The birth of a monster

Did you know that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written in Bath, while the author was living in a house near the abbey? To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the spooktastic book, we explore some of the key locations that helped bring the tale to life, including Bath, Marlow and London, and uncover the true story behind the work’s mysterious and scandalous author

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first publication of one of the most famous novels ever written – Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley.

Still a teenager when she wrote her grisly tale of a talented young scientist who creates a grotesque creature in his laboratory, Mary Shelley was actually living in Bath when she penned a large part of her book – a fact not always acknowledged in accounts of the novel’s creation.

So while we’re all familiar with the tale’s celebrated monster, and particularly Boris Karloff’s haunting cinematic interpretation, its creator remains an enigma. Why is that we so little celebrate Mary Shelley, despite her dreaming up one of the most iconic characters ever imagined?

A life of scandal

Perhaps it’s because Mary lived a messy, scandalous and often itinerant life. Her parents, the pioneering feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft and the philosopher and writer William Godwin, were political radicals who were critical of marriage and advocates of free love.
When Mary was born, the family were living in a house in Somers Town, London – a fashionable district that would, in later decades, be transformed by the coming of the railway system.

Although the house is no longer standing, what is now Polygon Road is named after the group of buildings where they lived, and there is a plaque dedicated to Wollstonecraft on Oakshott Court.

Wollstonecraft died less than two weeks after Mary’s birth, likely due to an infection introduced during the delivery. An inspirational figure with a small but impressive literary legacy that surely influenced her daughter, Wollstonecraft would cast a long shadow over Mary’s life.

Her grave at St Pancras Old Church was certainly an important place for Mary when she was growing up. In fact, it was here that the young author, aged just 16, sat with her 21-year-old lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to plan their elopement together.

Circle of fiends

Mary soon left for Europe with Percy – a married man with a young family. The relationship was scandalous, so much so that Mary’s otherwise progressive father severed contact with the couple.

To further stoke the flames of controversy, Mary and Percy went on to befriend some of the most notorious writers and intellectuals of the time, not least of all the romantic poet Lord Byron. He had recently left his wife and daughter, and rumours had spread about an incestuous affair with his half-sister.

Byron was famously deemed “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, and perhaps this is exactly the kind of notoriety that appealed to Mary and Percy when they set out to spend a summer with the young nobleman in the Swiss Alps.

While there, the group of young intellectuals read ghost stories to one another, all getting variously spooked – and Percy even hallucinated.In fact, so galvanised were they by the evening’s eerie tales that the friends agreed to each write a ghost story.

At first Mary struggled to come up with an idea. She perhaps felt intimidated by the achievements of her older companions – Percy and Byron had both published works despite only being in their twenties.

Then, one evening, Mary had a “waking dream”. In it, she saw a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” It was a breakthrough. The pale student would later become Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of her great novel, and the thing he had put together would, of course, be the wretched monster himself.

Birthed in Bath

Although the concept for Frankenstein came to life in the Swiss Alps, the heavy labour of writing the novel was largely done in Bath, where Mary and Percy lived for a time.

The couple resided at 5 Abbey Churchyard, and earlier this year the city of Bath unveiled a plaque dedicated to Mary Shelley and her novel, marking the spot where their house once stood. The city’s Victorian-era Pump Room now occupies the space where they lived – a popular restaurant that’s perfect for afternoon tea.

While in Bath, Mary attended lectures, including scientific demonstrations by Dr Wilkinson. He claimed that electricity would one day bring inanimate matter to life – surely an inspiration for the young author grappling with how to bring her monster into existence on the page.

Ever restless, Percy and Mary soon moved to Marlow, where Mary would finish writing Frankenstein. There they lived in Albion House, West Street, which still stands today, with its white stucco façade and Gothic windows.

Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was published anonymously on 1 January 1818. It received mixed reviews at the time, much of which were given over to speculations about the author’s identity – widely assumed to be a man.

Immortal monster

The book has since become a classic, inspiring innumerable plays, films and ballets. Just recently, a stage production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle, played to sold out houses at the National Theatre.

Best of all perhaps are the Frankenstein movies produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s, starring Boris Karloff as the neck-bolted monster. These black and white blockbusters made a star of the London-born Karloff (real name William Henry Pratt) and his version of the monster is now ubiquitous. You can see a blue plaque on the house where he was born at 36 Forest Hill Road, London.

Looking back, it’s clear that Mary’s complex life, full of scandal and constant migrations, as well as her decision to publish Frankenstein anonymously, has contributed to her lack of celebrity – and this despite her huge success as an author. Perhaps after 200 years she will finally get the recognition she deserves.