The Work of No Ordinary Writer

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Portrait of Mary Shelley from Mrs Shelley by Lucy Madox Rossetti. London. W.H. Allen, 1890.

Last night, novelist and biographer, Miranda Seymour, gave a fascinating lecture in The London Library’s Reading Room on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus – one of the most extraordinary novels of the 19th century. Here in honour of Frankenstein’s bicentenary, Helen O’Neill, Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian, takes a quick peek at 200 years of writing by and about Mary Shelley, all available from the shelves at the London Library.

“Most of the substances belonging to our globe are constantly undergoing alterations in sensible qualities and one variety of matter becomes as it were transmuted into another…The object of Chemical Philosophy is to ascertain the causes of all phenomena of this kind, and to discover the laws by which they are governed.”

Illustrations of scientific instruments and apparatus used to conduct experiments with electricity in Humphrey Davy, Elements of Chemical Philosophy which was read by Mary Shelley as she worked on her Gothic masterpiece in October 1817.

So opens Elements of Chemical Philosophy as Regards the Laws of Chemical Changes: Undecompounded Bodies and their Primary Combinations, by Humphrey Davy, published in 1812, and read by Mary Shelley as she worked on the manuscript of Frankenstein in October 1817. Davy, a British chemist, known for his experiments in electro-chemistry, was a chemistry lecturer at the Royal Institution, where his lectures attracted fashionable London society. The text provides a tantalising glimpse of the cutting-edge scientific thought Mary Shelley was digesting, as she worked on her extraordinary manuscript. Illustrated with thirty figures, Davy’s book depicts scientific apparatus used for conducting experiments with electricity, to isolate, detonate, fuse or distill chemical compounds and gases. One of the plates depicts “a gasometer by which a stream of oxygen may be thrown upon ignited charcoal, for the purpose of fusing or burning bodies.”

Illustration of dog drawn sledges in Siberia from Evert Ysbrant Ides, Three Years Travels from Moscow to China. London: W. Freeman, 1705.

Currently on display in the Library’s Reading Room, Davy’s book is joined by a travel account by Evert Ysbrant Ides: Three Years Travels from Moscow Over-Land to China, also read by Mary Shelley as she worked on her Gothic masterpiece, The Library’s 1705 edition of Ides’ work includes woodcut illustrations of the many countries, peoples and cultures encountered en route, including the use of dog-pulled sledges in Siberia.  It is a mode of transport Shelley deployed in the novel as Frankenstein pursues his creation across the deserts of the frozen north:

“As I still pursued my journey to the northward, the snows thickened and the cold increased to a degree almost too severe to support…The rivers were covered with ice…I continued with unabated fervor to traverse immense deserts until the ocean appeared at a distance…Covered with ice, it was only to be distinguished from land by its superior wildness and ruggedness … I had procured a sledge and dogs and thus traversed the snow with inconceivable speed.”

The Library’s periodicals collection is a rich source of material for reviews of works published during the 19th century. Reactions to Frankenstein, on its publication in 1818, were mixed. Issued in weekly, monthly or quarterly parts, reviews rolled off the periodical presses, with unstoppable regularity and both praise and sneering condemnation of Shelley’s novel, can be traced through their pages. Walter Scott reviewed the novel positively in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, in March 1818. “There never was a wilder story imagined, yet”, he wrote “it has an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the projects and passions of the time.” Scott correctly identified the literary family at the root of the tale, even pinpointing the influence of William Godwin’s St Leon, on the work, but famously attributed Frankenstein to Mary’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, “who we believe” Scott confided, “is the son-in-law of William Godwin”.

Frontispiece portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley from Memoir of Percy Bysshe Shelley by William Michael Rosetti. London: John Slark, 1896.

The Gentleman’s Magazine also recognised that “this tale is evidently the production of no ordinary Writer” (note the capital “W”).  Their good opinion was not, however, universally shared. The vituperative John Wilson Croker in The Quarterly Review, claimed the novel, left the reader “in doubt about whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased” and in a stinging condemnation (that could only have served to increase sales) went further: “Frankenstein has passages which appal the mind and make the flesh creep …. Our taste and our judgement alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed, the worse it is – it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated.”

The British Critic in April 1818, begrudgingly acknowledged “the considerable power” of the author, but also dismissed the novel out of hand, commenting that: “the writer is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel …We feel ourselves as much harassed, after rising from the perusal of these three spirit-wearing volumes, as if we had been overdosed with laudanum.”

Showing all the signs of being well read, the Library’s 1839 edition of Frankenstein was published by Richard Bentley, an early member of the London Library.

Condemnation did nothing however, to stop the novel’s success. In her Preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, took the opportunity to situate her work, within the context of her talented literary family, stating:

“It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing … My husband … was from the very first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enrol myself on the page of fame.”

The collections at the London Library allow one to reflect widely on Mary Shelley’s life and work – and on the changing nature of their reception over time. From reviews of Frankenstein published in 1818, to biographies of Mary Shelley published in 2018, material by or about Mary Shelley, spanning 200 years of publishing, scholarship and public opinion, can be found in the Library’s Fiction, Literature, Drama, Topography, Biography, Bibliography, and Periodicals collections, and in a range of online resources accessible to members from the Library’s website. Editions of her travel writing, novels, short stories, poems, letters and correspondence, her journal and plays, are all available for browsing and loan from the Library’s open access stacks.  Her hand can be seen too, in the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which she edited after his death.  If one wanted to step a generation further back and consider the impact of her parents on her work, there are worse places to start than with Mary Wollstonecraft’s, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and William Godwin’s An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

With her ground-breaking Gothic page-turner, Mary Shelley enrolled herself on the page of fame. 200 years on, Frankenstein remains one of the most iconic and influential novels in the history of the medium.


Helen O’Neill