Mary Shelley’s great novel is not a commentary on the Industrial Revolution, nor is it a simple retelling of the myth of Prometheus. It is far more original than that.
Few texts are better known and more widely read than Frankenstein: I have a dozen modern editions on my shelves. But every one of their editors has failed to grasp what Mary Shelley was up to when she wrote it.
Mary Godwin, as she was, aged 18, her lover Percy Shelley and her stepsister Claire Clairmont spent the summer of 1816 by Lake Geneva, much of the time in the company of Lord Byron and his travelling companion and doctor, John Polidori. As a result of the eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indies, the weather was dreadful: it was a cold summer, with lashing rain and wild thunderstorms. The little party of English travellers was originally drawn together by Clairmont’s determination to continue her affair with Byron and then consolidated by his and Shelley’s mutual admiration. They gathered round a fire and read ghost stories aloud and then resolved each to write a story. A few days later, Mary had a strange vision of a monstrous creature. She began to write what would become a novel. When they returned to England in September, Mary was working on a draft. By May of 1817 the novel was finished and it appeared in print on 1 January 1818.