Just a little announcement from me before we move on to today’s story. I’ve just published my new book: Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England. In it, I dig deep to find the obscure bits of English history and write about them with a light touch. The result is a weird and wonderful snapshot of the country’s history. Click here (or on the image) to find out more.
Now on to our story…
Frankenstein in Bath
At this time of year when the days are darker and the nights are longer, our thoughts turn toward things more spooky. And as it turns out, Bath has its own monster. This lovely Georgian city which proudly claims to have been the residence of the famous writer Jane Austen was also home to a darker, scarier giant of literature. A literal giant, that is – Frankenstein’s monster.
Nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) began her now famous novel in Switzerland in 1816. But the idea was developed and most of the story was written while she lived in Bath. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, to give its full title, is often credited as being the first science fiction novel.
Who is Frankenstein?
But first let’s talk about Frankenstein. Who is he anyway? Is he the scientist, the monster, or both? If asked to describe Frankenstein, some of us would describe the monster, saying – He’s huge, and ugly with bolts through his neck and has greenish skin. But others might correct us and say, “Oh no, you’re mistaken, it’s the doctor who is Frankenstein. In the book, Victor Frankenstein creates a monster out of various parts and then brings it to life. And he never gives the monster a name.”
And that’s all true, but Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is a smart and sensitive guy (at least at first). He learns to speak and learns about family by hiding in the forest and observing a peasant household. In the story it’s clear that he considers Doctor Frankenstein as his father. He says to the doctor, “At length the thought of you crossed my mind. I learned from your papers that you were my father, my creator; and to whom could I apply with more fitness than to him who had given me life?” So, just like a human son, it’s only natural that the monster would take on his father’s name and be called Frankenstein as well. So I think it’s okay to call the monster Frankenstein too.
But maybe Monster Frankenstein needs a first name. In other parts of the book, he compares himself to Adam. Again, talking to the doctor, he says, “Remember that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam.” So, perhaps we should refer to the creature as Adam Frankenstein, son of Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Now that we have our Frankenstein characters sorted out, let’s talk about Frankenstein the book by Mary Shelley.
Conceived in Switzerland
The first stirrings of the idea for Frankenstein came to Mary in Switzerland. On a dark and stormy evening. Nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin sat around a fire with her boyfriend, the married poet Percy Shelley, her sister-in-law Claire, and another poet friend, Lord Byron.
The literary group had gone to Switzerland for their summer holidays. They had hoped to enjoy some sunshine and the beautiful countryside, but they picked the wrong year. 1816 was called the year without a summer. The weather was gloomy, stormy, and cold all summer long because of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia. They ended up spending most evenings huddled around a fire reading from a book of German ghost stories. When they finished the book, Lord Byron suggested they each write a ghost story of their own.
This threw Mary into a bout of writer’s block. She couldn’t come up with any ideas, but she couldn’t forget about it either. It was like something was haunting her, but she couldn’t see it. Then one night when she couldn’t sleep, she had a vision. And the seed of the story of Frankenstein was planted in her mind. It was meant to be a short story, just to share with (and scare) the others. But apparently, it was so good that Percy Shelley encouraged her to develop it into a novel.
Fleshed Out in Bath
In September they headed back to England and Mary, Percy Shelley, and sister-in-law Claire settled in Bath. One of the first things Mary did was buy two notebooks to start turning her short story into a novel. And it was in Bath that Mary Shelley put together all the pieces that made up Frankenstein. Mary lived in a rented apartment in Abbey churchyard. It was the perfect place for her to concentrate on her writing. The house where Mary brought the monster to life is no longer standing but was previously located between the Pump Room and the Roman Baths. The building conveniently contained a library with reading rooms where Mary could research and write.
She also attended scientific lectures by Doctor Wilkinson on the subject of galvanism. Galvanism was a popular topic among scientists at the time. Experiments were being done that introduced electricity into dead animals or sometimes even dead humans (only criminals were experimented upon). The electricity would cause the muscles to contract and seem to impart life to the dead. Scientists theorized that electricity might even be able to bring dead matter to life. This idea seemed to find its way into Mary’s book.
Mary Shelley (she married Percy Shelley while living in Bath) moved from the city in March 1817 with Frankenstein pretty much finished. The novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was published in January 1818.
Bath Remembers Frankenstein
The city of Bath almost forgot the part it played in young Adam Frankenstein’s development. Then in 2018, two hundred years after the publication of the book, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein were recognized with a plaque. The house where Mary Shelley lived while writing the book is long gone, so the plaque has been placed between the entrance to the Pump Room and the Roman Baths.
The plaque reads:
“Mary Shelley and ‘Frankenstein’
The novel ‘Frankenstein’ was written on this spot in 1816-17. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, aged 19, arrived in Bath in September 1816 and took lodgings here at 5 Abbey Church Yard. That house was demolished to make way for the Pump Room extension in the 1890s. She attended scientific lectures by Dr Wilkinson in the nearby Kingston Lecture Room. He suggested that one day electricity might be used to bring inanimate matter to life. This idea resonated with Mary, who had recently experienced nightmares in thunderstorms and inspired her to write ‘Frankenstein’. Mary married the poet Percy Shelley in December 1816. When she left Bath early in 1817 much of the novel had been written. It was published anonymously in London in January 1818.
Coincidentally there is now a vault beneath this sign containing an electricity sub-station that delivers thousands of volts to central Bath.”
A Frankenstein museum was in the works before the covid shutdowns. It was to be near the Jane Austen Centre, and it was supposed to be open by Halloween. However, I’ve not heard any more about it since June, so I’m afraid it might have been put on hold. Hopefully it will be able to open later and be a tribute to Bath’s biggest and scariest literary giant.
Happy Halloween! And don’t forget my new book (which isn’t scary at all).
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Great story, Margo! For those not connecting the dots, lightning (electricity) is what causes the thunder in thunderstorms. I forget the book, but in the movies, the good Dr. used the lightning to spark “Adam” coming to life. BTW, I look forward to reading your book this evening. Hopefully no lightning to disturb another good read! 🙂
Thank you, Bill.
Yes, in the movie versions, I believe they show ‘Adam Frankenstein’ being brought to life with electricity, but in the book, Mary Shelley doesn’t specify the exact method used. However, galvanism does seem to be her inspiration for bringing dead body parts to life. And in the mind of the public, Frankenstein is associated with electricity and lightning. That’s why it’s funny that there is now a power substation just below where the book was written.
Thanks for buying my new book. I hope you’ll find it interesting – and don’t worry, it’s not scary… 🙂
Another interesting piece of history beautifully explained, Margo.
Best wishes, Paula
Thank you, Paula. And Happy Halloween!
All the best, Margo