Imlay, she wrote in her diary,  she experienced orgasms for the first time.  

The happiness did not last.   On a personal level, Imlay began spending much time away on business.  On a global scale, the radical French leader, Robespierre, rose to power and the Terror began.  Thousands of people (including many of Mary’s own friends who had supported the Revolution) were sent to the guillotine.    In October, the British people living in Paris were rounded up.   Luckily,  Imlay had registered Mary as both his wife and an American citizen. It was at this perilous time that Mary discovered she was  pregnant.   She spent her days working on a new book, A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution.  To  report accurately, she forced herself to go to the Place de la Revolution and watch the  daily beheadings.

On May 14th, Mary gave birth to Fanny.   When Mary joined Imlay, who had gone back to London, he informed her he didn’t want to be husband or father.  Mary attempted suicide by taking laudanum.  Imlay discovered the note she’d left and found her in time.   Afterwards, Mary tried to fight off her depression by traveling around Europe with Fanny and a nursemaid.  Nevertheless, when she returned to London and discovered Imlay  living with another woman,  she attempted suicide for a second time.   If the first attempt was a mere cry for help, there is little doubt that the second time she really wished to die.  Her letter to Imlay expressed: “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, I shall be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold. . . . I shall plunge into the Thames where there is least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude”

  She stepped out one rainy October afternoon,  rented a small boat, and rowed it over to the less crowded Putney Bridge.   Welcoming death, she plunged into the Thames River.    She  expected to sink quickly as her clothes had become soaking wet from the rain.  Instead, water filled her lungs and she choked.  A  witness jumped in and rushed Mary  to a doctor who resuscitated her.

Of the suicide attempt, Mary wrote: ” I have only to lament, that, when the bitterness of death was past, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery. But a fixed determination is not to be baffled by disappointment; nor will I allow that to be a frantic attempt, which was one of the calmest acts of reason. In this respect, I am only accountable to myself. Did I care for what is termed reputation, it is by other circumstances that I should be dishonoured.”

Afterwards, Imlay offered Mary financial help but she wrote to him for the last time in 1796 refusing his help and saying she departed with him in peace.  Since death had not embraced her as she had expected it to,  Mary stoically decided to get on with her life.   With this new determination, Mary penned, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.   The  book brought her the adoring attention of William Godwin.

From the outside it appeared a bizarre pairing.  Mary was passionate and freespirited.  William, shy and withdrawn.     The former minister had become a founding father of anarchism with his book, Political Justice.   In it, Godwin spoke out against government and envisioned a future society where  people lived harmoniously in total freedom.  

They became very close friends but both were hesitant to make the first step towards romance.  William, being naturally timid, and Mary hesitant to give her heart away again after the disasterous affairs with Fuseli and Imlay.  But by 1796 they could no longer deny their love.  In Godwin, Mary found her soulmate.  They wrote several letters every day to each other; sharing a love for literature, philosophy, and idealistic dreams of a future utopian society.  They calculated Mary’s menstrual cycle for safe times to have sex.   The rhythm method worked as well as always; Mary was pregnant by December.

Godwin considered marriage  a form of slavery for women  (it should be remembered  at this time women surrendered all financial and bodily rights to their husband).    But when Mary voiced her fears of another child suffering illegitimacy,  he agreed to their getting wed.

On August 30th, Mary went into labor and gave birth to Mary Godwin(who would become famous as the authoress of Frankenstein) that evening.   However, the placenta never came out and a doctor was forced to take out the broken pieces by hand.  The procedure, without any painkillers, took several hours.   The doctor did not sterilize his hands or equipment causing an infection.   Eleven days later, with Godwin by her side,  Mary Wollstonecraft passed away.

The conservative Anti-Jacobin Review stated the cause of her death clearly depicted the differences in the sexes, and claimed it,  “the destiny of woman.”

Godwin was too distraught to attend the funeral.  He wrote his friend, Thomas Holcroft, “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.”

Godwin channeled his grief into devoting all his time to his wife’s memory.  Inspired by Rousseau’s candid Confessions, Godwin sought to write a vivid, true portrait of his wife. He gathered all her diaries and letters and published, Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”.   He believed the honest portrait would enamor people to his beloved wife.  That they would see her as a strong woman who had lived and loved passionately with all her being.   In the preface he wrote, ”  I cannot easily prevail on myself to doubt, that the more fully we are presented with the picture and story of such persons as the subject of the following narrative, the more generally shall we feel in ourselves an attachment to their fate and a sympathy in their excellencies.”   However, England had become increasingly conservative and the Tory press nearly demonized Mary for enjoying premarital sex and for her suicide attempts.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation remained shattered for over a century.  Women were cautioned that no self-respecting female should ever read her works.   Largely ignored even by 19th century suffrage activists,  it was not until the twentieth century that she was embraced by such luminaries as Virginia Woolfe and Emma Goldman. 

Today, Mary Wollstonecraft  has reclaimed her place  as the mother of the feminist movement.   And unlike many of the members who believed they had to deny their feminine side in order to be equal to men, Mary embraced her femininity.   She  was as unafraid to love as she was to speak out against social and political injustice.

“It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust — ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out, which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable — and life is more than a dream. “- Mary Wollstonecraft


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