Early edition of Frankenstein in University archives gives rise to chilling story around its creation

A popular character during Halloween is the shambling mass of assorted body parts known as Frankenstein’s Monster from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein – a creature who has remained a harrowing vision of what can happen when people try and create unnatural life since its initial publication in 1818.

An early edition of Shelley’s Gothic classic contained within our Special Collections archive, which came to the University as part of the Robjohns Bequest, features a fascinating introduction by Mary providing an account of the bizarre circumstances that led to its creation and her desire to ‘awaken thrilling horror’.

Writing in the text about the summer of 1816 some years later, when Mary and her husband Percy visited Lake Geneva and were with Lord Byron and Byron’s personal physician John William Polidori, Mary wrote:

I busied myself to think of a story...one which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror

“It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. We will each write a ghost story,” said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady … I busied myself to think of a story, - a story to rival those which had excited us to this task.  One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror…”

Polidori, who went on to write the similarly bone-chilling The Vampyre, which first appeared in the New Monthly Magazine in 1819, gives a rather different version of the circumstances of the gestation of Frankenstein, revealing the tensions and undercurrents going on between the group.  In particular, he describes an outburst by Percy Shelley:

“June 18 … L.B. [Byron] repeated some verses of Coleridge’s Christabel, of the witch’s breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether. He…suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.”

After the fateful sharing of ghost stories, death seems to have been drawn to Mary and the group over the coming years. Although Mary was becoming known as ‘Mrs Shelley’, in summer 1816 Percy was still married to Harriet Shelley, whom he had abandoned to elope with Mary. Later that year, on 9 November, heavily pregnant, Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine. 

Eight years on from the events that gave rise to Frankenstein, out of the group of friends - Mary, Percy, Polidori and Byron - only Mary was still alive. In debt and frustrated by his lack of success as a writer, Polidori took prussic acid in December 1821. Percy was drowned in a storm in the Gulf of Ischia on 8 July 1822. Byron famously died in Greece on 19 April 1824, succumbing to fever and, perhaps, sepsis.