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
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