It was a dark and stormy night, or at least a cold and rainy summer. The young people vacationing by the lake had were stuck indoors more than they’d hoped. After reading a series of ghost stories, they agreed each to write one. Three got ideas quickly but the fourth tossed and turned late into the night, wondering what to write. At last the image came to her of a student, kneeling beside a creature assembled from cast-off human parts, horrified by his own success in bringing it to life.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley began composing Frankenstein 200 years ago this summer. That was the heyday of gothic novels; Mary’s father had written two, and one of her fellow vacationers started a new sub-genre with his ghost story The Vampyre. Today it might require a power outage in a vacation spot with no cell phone signal, along with the bad weather, to inspire such a flurry of creativity.
The anonymous publication of Frankenstein in early 1818 brought mixed response. Sir Walter Scott praised it. The British Critic, on the other hand, concluded, “We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime . . . The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”
8/8/2016 08:53:23 am
Interesting that there are dark, horrible examples of visual arts which certainly predate Frankenstein. And we've already discussed medieval folk tales and such with scary creatures at the center (for example dragons) so writing about or painting scary subjects wasn't new, even in her father's day. So are you bemusing the critics? Regarding the first part, a friend and I have been talking about renting a cabin for a couple days and just bringing a writing project. (And a knitting project.)
Lisa, what fun that you're planning a writing vacation in a cabin! Yes, lots of spooky stuff before the 1800s. Hieronymus Bosch produced plenty. Perhaps the British Critic thought those earlier works had a moral (though so does Frankenstein if you look for it, like the dangers of playing God). At least, they imply, those earlier works weren't by females.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.