On opening a copy of “Frankenstein”, if you care to take a moment to look at the first few pages, you may be surprised to discover that the novel is dedicated by its teenage author, Mary Shelley, to her father, political philosopher, William Godwin. Despite the iconic status of her work, this fact and much else remains widely unknown about its origins.
During the wet summer of 1816, before Dr Frankenstein or his monster were born, Godwin was in London, refusing to have any contact with his runaway daughter who had eloped with the poet Shelley, a married man. Meanwhile, Mary found herself staying near Lake Geneva with her renowned group of literary companions. Here they set each other a famous challenge – to write the scariest ghost story. Mary struggled to rise to it and gave up. The book, the scientist and his monster, were nearly never born.
“Be quiet.” I fasten my eyelids and croak a mother’s wish from the pillow. Beside me, my love is half asleep. In some dream of waking he moans that our son calls. How so that he slumbers whilst I am wakened? I fear that the baby bawls because he senses some other crying that is so hidden it cannot find voice? Oh now I am being foolish.
“Very well, here I am. Come now little man.”
I press my cheek against his crown of down. I croon. “Oh sweet thing. Drizzle-nose. Not so bad now. Cold almost gone. Shush. Oh my, what a mighty mass of rain. There must be a sea in the sky. Such a splash. What a fuss for weather there is this summer. Hey, and what a fuss you’re making.”
What a fuss I am making too, pacing up and down because you, my boy, are fretting. In truth I am fretting more. My arms are full with child but my mind is hollow. No image can I conjure to terrify the clever poets, the select fellows who love to mock womankind. I must prove their prejudices false, especially Lord Byron’s. That splendid man needs putting in his place. I am surely the woman to do it. And yet I am confirming their poor view of my sex. Shelley sweet, my sleeping love, you tease but you are right. I am a fraud.
“Alas, mummy is undone.”
Sterile vessel am I. The challenge was set days ago. Produce a ghostly yarn. So where is my terrible tale? Think, think. My mind is seized in a spasm of failure and nothing but blank pages emerge.
“Shush, child, shush.”
Outside the alpine lake is frothing. The mountain peaks are shrouded in mist. I swear that the moon has dissolved.
Across the continent and beyond the English Channel, Mary’s father lies in bed, his face turned to the wall. William Godwin’s second wife lies supine beside him. She sleeps more deeply than a winter bear, emitting now and again a snore, oddly tuneful. The radical philosopher and luminary snores not. He is utterly awake. The more slumber evades him, the more he contemplates its nature. His thoughts turn to a character he might concoct, a man upon whom he’d bestow the unnerving affliction of dropping off for months, or even years, decades. He wonders at the surprises in store for this fellow who wakes to discover that time has passed, the world changed and his place in it oddly shifted. Would one feel bereft or liberated by these strange lapses into oblivion? The more Godwin’s mind attempts to construct this fiction, the more fitful he becomes; the darker the hour, the more insistent his chattering thoughts. Suddenly, as is his unwelcome wont, they turn to calculations of the accounts, domestic and publishing. He tots repeatedly trying to dissolve the debt. Credit, like sleep, continues to evade him. His wife sighs in a dream. He sighs in full consciousness. He can bear it no longer.
A candle flame lights his way down the stairs. He follows the flickering. He knows each tread by heart. His slippers are nearly as worn as the wood. The soles of his feet feel more worn still. And then he hears a sound below, a cry, perhaps. He peers down the hallway towards his study.
“Is someone there?”
The trembling in his voice surprises him. Perhaps a rat is trapped. It is certainly time that the visitation of vermin be ended. He would be relieved not to have to endure the girls’ squealing at every sighting. They certainly cannot claim the excuse of childhood any longer for this silliness. At least a more circumspect attitude would have been displayed by……tut….He chastises himself for thinking briefly of that daughter. Mary does not deserve his attention. He dare not suggest what she does deserve. Another sound. More audible this time. A rasp, a gasp. No rat makes noises like this.
“What would be more horribly frightening than anything ever, baby mine?”
Ah, now I need his advice the boy is silent. I ought to stop rocking you young William. You are deep asleep, I daresay. Still I swing to and fro. Nothing but fog fills this dull head. To and fro. My frustration turns me into a pendulum. This is no use at all. It is not fair. The others are writing. The ink congeals fast as blood upon their pages as their stories turn to flesh. All I have is fat breasts and milk staining my shift. Oh let not me be the joke of the challenge. Please heavens, flash and ignite my clotted brain! Of course, I pray in vain. Inspiration is much like sleep. It tends to flee when called with insistence. Think. Think.
“Well baby William, what about a woman whose husband deserts her for the young daughter of his mentor with whom he elopes, and, abandoned, the wife drowns herself. But she is not gone. Her horrid spectre rises from the weeds and pursues the second wife to the edge of madness.”
No, lazy, cruel girl, this is too strange a twist on our lives, especially since the wife in question lives, and suffers (even if her suffering is of her own making).
“Or, little one, perhaps a child who is heir to his dead father’s estate disappears under strange circumstances in the snow one winter’s eve. His uncle inherits. But one night, as he lies in his ancestral bed, a child’s cold hand slips into his. From that moment the uncle never can sleep again. Tortured, he descends into a stupor of hellish exhaustion….”
Perhaps I ought not subject you, child, to the stuff of nightmares so young. A tired mother is a danger to all. Lie now. There. I am glad that you are as grateful for your crib as I am, sweet. I entrust you to your slumbers. Dream well and rest. I can do neither. How I loathe my crestfallen flesh, longing to prove its worth by conceiving a work that disturbs. Every sinew in me burns to birth beings far stranger and very different from you, beloved babe. But they escape me. They hide. I have not the wit to find them.
