Novel writing has always been a very uncertain enterprise. The chances of being endlessly rejected by publishers, even worse, by the public, and ending up on the remainder table are and have always been high.
Writers need to be tough and strongly motivated: they typically to have a need to tell a story, to prove something about themselves, or to pursue a need of money.
Mary Shelley, when she began Frankenstein in the cold summer of 1816, had all three motivations.
At sixteen she had eloped with the poet, Shelley, and they were certainly living beyond their means. They had a new baby, Shelley’s father, the baronet, had disowned him, and Shelley had an abandoned wife and two children to support. They were living off loans and a meagre income from Shelley's publications.
Two years later she and her family were staying in the villa next door to Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva and the eighteen year old Mary had something to prove. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a noted and notorious thinker and advocate, who we mainly know today as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her father was William Godwin, and he was a celebrated philosopher of the day daily known for a book called Political Justice. Because of this heritage, Mary was expected both by her father and husband to produce a work of literary genius.
That year, 1816, was also known as the Year Without a Summer. A volcano had a erupted in Indonesia, Mount Tabora, and had spewed ash across most of Europe and even America, but no one knew that at the time. In the middle of summer it was sunless with thunderstorms. There were visible sunspots on the sun, crop failures and famine and widespread predictions of the end of the world. Lord Byron wrote an apocalyptic poem called Darkness, where ‘the stars/ Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth/Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;’.
Mary and and her step sister, Claire who was with them, were still teenagers and Shelley was in his early 20s. Even the fifth person of the group, Byron’s doctor was only 20. Apart from their love of the classics, the young people shared a passion for gothic stories, horror and the paranormal. So this summer, when the weather was preventing them from exploring the lakes and mountains, they went up to the Villa Diodati, where they and Byron huddled around the fires and read to each other by candlelight while the storms rattled the curtains. Byron’s menagerie of dogs, monkeys and peacocks added a terrified chorus. It was in this atmosphere that Byron issued his famous challenge for them all to write a ghost story of their own.
In her introduction to the 1821 edition, Mary claims a midnight inspiration, that was undoubtedly a result of the saturation with ghost stories.
‘I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through’
From this seed of an idea, Mary came to a strong engagement with her story, that incorporated many elements of her life and influences, so that it became, not a ghost story, but as Brian Aldiss says, the first science fiction story.
Shelley, who was her supporter and mentor, was obsessed with the sciences and would often be conducting experiments on the table of their lodgings, to the disgust of landladies. London society was also excited about the possibilities of science, and there were frequent shows demonstrating the new wonders of science. Galvanism had demonstrated the possibility of reanimation.
John Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher, was a hero of the young people and the tenet that natural man was capable of ‘perfectibility’ and was only corrupted by civil society was a strong influence. This concept was very much part of the story that Mary wanted to tell.
Mary brought all of these influences together to create a moral fable that still has relevance to dilemmas in modern society. Perhaps with genetic advances, even more so. It took her two years, but writing it was her comfort while scandal and tragedy dogged that time.
Mary had a strong champion in Shelley who hawked her book around to the publishers when it was finished. His publisher, and Byron’s publisher refused to take it as it was felt to be impious and immoral, but was eventually taken by Lackington, a more populist bookseller, whose massive store was known as the Temple of the Muses.
The reviews were mostly vitriolic:
‘We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror which abounds 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’.-The British Critic.
However the public enjoyed it and as well as giving Mary a vindication of her ability as a writer, it did provide a small source of income. It was published anonymously in a three volume edition, as was usual at the time, and 500 copies were printed. Mary Shelley's share was one-third of the profits, which came to £41.13.10 which would be about £10,000 in today’s money.
It also gave Mary a platform to publish her other novels and the credibility to publish shows stories and biographies that tabled her to earn a living after Shelley’s death.