The Birth of Frankenstein

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (originally titled Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus) is often considered to be the first science fiction novel and is a landmark of gothic fiction. First published anonymously in 1818 when Mary Shelley was only twenty years old the story of the novels conception is as fascinating as the hold the Doctor Frankenstein and his monster have held on popular culture ever since its publication. One evening in Villa Diodati, Lake Geneva, in 1816 saw the accumulation of an unusual set of circumstances that triggered a creative spark that has captured popular imagination ever since.

The themes and ideas that went on to form the novel were present before that fateful night in 1816. In 1814 Mary¹, her half-sister Claire Clairmont (born Jane) and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Europe. Mary and Shelley, having fallen desperately in love, fled to Europe when her father William Godwin objected to their affair. Travelling through France, which had been ravaged by the Napoleonic wars, onto Germany at one point they stopped in Gernsheim, 17km from Frankenstein Castle. Unlike most places named after the now legendary Doctor, Frankenstein Castle significantly predates the novel. It is questionable whether Mary would have been aware of or visited the castle but the legend behind it is worth investigating. The thirteenth century castle is best known because of the actions of alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel.

Born in 1673 Dippel became an alchemist; creating an elixir called Dippel’s Oil. Made from pulverised animal bones the elixir demonstrates his use of animal bodies in scientific creation. It had long been rumoured that this interest morphed into anatomy studies. He was said to conduct medical experiments on exhumed corpses, trying to reanimate the dead bodies. One myth that circulated was that Dippel was successful and created a monster that was brought to life by a bolt of lightning. In all likelihood this myth was applied to the castle after the release of Frankenstein, however it is interesting to note that the name previously existed, and has long been associated with the relationship between life and death.

The trio returned to Europe in 1816. This time they were heading to Geneva, to stay with Claire’s former lover Lord Byron. Mary and Shelley published their joint journal which covered this period in 1817. The travelogue was titled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland.  Here is an excerpt that discusses the landscape they observed:

“Never was a scene more awefully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime.”

1816 was also remarkable for being the Year Without a Summer. 1815 had seen a large volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. It left almost 100,000 dead. Clouds of volcanic ash were propelled into the upper atmosphere, obscuring the sun. The Northern hemisphere saw crop failures, food shortages and sudden climatic change. This included a decline in temperature and an increase in rainfall. At the time many were unaware of the causes of this strange phenomenon. It was common to have to light candles in the middle of the day due to the darkness. There are accounts of snow falling in the middle of June. Holidaying at Lord Byron’s villa Mary and her companions found themselves unable to enjoy the outdoors and instead spent their time inside discussing science, politics and literature. At this time Byron composed the poem Darkness, which reflects the uneasy feeling of the time.

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; / Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day, / And men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation”.

Themes of the supernatural and mystery run throughout the work created at Villa Diodati.

Interestingly the atmospheric changes resulted in unusual sunsets. It is thought that the yellow tinge that marks William Turner’s paintings during this period is a result of this. One work which demonstrates this is Chichester Canal (1828). Byron and Mary were not the only writers to find success in that strange atmosphere. The same few days saw the origin of the book The Vampyre. Written by Byron’s physician John Polidori it became the progenitor of Romantic vampire literature and was used as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula.

Added to this was the stifling interpersonal atmosphere between the group. When Mary and Percy Shelly first fell in love she was only sixteen years old and he already had a wife a child. His young wife Harriet was pregnant again at this time. This, plus her father’s disapproval, didn’t stop them. Shelley declared his love for Mary, often meeting at night at her mother’s grave. Claire went with them on their travels partly because she could speak French and they could not. Also, she was able to introduce them to Lord Byron. The two had been lovers. Although still besotted with Byron, who had largely lost interest in her, after Mary lost her first child in early 1815 Claire and Shelley embarked on an affair. It has also been reported that Polidori had designs on the young Mary, but she did not reciprocate his feelings. Notably, although Byron was interested in the young poet Shelley he was supposed to have had little respect for Mary. Shelley believed in free love and practised it, having affairs and illegitimate children throughout his life. At one point the Shelley’s were labelled a part of the League of Incest that Byron was at the heart of². Added to this Shelley was reported to have fallen into a morbid mood as a result of the oppressive environment.

It was in this atmosphere that the group; consisting of Mary, Shelley, Claire, Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori, spent their evenings talking and reading each other ghost stories. Eventually Byron suggested a ghost story writing competition. In the preface to the 1818 edition of Frankenstein Mary wrote that, feeling anxious, she would wake up each morning no closer to a story. At only 18 years old Mary was one of the more junior writers of the group. However she was highly educated for a young woman at the time and had been exposed to liberal, intellectual ideas all her life. This came primarily through her parents: radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and political theorist William Godwin, both successful writers.

In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream”

Several days after the competition was suggested Mary dreamed of a scientist who created life but was then horrified by its creation. She had found her story. The evening before her “waking dream” the group had been discussing the principle of life; what it means to be alive and whether a corpse could be reanimated. Mary commented on this in the novels preface:

“many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. … Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth”.

