Frankenstein: The Story Behind the Story

Lauren Strongin and Max Cauthorn in Scarlett's Frankenstein // © Erik Tomasson

What began as an evening pastime between a troupe of writers in a villa turned into not just an 1818 Gothic novel, but a pop culture phenomenon. How exactly did Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein come to be, 200 years ago?

The origin of Frankenstein is the stuff of literary legend. Shortly after eloping, Mary and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, left London for Switzerland, eventually settling at a cottage near Lord Byron. Anticipating a warm summer on Lake Geneva, the group was met with not just a cold and rainy getaway, but a volcanic winter thanks to a historic eruption at Mount Tambora. The months that followed are now ominously known as the Year Without a Summer and later, The Little Ice Age.

Seeking relief from the dreary weather, the group had to find other forms of amusement and turned to writing ghost stories at Byron’s suggestion. Percy remembered crowding around a blazing fire, where “two other friends … and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.” Those “other friends” included his wife Mary, who began to write a story that would “awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round.”

A year later, Mary finished the book. Finding a publisher, however, would prove a little more tiresome. The manuscript was first declined by Byron’s publisher, then declined by Percy’s. With few other options, they turned to George Lackington and his publishing house, coined “the cheapest bookseller in the world.” He printed a short run of just 500 copies, authored anonymously.

Today the novel surpasses any work of Shakespeare as the fifth most commonly taught text in universities. Though it enjoys widespread success now, early critics weren’t so sure of Frankenstein’s merits, especially once discovering the novel was written by (gasp!) a then 20-year-old woman. One critic called the novel “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity,” and wondered “whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased.”

Fortunately for us, that attitude didn’t outlast Shelley’s story of both horror and heart. Today there are 75 films and counting that feature the story of Frankenstein (not to mention countless Creature cameos), at least 15 literary references in novels and poems, and 96 theatrical adaptations since its first publication. The novel has never been out of print. And now, choreographer Liam Scarlett has taken a dip into the supernatural, launching his ballet adaptation in the 2016–2017 season as a co-production between The Royal Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. The roaring ovations from its North American premiere indicate Shelley’s chilling story of creation and love continues to resonate, 200 years on.