Finally – we’re now into properly famous and recognisable Gothic. These are the books that so captured the imagination, their public perception has changed them far beyond the author’s original conception. Primary example: Frankenstein was in the inventor not the monster. Really and truly. I’ve read, and re-read the book, I’ve taught it to several exam classes, and even I find myself slipping up at times (or sounding like an unbearable pedant) because the fact of the matter is that Mary Shelley’s book introduced Frankenstein to the world, but the story just has a life of its own.
In fact people know of Frankenstein so well through so many sources that the original book can be something of an unpleasant shock. Everyone knows who Frankenstein is (even if 99% of them are wrong – see bold type above), but few 21st centuries readers would relish being put on the spot and asked to explain who ‘A Modern Prometheus’ might be. It’s Shelley’s sub-title. The novel was published as ‘Frankenstein: or, The Modern Promethius’, because readers at the time would then been familiar with the Promethius of classical mythology who created human beings, may have stolen the secret of fire from the gods (in some versions), and was punished for his presumption. The word ‘Modern’ is important because, even though the novel is framed by wonderful, sublime, isolated landscapes, the invention itself takes place in the city of Ingolstadt and relies on cutting edge technology. If the 18th century gave us the terror-Gothic (Lewis), the historical-Gothic (Walpole) and the mystery-Gothic (Radcliffe) we now have science-fiction-Gothic and I feel very justified in my assertion that this genre has given birth to or influenced pretty much every major literary movement in the last two and a half centuries.
It does help to be aware of this timeline when reading the book though. It is belongs to a previous age in writing where sentences were long, paragraphs were longer and people really liked descriptions ofsublime scenery. The book does not begin with Frankenstein (man or monster) but with someone who has completely dropped out of most cultural re-tellings and who can be a shock to unwary readers. It’s that cypher of exposition – Robert Walton; he writes letters and listens to stories. He has the voice for the first part of the story and there’s quite a lot of him before the science-fiction terror gets started. I have a lot of fondness for him and he is great at location setting, but I know that he can be a barrier to getting stuck in so please do bear with him when you pick up the book. If you can forget your impatience to meet the main characters, there is much to enjoy in the initial letters…
I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has travelled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes. Inspirited by this wind of promise, my daydreams become more fervent and vivid. I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is forever visible, its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There—for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators—there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle and may regulate a thousand celestial observations that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent forever. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river. But supposing all these conjectures to be false, you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind, to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole to those countries, to reach which at present so many months are requisite; or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet, which, if at all possible, can only be effected by an undertaking such as mine.
Mary Shelly is so clever! She not only created a classic, timeless monster, but she wrote one of the best crafted books in English literature. There are three narrators in the novel (Walton, Frankenstein and the monster) and their stories fit inside each other like a pass-the parcel with the gem of a fairytale at the centre.
It’s very clever, very powerful and, overall, a very very good book!