Mary, Frank and Me
as told by the ghost of Percy Bysshe Shelley channeled through Doc Walton
Mary was the uncontested beauty of our group, a walking wraith of sunshine and light. We all loved her, none so much as I of course, and there was not a man or perhaps a woman as well, for we were a libertine lot after all, among us who would not have gladly changed places with me, the object, for reasons I will never understand, of her eye. But I wish not to linger here on Mary's physical charms as I will spend a lifetime singing her song elsewhere inspired by the realization that the beauty I find in nature was awakened first in me by the mere sight of her. I wish, rather, to speculate how it all came about, the work that made Mary's name known to all.
We had gathered as we often do near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The year as I recall was 1816. Lord Byron, a dear friend and at that time the only one of us to have a farthing to fling, had invited us to stay at his baronial lodgings for the summer in the Villa Diodati at Cologne. Mary and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont who was at the time pregnant with our host’s child, along with a young doctor friend of Lord’s, one John Polidori, and I had all been friends for some time, drawn together by our liberal views and our commitment to the literary arts. We were to spend the days exploring the countryside with its renowned botanical lushness - surely fodder for my pen - boating on the lake, writing, and in general taking the air to clear one’s head of the wine and laudanum to which we had ample access during the long evenings spent together reading each other’s works and engaging in conversations the like of which would curl the hair of an ordinary citizen of the day were he or she to overhear the religious blasphemy, the sexual openness, and the political diatribes we each were prone to espouse. Mary’s views, I must mention, were surprisingly among the darkest and she often called upon me to offer up one of my verses to ease her gloomier moods.
The weather that summer, as if to dampen our group’s usually high spirits and turn our thoughts as well as our physical selves inwards, was abominable. There was incessant rain accompanied by cannon-like thunder and blinding bolts of lightning that left one both deaf and sightless if caught outdoors or too near an open portico. Mary alone seemed undisturbed by lightning’s sudden intrusion and raw power; an indicator I suspect here in hindsight of what was to become. Among the dreariest of conditions was the constant chill that pervaded if one ventured beyond the reach of hearth’s fire. We were all, with Polidori’s possible exception, of an emotional disposition - none more so than Mary - and consequently were affected by the weather more than others of lighter heart whose personalities allow them to shake off the gloom of a grey day and carry on if not cheerfully at least with the optimistic outlook that the next day will dawn warmer and brighter .
It was during an evening of rainfall such as I have described, that Lord Byron, to fill a conversational void brought on by the lack of wit that accompanies a group depression, suggested that he read aloud from not some of his lovely verses, but rather, from a book of German ghost stories that he had found among the villa’s meager library offerings. We agreed eagerly - anything to change the mood - and listened attentively as he did so. Polidori, a passionate man and imaginative writer, followed the reading with a story of his own creation. It involved a hideous blood sucking beast. It was sketchy and incomplete, but found us all paying rapt attention during the telling. Polidori had no ending for his tale and asked us to find a conclusion for him. Not one among us agreed to the request for none could duplicate the unique style of Polidori’s imaginings. He was left to find his own ending, a task he accomplished somewhat later with surprising results. Just before we retired for the evening, Lord Byron put forth the suggestion that we all write our own horror stories and read them aloud at some future date, the group to decide then whose tale of terror was best. I readily acquiesced along with the others even though I knew that my being a lyrical poet put me at somewhat of a disadvantage. My tale, if I may shamelessly trumpet it now, was penned much later as I was slow to find a theme. It was ancient mythology and Mary’s story that inspired me eventually to pen Prometheus Unbound. The date for our group’s original offerings was set for three weeks hence.
Two stories of historical note were born as a result of that evening’s challenge. Mary’s, of course, is most certainly the more famous, but Polidori’s Vampyre had as lasting a consequence on the literary endeavors of the future as Mary’s “Modern Prometheus.” Vampyre gave us a creature that Bram Stoker would meld with his vision of the undead and deliver in his brilliant gothic novel Dracula. But it is Mary’s horrible yet somehow sympathetic creation that endures unrevised to this day.
How such a monster had been wrought from the mind of a gentle, well bred, woman of the age I will now endeavor to explain.
Mary was but a child of sixteen years and I a lad of barely twenty-one when we fell deeply in love. Her father, William Godwin, a philosopher and writer of some reputation in his own right, once a friend, was no longer so for reasons I wish not to detail here for they have little if any impact on my subject. Allow me to just recall that he did not approve of a union between Mary and me and it was for this reason our affair took on a clandestine aspect. We met often in secret and in the most unlikely of places, a truly ghostly setting. We gathered during night’s darkest hours in the cemetery that held the coffin of Mary’s own mother. It was upon the lush grass growing from the soil above her grave that Mary and I consummated our love. This location and the deeds done there, I would submit, planted the first seed in Mary’s fertile imagination that would grow in time to become her most famous creation.
After months of planning Mary and I fled from her father’s domain never to return. We wandered Europe for a few years uncertain where to alight. I had early on some family money and earned a bit more as a critically acclaimed but as yet not popular and thus not often published poet. When my family disowned me for my scandalous behavior and ceased my funding we were often nearly destitute. We had, however, acquired many good friends, Lord Byron among them, and from time to time accepted their patronage. We wished during our better, more flushed hours, to have a child and although Mary’s womb proved as fertile as her imagination, her body initially proved incapable of bringing one to full term and our first three were lost. This, it seems to me was the second psychological factor in her mind’s sculpting of what would become Victor Frankenstein and his monster. What parent I ask you would not wish to bring life to that which they had conceived but remained unborn?
There then lacked but the asking for the tale to arrive on the page and our group had done just that, much as writer’s groups in your modern era often inspire works that would never have been wrenched from minds busy elsewhere were it not for suggested topics.
Mary brought her Frankenstein to us in a shortened form that long ago day and it was quickly deemed the best of all. It was at our insistence that she would later lengthen to completeness her fantastic tale.
Though it is impossible to fully explain the nature of one’s creative effort, Mary did reveal to me as we sipped champagne on the date of the book’s first publication, that the parts for her story were all lodged randomly in her subconscious and her task was simply – if the word simply applies here - to dredge them, sort them, and pen them to paper. She wanted a creature equal in its gruesomeness to Polidori’s own. - we were, after all, in a competition, albeit of our own devising – and she found it in Victor Frankenstein’s assemblage of body parts robbed from the graves of the recently dead. The lightning Mary so often pondered would spark the monster to life and then would follow the agony of its existence as a being separate and apart from all others; an agony that could and would lead to violence. Victor Frankenstein, perhaps the original “Mad Scientist,” would bear the ultimate responsibility for the abomination he brings to life and the consequences of its actions. He would follow it to the far corners of the earth endeavoring to put an end to the torment that both he and the creature share… but to no avail. His inhuman creation not born of woman cannot die and will wander the earth for eternity. In the end a tragedy, not a horror story at all.
But the book was not received that way and Mary tried unsuccessfully to distance herself from her famous Frankenstein by writing other books. None, though, would prove to have an impact anything near that of her singular masterpiece of the macabre. For several years following the book’s publication her notoriety would bring distress, but she would ultimately come to understand and accept that she and Victor Frankenstein’s undying monster would make her, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, immortal as well.