When Did Mary Shelley Write Frankenstein? - Historical Context

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  • 0:00 Writing 'Frankenstein'
  • 2:32 Romanticism vs. the…
  • 5:20 Science Meets Fiction
  • 7:15 The Book's Title
  • 8:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Eira Long

Eira has a PhD in English and new media studies. She has taught literature and writing to students of all ages.

This lesson will describe the historical backdrop of Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, 'Frankenstein'. You'll learn a bit about the political, social, scientific, and artistic movements that influenced Shelley, as well as some relevant details from the author's life.

Writing Frankenstein

May Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816 when she was 18 years old. Yep, that's right, Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote one of the world's most terrifying and enduring stories. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously two years later. Finally, in 1823, an edition with Mary Shelley's name on it was published. We'll call Mary by her first name in this lesson to differentiate her from her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, another well-known literary figure from the same period.

As you can probably guess, Mary had already led an unusual, even extraordinary, life by the time she was 18. She was born in 1797 to the political philosopher William Godwin, and the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 work A Vindication of the Rights of Women is an enormously important text in the history of feminism and political thought. Sadly, Wollstonecraft died only days after giving birth to Mary, who grew up in a liberal, academic household where she was encouraged to read widely and think critically.

In her late teens, Mary fell in love with the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was already married. Undeterred by William Godwin's fury, Mary and her husband-to-be skipped town to travel through Europe together. They hung out with some big names in the Romantic literary scene, including Lord Byron and John Polidori, who is often credited with creating the vampire fiction genre.

While staying near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Mary, Percy, Byron, and Polidori found themselves cooped up inside, thanks to bad weather. Byron suggested that they have a friendly competition to see who could write the best horror story. Remember, Mary is 18, and she's just been challenged to a writing competition by well-respected, already-established writers. No pressure, right? But, after wracking her brains for a few nights, Mary came up with the idea for Frankenstein.

Pretty sure she won that competition. Although Polidori's effort would be published as the first modern vampire story, so you have him to thank (or blame) for Twilight.

Romanticism vs. the Enlightenment

In addition to its value as a creepy, compelling tale, Frankenstein is important for the insight it provides into how people like Mary viewed the world in the early nineteenth century.

We've already mentioned the Romantic movement, in which Mary's husband, Percy Shelley, and traveling companion, Lord Byron, were key figures. Romanticism was an intellectual, artistic, and literary movement that peaked in Europe from roughly 1800 to 1850. Partly a response to the Industrial Revolution, and partly to the Age of Enlightenment (more on this in a second), Romanticism favored the imagination and intense emotions as the best and most authentic sources of aesthetic experience. Romantics raised the individual to the status of hero. Certain Romantic ideas, like the notion that misused power can harm society, are evident in Frankenstein.

Frankenstein was also heavily influenced by the philosophies of the Enlightenment, a cultural movement that preceded Romanticism in Europe and lasted from about 1650 to 1800. Enlightenment thinkers, such Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Sir Isaac Newton, emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism. Rather than following religious teachings, Enlightenment thinkers turned to scientific study and practiced skepticism.

We know that Mary, Percy, Byron, and Polidori were having discussions that included both Enlightenment and Romantic philosophies around the time that Mary wrote Frankenstein, and you can see the tension between these two philosophies in the novel. Is scientific exploration an exciting or a terrifying thing? Should we rely on science or emotion as a guide to ultimate truth? Does science do good or harm to society?

Another place where Romanticism and Enlightenment thinking were at odds was the question of nature versus reason. Romantics thought that humans were, and ought to be, governed by nature: our desires, our emotions, and our physical surroundings. Devotees of the Enlightenment, on the other hand, believed in reason: intellect, logic, and observation. In a nutshell, Romantics believed that we should follow our hearts, while Enlightenment thinkers believed that we should follow our heads. In her story of scientific experimentation gone awry, Mary dug into the pitfalls of both Romanticism and reason.

Science Meets Fiction

Frankenstein is often called the first science-fiction novel. Like its literary successors, Frankenstein dealt with contemporary scientific interests, including alchemy and galvanism.

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