Who re­ally wrote

It might be nearly 200 years since the Gothic hor­ror novel was pub­lished, but ques­tions re­main as to whether Mary Shel­ley wrote it. Michael Mur­ray-fen­nell weighs up the ev­i­dence

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WE will each write a ghost story,’ Lord Byron chal­lenged the guests at his Ital­ian villa dur­ing the sum­mer of 1816. The in­ces­sant rain re­sult­ing from the spec­tac­u­lar erup­tion of In­done­sia’s Mount Tamb­ora had con­fined Byron’s party in­doors. There, they re­lieved their bore­dom with Ger­man ghost sto­ries un­til the poet de­cided to see whether, be­tween them, they could equal or sur­pass those su­per­nat­u­ral tales.

There were five of them at Villa Dio­dati on Lake Geneva. Byron, al­ready fa­mous for his po­etry and in­fa­mous for his lib­er­tine life­style; Doc­tor Poli­dori, the poet’s physi­cian and trav­el­ling com­pan­ion; Claire Clair­mont, who had pre­vi­ously had a fling with Byron in Eng­land and who was re­spon­si­ble for in­tro­duc­ing the fi­nal two guests: the poet Percy Bysshe Shel­ley and his lover—by the end of the year, his wife—mary Woll­stonecraft God­win.

The talk that sum­mer was not just of ghosts, but of science. In the 1790s, the Ital­ian sci­en­tist Luigi Gal­vani had made dead frogs’ legs twitch by the ap­pli­ca­tion of an elec­tric cur­rent and, more re­cently, Eras­mus Dar­win, grand­fa­ther to Charles, had spec­u­lated that elec­tric­ity might be used to bring inan­i­mate ob­jects to life.

Faced with Byron’s task of in­vent­ing a ghostly tale, Mary went to bed, her head full of hor­ror sto­ries and sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ments. ‘I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think,’ she re­called. When she did slip into sleep: ‘I saw the pale stu­dent of un­hal­lowed arts kneel­ing be­side the thing he had put to­gether. I saw the hideous phan­tasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the work­ing of some pow­er­ful en­gine, show signs of life, and stir with an un­easy, half-vi­tal motion. Fright­ful must it be; for supremely fright­ful would be the ef­fect of any hu­man en­deav­our to mock the stu­pen­dous mech­a­nism of the Cre­ator of the world.’

Next year marks the bi­cen­te­nary of the pub­li­ca­tion of Frankenstein, the novel that drew its in­spi­ra­tion from that night­mare. The story of sci­en­tist Vic­tor Frankenstein and the mon­ster he cre­ates is a po­tent work, one in which the reader’s sym­pa­thy switches from the young doc­tor to the crea­ture and back again. It also taps into our un­ease at how far we should pur­sue sci­en­tific en­deav­ours and our fear of their un­in­tended con­se­quences.

But did Mary Shel­ley write Frankenstein? It’s a ques­tion that has qui­etly per­sisted in the back­ground since the novel first

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