Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 4. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Frankenstein

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XI. Lesser Novelists

§ 4. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Frankenstein

Its author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, has left on record the circumstances of its production. With her husband, Byron and Polidori, she occupied part of a wet summer in Switzerland in reading volumes of ghost stories translated from German into French. Byron suggested that each member of the party should write a ghost story. Mary Shelley waited long for an idea. Conversations between Shelley and Byron about the experiments of Darwin and the principle of life at length suggested to her the subject of Frankenstein.

  • At first I thought but of a few pages or of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develop the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world. From this declaration I must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirely written by him.
  • It has been held, nevertheless, that Mary Shelley, unaided, was incapable of writing so fine a story. “Nothing,” wrote Richard Garnett, “but an absolute magnetising of her brain by Shelley’s can account for her having risen so far above her usual self as in Frankenstein. Comparison of Frankenstein with a later work by Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826), may, perhaps, temper that judgment. The Last Man is a much longer work than Frankenstein. It describes the destruction, spread over many years, of the entire human race, all but one man, by an epidemic disease. The book shows many signs of effort and labour. The imaginative faculty often runs wild, and often flags. The social and political foresight displayed is but feeble. The work is unequal and extravagant. Yet, in The Last Man, there are indubitable traces of the power that created Frankenstein; and, if Mary Shelley, working in unhappy days at a task too comprehensive for her strength, could produce such a book as The Last Man, there is no reason for doubting her capacity, while in stimulating society and amid inspiring conversation, to reach the imaginative height of Frankenstein. To a modern reader, the introductory part, which relates to the Englishmen who met Frankenstein in the Polar seas, seems too long and elaborate; when the story becomes confined to Frankenstein and the monster that he created, the form is as pure as the matter is engrossing. And, unlike most tales of terror, Frankenstein is entirely free from anything absurd. The intellectual, no less than the emotional, level is maintained throughout. In Mary Shelley’s other principal novels, Valperga (1823), a romance of medieval Italy, to which her father Godwin gave some finishing touches, and Lodore (1835), a partly autobiographical story, there is clear evidence of a strong imagination and no little power of emotional writing, though both lack sustained mastery.