Hor­ror from Hor­sham to Hol­ly­wood

This year marks the bi­cen­te­nary of Mary Shel­ley’s hor­ror novel Franken­stein. Amanda Hodges ex­plores its Sus­sex con­nec­tions

Sussex Life - - Inside -

As Mary Shel­ley’s sem­i­nal novel Franken­stein cel­e­brates 200 years we ex­am­ine the au­thor’s Sus­sex links

“It was on a dreary night of Novem­ber, that I be­held the ac­com­plish­ment of my toils. With an anx­i­ety that al­most amounted to agony, I col­lected the in­stru­ments of life around me, that I might in­fuse a spark of be­ing into the life­less thing that lay at my feet.”

These were the first words that Mary Shel­ley (in the fic­tional guise of Vic­tor Franken­stein) rec­ol­lected com­mit­ting to pa­per when re­mem­ber­ing the gen­e­sis of her ground-break­ing novel Franken­stein, first pub­lished 200 years ago in 1818. Not only was it then highly un­usual for a woman to write fic­tion but Mary’s novel would prove revo­lu­tion­ary within its gothic hor­ror genre, fos­ter­ing the lit­er­ary cult of the mad sci­en­tist in­tent upon un­cov­er­ing what Vic­tor calls “the philoso­pher’s stone and the elixir of life”.

The daugh­ter of fa­mous par­ents, novelist and po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Wil­liam God­win and pioneer­ing fem­i­nist writer Mary Woll­stonecraft, au­thor of A Vin­di­ca­tion of the Rights of Woman, Mary had al­ways been en­cour­aged to think in­de­pen­dently and knew from an early age that she wished to write. Highly in­tel­li­gent, forth­right and per­cep­tive, she seemed des­tined for a re­mark­able life and this she would cer­tainly have, al­beit one tinged with fre­quent tragedy and con­sid­er­able hard­ship as well as ro­man­tic in­ten­sity.

View­ing Cas­tle Gor­ing in West Sus­sex, the im­pres­sive an­ces­tral home of her hus­band, the poet Percy Bysshe Shel­ley, one can eas­ily – and er­ro­neously – imag­ine Mary here con­jur­ing the in­tensely imag­i­na­tive plot for her story, the two seem­ing in per­fect sym­bio­sis. Tempt­ing as it might be to in­dulge this whim when sur­vey­ing this Gothic man­sion (now owned by Lady Colin Camp­bell) it was ac­tu­ally many, many miles away that Mary’s fer­tile teenage imag­i­na­tion first found in­spi­ra­tion. It was at a house party on the shores of Lake Geneva, presided over by poet Lord By­ron, that the lim­i­ta­tions im­posed by bad weather first led to the idea for ev­ery­one to com­pose a ghost story. Long try­ing to find a suit­able sub­ject it was one night that the idea sprung sud­denly un­bid­den into her mind. “When I placed my head upon my pil­low... 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 Cre­ator of the world…” She sud­denly re­alised she had the per­fect ma­te­rial with which to write: “I have found it! What ter­ri­fied me will ter­rify oth­ers; and I need only de­scribe the spec­tre which had haunted me my mid­night pil­low. On the mor­row I an­nounced that I had thought of a story.”

Mary and Percy had long led a peri­patetic life, largely based abroad in or­der to avoid scan­dal.

They met and fell pas­sion­ately in love when Mary was only 16, sub­se­quently run­ning away to­gether (first to the Con­ti­nent, then back to Eng­land) since Percy was al­ready mar­ried.

Their non­con­formist re­la­tion­ship ef­fec­tively barred them from con­ven­tional so­ci­ety, keep­ing them fre­quently on the move, short of money and of­ten un­wel­come.

Percy had been born in 1792 at Field Place in Hor­sham, West Sus­sex, son to the re­li­gious aris­to­crat Sir Ti­mothy, who was then the area’s lo­cal MP. Percy had dis­played his rad­i­cal­ism from an early age, be­ing ex­pelled from univer­sity after writ­ing The Ne­ces­sity of Athe­ism, and his sub­se­quent elope­ment with Har­riet West­brook and later en­tan­gle­ment with Mary caus­ing wide­spread dis­grace.

He was a sin­gu­lar char­ac­ter, phe­nom­e­nally gifted yet dif­fi­cult, liv­ing life in an ec­stasy of feel­ing and cre­ative in­spi­ra­tion; a man of con­science ded­i­cated to free love, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism.

When Wal­ton, the ex­plorer from Franken­stein re­counts his im­pres­sions of the wrecked Vic­tor Franken­stein, it sounds like Mary’s trib­ute to her sin­gu­lar hus­band who could find so­lace in na­ture after any chal­lenge: “Even bro­ken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beau­ties of na­ture. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight af­forded by these won­der­ful re­gions, seems still to have the power of el­e­vat­ing his soul from earth.”