In the corner of Godwin’s study lurks a shadow. It seems to inhale what little light the candle affords, drawing the moonglow that permeates the window, transforming all to pitch. A stealthy presence is seething here.
Godwin sways a step or so within the threshold of this room. This is where he writes and reads freely day by day. It is never this cold in summer.
“What are you?” he asks, dreading any kind of answer. “What do you want?”
The cry is raw as a newborn’s. “Mama!”
Godwin chills to the marrow. He tries to blot out the plea.
Yet here it comes again.
Oh be silent. He refuses to remember. But the cry stabs through the veils of time. Eighteen years earlier, the tiny Mary had cried this cry, racked with need. And all the while he had watched her mother Mary die on the bed where their baby was born. Nothing could save his true companion. Despite the bottles of brandy to ease her pain and the wet cloths to cool her fever, despite his encouragements and willing of his mind, pounding of his heart, his love had slipped away. A piece of his living self had departed with her. Yet she left a fragment of the pair of them alive and screaming in his sole care.
“Mama!” The shadow mews again.
“I am not your mama!” Had he fallen asleep and awoken in a former skin? No father, especially not he, can be mother too. Swaddling is an anathema to this man of ideas, cuddles an imposition.
The shadow swells, shapeless. He now realises that this thing has no form but is matter, primeval as swamp, desperate to amass into some kind of living phenomenon.
Suddenly it is still. So silent.
“Oh William, not crying again!”
I surge towards his crib. My eyes deceive me. No, my ears do. His lids are shut as tight as his fists. I am sure I heard his scream. And yet so settled. So silent.
“All my life in you.”
His baby breath snags in his throat. I brace myself for another cry. But he settles. His brow furrows. He reminds me of someone.
“William mine, look at you, stern image of my lost father. Oh please forgive me for granting you his name. Try to cherish it. May you never stir with grief, and less so outrage, on behalf of your disowned mother. Baby William, through you I reject all paternal judgements carved in ice. Know that to seed your life I left the family home in pursuit of love, for freedom. You, child, are the fruit grown from all that my father taught me to believe. It was he who introduced me to your father. Listen child, if a man is out of love with his wife he cannot be chained to her. Honour your father’s choice. Know that our flight is the act of liberated spirits following their hearts. Your new life grants to me the glory of unfettered, unmarried motherhood. Let society banish me. More fool society. And may you disdain marriage in your time as once the elder William and your grandmother Mary once did. Ever remind him of his stand. Let the world acknowledge through you what your forebear once preached and then forsook. Yet his daughter remains true. And no matter how he freezes me out, never shall I regret for one second naming you after him, even if you cry out for sorrow because of it once in a while. So sleep, little one, sleep on.”
Bereft, I am suddenly too weary for story games. I long to sink into oblivion myself. Fiction be damned. I surrender to ignominy. Let whatever I may have written die before it begins.
The thing of no form becomes denser by the second. “Mama! Mama!”
“No mama here.” Godwin is once again beside the breathless body of his first wife Mary. “Mama gone. All gone.” The void of her demise aches afresh. “The dead are dead and can never return.”
The thing feeds feverishly off the emptiness. “Mama! Mama! Mama!”
Seized with horror, the philosopher can no longer control his twitching limbs.
“Oh cruel daughter who took her mother away from me and grew to abandon me in shame! After I tended you and invested all our hopes in you! Angel you ought to be, shining the torch of liberation, honour and equality. Temptress you become. Foolish, wilful, baggage. Would that you had never been born to flee like vermin infesting the world with your sin. Stay forever away from me!”
Godwin’s moral blast electrifies the presence. It thickens to a thundercloud. But it is the man who explodes first with a mighty clap. “Go and haunt her, demon. Go to Mary the lost daughter, the mother-killer, the husband-stealer, betrayer of her only father. Let her take you to her bosom, brute.”
A final flash. Then stillness.
After the storm, William the Elder blows out the candle, instantly forgetting his irrational, over-tired words. He is not himself tonight. Weariness overcomes him. He turns heel and leaves whatever it is to rot in the corner of his study. He does not see how its ragged limbs begin to form.
“Come now, horrible thing.” I, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Shelley one day to be, croon as the morning settles, “Hush, my creature.”
I am revisited by my dream of late last night. Not yet asleep, hardly awake, all hope gone of finding a story frightening enough to make any kind of impression, I heard a whimpering in a corner of the room. Frozen with terror I dared not blink. A cry called, that cry, the one in the shadows that is never there, but is here, always. I knew for sure that the baby was fast asleep. And yet I heard something say, “Mama!” What else in the world could insinuate itself into my spirit thus if not my child? Oh but what a child. Like a dream coming to find me, visions circled above my waking form. I still see, vivid as life, the scientist with his chemical concoctions. I smell the limbs strung together, feel the construct of flesh. The dead are dead and can never return. Yet, by the power of my crying, sleeping child, by force of the rejection of my distant father, I am animated. Stirred by all the laudanum-fuelled discussions of past nights about the immortal spirit and mortal remains, churned by endless memories of loss and forebodings of more loss to come, I am charged. Oh mother whom I killed. Yes the blame lies here. I came to this earth and the damage done by my arrival destroyed you. What have I done! What am I to do.
The ragged form of a spectre jolts to life. Its eyes of sulphur burn into mine. It claims me as its creatrix even as its father scientist runs from its presence.
Outside the lake is a little choppy. Good sailing weather. The sky is grey but the rain has receded. I wet my pen in the ink well. My blood runs hot.
“Oh grotesque and pathetic being.” My eyes beam cold as steel. “Mama is here, my child. Mama is all yours.”
And I begin at last to birth my story. Get to work, doctor, who longs as passionately as I to defy death and gift life. Good Frankenstein, mother a monster.
At last I write:
“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils…..”