Mary Shelley — A Life In Horror
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is considered a horror classic, and it is my opinion that no film version has yet done it justice. But fiction can’t match reality for true horror, and Mary’s life is proof of it. It’s always been a fantasy of mine to make a film of her story. So this Halloween week I invite you imagine with me what such a film would look like, keeping in mind that cinema is primarily a visual medium. It could only be directed by Tim Burton. He would get the atmosphere and visuals just right. I’d want Johnny Depp to play Shelley, and Jude Law as Lord Byron. For Mary herself, a slender beauty with red-gold hair, high forehead, and large, round eyes, Dakota Fanning would be perfect. Okay, got your popcorn ready?
The film opens with her birth, August 30, 1797, during a fierce electrical storm. As we’ll see, violent storms marked major turning points in her life. Her parents were intellectual giants during the Enlightenment. William Godwin was a philosopher, writer and political activist. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote perhaps the first work on feminism, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in 1792. Sadly, she died of infection days after Mary’s birth. Mary grew up in a home frequently visited by artists, writers and poets, among them Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, and the Americans, Thomas Paine and Aaron Burr. There’s a story of six-year-old Mary hiding behind a sofa (rather than being in bed), as Samuel Taylor Coleridge recited The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
At the same time, electricity was the new technological wonder of the age. Only years before, Luigi Galvani had passed it through severed frog legs, causing them to twitch. But it was his nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who really made eyebrows rise in 1803 (about the time Mary was listening to Coleridge). In front of a large assembly of scientists and physicians,, he hooked up 240 electrical plates. On a table was the corpse of a recently hanged man. When Aldini touched it with electrodes, it sat up and opened one eye. It was widely reported in medical journals, so Mary would no doubt have been familiar with the story.
By the time she was a teenager, she was fluent in Greek and Latin, and it was said she could hold up her end of most debates. Then she met the flamboyant poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and everything changed. Shelley was handsome and charismatic, if somewhat erratic and unstable. The two were instantly attracted to each other. Unfortunately Shelley was married, but love isn’t just blind, it’s also deaf and mute. Months later, they “eloped” on a European tour, with her stepsister Claire in tow. It was 1814; Mary was 17, Shelley 22. Napoleon Bonaparte had just been deposed, so travel on the continent was opened up again. About the time they were seeing the Alps, the British were burning the American capitol and the White House, during another war that had begun in 1812.
They took the obligatory trip along the Rhine River, replete with castles and ruins. While their boat was moored overnight in Gersheim, they would have seen the remains of Castle Frankenstein, and heard the local legends of the cannibal monster, Johan Konrad Dippel. Dippel had been born in the castle in 1673, when it was a military hospital. He had studied alchemy and become a physician. Chased out of Strasbourg for robbing graves for his experiments in reanimating dead flesh, he returned to the castle. He’d even made and marketed a concoction of blood, bodily fluids, and ground bones, which he called Dippel’s Oil.
On the voyage back to England their boat was caught in a huge storm, and Claire wrote in her journal that everyone was sick. But apparently Mary, by now pregnant by Shelley, wasn’t too ill to have a fierce argument with a supporter of the slave trade. Once back home their affair caused a scandal. There were money problems, with Shelley constantly on the run from creditors to avoid being tossed into debtor’s prison. Her first child, a girl, died only days after she was born. Mary blamed herself, as she had over her mother’s death. There’s this heartbreaking entry in her journal: “Dream that my little baby came to life again, that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the poor little thing all day. Not in good spirits.” Three of her four children would die in infancy, and she nearly died herself from a miscarriage.
The big scene in the movie comes in the following year, 1816. In June Mary and Shelley visited their friend, the poet Lord Byron, at his rented villa on Lake Geneva. The weather was too bad to be outside, so they watched the lightning storms play across the Alps. You see, the previous year of 1815 had seen a major climate change. The Indonesian volcano Tambora had erupted, the largest such ever recorded (some historians incorrectly say it was Krakatoa, but that wasn’t until 1883). It put so much material into the atmosphere that throughout most of the Northern hemisphere, it was known as the year without a summer.
Byron proposed they pass the time with a contest, who could invent the best ghost story. It went on for several days, and out of it came a novel by another guest, Dr. John Polidori, The Vampyre. This became one of Bram Stoker’s sources for his novel, Dracula. During one of these sessions, Shelley ran screaming from the room, after having a vision of a woman with eyes for breasts. On another occasion, Mary records a reverie, or waking dream, of the sudden appearance of a large creature standing next to her bed, with pale, glowing eyes. And so Mary’s novel Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus was born. Because women were considered incapable of rational thought, it was published anonymously, in 1818.
On December 29, 1816, she and Shelley were married, two weeks after his first wife, Harriet, committed suicide. Ah, the Romantic Age!
The story doesn’t end there though; yet another tempest loomed ahead. In 1822 while they were in Italy, Shelley went out sailing with a few friends, and a sudden storm caught them. The bodies washed up days later. Shelley was only identified by the copy of Yeats’ poems he always carried. His body was cremated there on the beach, and burned with an unearthly fire. In those days washed up bodies were covered with quicklime (a heated limestone) to prevent spread of plague, until the family could be notified. It was this that caused the strange colors in the flames. Miraculously, his heart survived intact, and was buried later in a private ceremony.
Mary wrote a few more books and poems, but spent most of her remaining years organizing and promoting Shelley’s works. She never remarried, although she and American writer Washington Irving were very close. Perhaps she’d had enough of the dangers of pregnancy.
So that’s my movie, and it’s all true. If you want to know more, I recommend Miranda Seymour’s exhaustive biography, Mary Shelley. Have a festive Samhain.