Cas­tle Gor­ing had been built

“I have found it! What ter­ri­fied me will ter­rify oth­ers”

by Percy’s grand­fa­ther, the 1st Baronet, and – along with Field Place, in which Sir Ti­mothy pre­ferred to re­side – it had been in­tended as his grand­son’s fu­ture in­her­i­tance. Lo­cated within what to­day con­sti­tutes part of the South Downs Na­tional Park, the build­ing had been de­signed by John Re­becca, the first of sev­eral that Re­becca de­signed in the Geor­gian era around the then highly fash­ion­able re­sort of Wor­thing on the south coast.

In­ter­est­ingly, it was a house built with two façades, Gre­coRo­man on the south side (with ap­par­ent in­flu­ences from a Ro­man villa) and castel­lated Gothic on the north, pay­ing trib­ute in its con­struc­tion to nearby Arun­del Cas­tle. Sadly Percy’s un­timely demise at just 29 in a boat­ing ac­ci­dent in Italy meant he was never to ful­fil his grand­fa­ther’s wish of oc­cu­py­ing the prop­erty.

Mary re­turned to Eng­land soon after her hus­band’s death in 1822, ded­i­cat­ing her­self to her son’s wel­fare and a ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional writer.

She would take a series of tem­po­rary lodg­ings, vis­it­ing Hast­ings after suf­fer­ing smallpox in 1828 and of­ten spend­ing time on the Sus­sex coast con­va­lesc­ing in places like Brighton, her health not be­ing strong for the last decade of her life.

Things even­tu­ally came full cir­cle though as years later Mary and her only sur­viv­ing child Percy Florence would in­herit these Sus­sex houses from Sir Ti­mothy after his death, their for­tunes briefly seem­ing to rally as they gained some fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence.

With their be­quest Mary and young Percy had ini­tially con­sid­ered the idea of liv­ing at Cas­tle Gor­ing where Percy clearly en­ter­tained no­tions of en­joy­ing the life of an ar­che­typal coun­try squire. “There is noth­ing I should like more,” said Mary at the time to her step-sis­ter Claire (Clair­mont), per­haps her­self long­ing for a set­tled life, but she knew that it was likely to be an im­prac­ti­cal propo­si­tion since nei­ther she nor her son were welloff and had been left only the most mea­gre stipend by Sir Ti­mothy in his will. Re­al­is­ti­cally, in or­der to sus­tain a com­fort­able ex­is­tence in such sur­round­ings young Percy would need to marry well.

The 1840s, the decade in which they re­ceived their in­her­i­tance, was a chal­leng­ing one, marked by agri­cul­tural de­pres­sion and so be­ing be­queathed a di­lap­i­dated, debt-rid­den coun­try es­tate was some­what of a poi­soned chal­ice. Many of Field Place’s fur­ni­ture and fit­tings had been taken by Lady Shel­ley, leav­ing just the crum­bling ru­ins of a house. Hopes of a com­fort­able life dwin­dled and the tor­ren­tial rain of 1845 wiped out crops as ef­fi­ciently as the next sum­mer’s drought. With a need for funds gath­er­ing pace young Percy’s dreams of cas­tle life were re­lin­quished and re­luc­tantly Cas­tle Gor­ing was sold in 1845 to the res­i­dent lessee, Cap­tain Sir Ge­orge Brooke-pechell, Lib­eral MP for Brighton. The sale raised more than £11,000, of which much was im­me­di­ately en­gulfed by an­cient debts.

After Percy’s mar­riage of 1848 (which did ex­pand their hori­zons) Mary’s fi­nal years were di­vided be­tween liv­ing in Lon­don with her son and daugh­ter-in-law and also at Field Place, which they had fi­nally been able to oc­cupy. She would die young, of a brain tu­mour, in 1851 aged 53 but her lit­er­ary in­flu­ence re­mained po­tent. In Franken­stein Vic­tor talks fer­vently of his stud­ies en­abling him to “pour a tor­rent of light into our dark world,” and by virtue of her bold imag­i­na­tion Mary Shel­ley did just this with her sem­i­nal novel, cre­at­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary, in­tensely re­alised book that would guar­an­tee its au­thor’s im­mor­tal­ity.

The clas­si­cal Greco-ro­man fa­cade at the south of Cas­tle Gor­ing

ABOVE: The Gothic fa­cade at the north of Cas­tle Gor­ing pay­ing trib­ute to nearby Arun­del Cas­tle BELOW: Richard Roth­well’s paint­ingMary Woll­stonecraft Shel­ley

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