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NA200312 - SHELLEY, M.: Frankenstein (Abridged)
or The Modern Prometheus
Mary Shelley was the daughter of the radical feminist Mary Wollstencraft and the mistress - later the wife - of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1816, she and her half-sister, Claire Claremont, mistress of both Shelley and Byron, followed Shelley into exile from his native land, where his frank espousal of a philosophy of ‘free love’ and his outspoken atheism had been little relished. They spent the summer with Lord Byron (also on the run from scandal in England) who had taken the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. The company may even have been joined by the shade of Milton who had once occupied the house. But the current of creative genius that had produced the divine spark in Milton had become, in the popular imagination, something demonic in these two arch-romantic poets.
On June 15, as the lightning flickered across the lake, Mary listened to the conversation of Byron, Shelley and Dr. Polidori, Byron’s young amanuensis. They were discussing galvanism (the medical use of electric current) and the possibility of provoking the very spark of life by its means. The subject was of particular interest to Shelley who had experimented with electrical instruments at Oxford. At the same time the company were deeply engrossed in German horror stories, and the following day they each agreed to try their hand at writing a ghost story. The published outcome was Polidori’s The Vampyre, adapted from Byron’s effort, which had in turn been inspired by an hysterical fantasy from Shelley - and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Inspiration had been slow in coming, but when it did her nightmarish creation broke upon her drowsing consciousness fully-formed. She “saw the pale student of unhallowed arts” turning in horror from “his odious handiwork”, the vile assemblage of human remains which he had animated with the breath of life. And in working out this ghastly fantasy into a full narrative her inspiration did not desert her.
She was hardly nineteen. Though she lived another thirty-five years, she never again approached the visionary grandeur of conception achieved in this, her first literary effort. All her youthful life’s experience went into it. Above all, it was about Shelley himself, who is both the idealistic creative spirit and the hounded outcast, both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. In a sense, the popular misconception that gives the name Frankenstein to the monster himself is an appropriate one. Frankenstein’s creation haunts him like his own evil genius, his own shadow made flesh. For it is his refusal to take responsibility for the unprepossessing fruit of his actions that turns it into an avenging angel, destroying all the human connections that make life meaningful, as it pursues him to the grave.
Frankenstein is a meditation upon the grounds of evil inspired by the anarchist philosophy of Mary’s father, William Godwin. It is also a daring development of Milton’s vision of the fallen angel in Paradise Lost and a critique of the idea of Divine creation itself. But finally, it must be recognized as quite a new thing for its time: it is the first work of science fiction in English. And as science fiction, it is about the limitations of goodwill without wisdom. It is a dire warning against technological hubris, against the temptation to assume that benevolent intentions are sufficient to procure beneficent results. Its timely message is that there are matters with which we tamper at out peril. As such, the novel remains the most powerful Promethean fable of modern times.
Notes by Duncan Steen
About the Readers
DANIEL PHILPOTT trained at LAMDA and after success in the prestigious Carlton-Hobbs Award for Radio Drama recorded for BBC Radio 4 and other broadcast work. His theater work includes productions on the London fringe.
A graduate of Manchester University JONATHAN OLIVER has appeared in
theater throughout the UK in works ranging from Julius Caesar (for the English Shakespeare Company) to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Widely experienced in television, film and radio, he has, for a decade, also recorded audiobooks for the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
CHRIS LARKIN trained at LAMDA. Among his theater appearances have been Taste of Honey (Theatr Clwyd), and The Lucky Chance (Derby Playhouse). His television and film credits include Frank Stubbs Promotes, Grimsby Last Stop and Angels and Insects.
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