Although this sounds a little morbid corpse reanimation was a hot topic of the day. Galvanism is the contraction of a muscle that has been stimulated by electric current. Studies and investigations into the line between life and death occupied many of the great scientific minds of the early nineteenth century. Professor Sharon Ruston has investigated this area of scientific interest in depth. Her findings are detailed in the essayThe Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One point of particular interest is the work of the Royal Humane Society, originally named the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned. Established in 1774 the Society’smain aim was to publicise information to help people resuscitate others. Mary’s mother once attempted suicide by jumping from Putney Bridge into the Thames River. She was one of those “brought back to life”: resuscitated. This was one of the ways in which the line between life and death were being blurred and questioned. Each year there was a procession of those “raised from the dead” by the Society.

Further to this Shelley had a long history with scientific experiments. At Eton he used a frictional electric machine to charge the door handle of his room. He once blew up a tree on the schools South Meadow with gunpowder. His rooms at Oxford were fully equipped with science equipment and he continued to experiment with electricity, magnetism and chemicals. This interest continued into his adult life where he had trouble with multiple landlords and hosts. His frequent experiments would often burn cushions, leave marks on the walls and floors, and disturb other residents. In their leisure time the couple were also known to attend lectures and demonstrations that looked into the space between the known and unknown.

On that infamous night they had been reading German ghost stories from a French translation of the book Fantasmagoriana. These stories combined with the unusual dark and mysterious climate had an effect on the young writer. Shelley wrote,

“The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends…and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.”

In the preface Mary talked about a “waking dream” in which she conceived the idea of Frankenstein.

“When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —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. …”.

In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream” concluding that it occurred between 2 am and 3am on the 16th June 1816. This was several days after the competition began and fits in with Shelley’s remembrances of her difficulty in coming up with a story. Olsen explains,

“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night. We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clue.”

In order to capture the gothic horror found in the novel’s pages Shelley taped into her own fears. “What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story”. She began to create “a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream”. In the cauldron of the strange mix of events came the creation of one of the corner stones of gothic horror and science fiction.


¹Although at this point her name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin she referred to herself as Mrs Shelley prior to their December 1816 marriage

² Byron went into self-induced exile from Britain largely as a result of the constant rumours that he fathered a child with his sister. Like Shelley he had multiple children with multiple women; including a daughter called Allegra with Claire (1817).

The Liffey Swim and Jack Butler Yeats

First written for Headstuff.org

The Liffey Swim and Jack Butler Yeats: Ireland’s First Olympic Medalist

The first Olympic medal won by the Irish Free State was a silver medal in 1924, awarded Jack Butler Yeats for his 1923 painting The Liffey Swim. That may seem surprising today, however between 1912 and 1948 the arts took pride of place alongside sporting events in the Olympic Games. The arts section was broken down into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.

The arts were introduced to the Olympic Games largely due to the work and enthusiasm of one man: Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The Frenchman spent his life studying sports and education, becoming convinced of the importance of physical exercise in day to day and cultural life. Known as the Father of the Modern Olympics after he founded the International Olympic Committee, he acted as the driving force behind the sporting events revival.

Inspired by a somewhat romanticised view of the Ancient Greek games, his prime ambition was to place sport at the centre of French social and cultural life. More importantly, Coubertin saw the arts as being equal to sports. One can then see why the silver medal went to a work such as The Liffey Swim, which is now held in the National Gallery of Ireland. A lyre is represented on one side of the medal next to oars, javelins and other sporting paraphernalia.

There was of course a catch; all eligible works of art had to be inspired by sport and this suited Yeats well. Many of his oil paintings depicted boxing and horse racing events. Alongside The Liffey Swim (credited by the Olympic Committee as just Swimming) Yeats also submitted his 1915 painting Before The Start; an oil painting of three jockeys before the race began. Fellow Irish artist Sean Keating entered his painting The Fowler, which did not take home a medal. The Gold medal winner was Jean Jacoby from Luxembourg. He submitted, and won for three paintings: Corner, Depart and Rugby. World renowned artists were a part of the judging panel including John Singer Sargent and Belfast-born Sir John Lavery (who also has works on display at The National Gallery). At 53 Yeats was already a star on the international arts scene.

Jack Butler Yeats was the younger brother of Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats and son of the portrait artist John Butler Yeats. The family were very artistic, making their names through their writing or their paintings. A successful writer and playwright Jack started out as a cartoonist before he began to focus on oil painting. It was here that he found his calling and became one of Ireland’s most prominent artists of the twentieth century. Samuel Beckett once recorded that “Yeats is with the greats of our time”.

The Liffey Swim itself was a new event which Yeats captured in its infancy. The first race took place in 1920 with 27 entrants. Beginning at Victoria Quay, the swimmers would follow the river through the centre of Dublin, with spectators gathered on bridges to watch, before coming to an end one and a half miles later at Butt Bridge. After years of uncertainty, The Liffey Swim proved to be a transformative and vibrant communal event that bought people together from across the political divide. The painting captures the essence of that bond of excitement. According to the National Gallery, the 1923 swim was promoted as “the biggest free spectacle of the year in Dublin”. It was held after work hours on a Saturday so as many people as possible could watch. Even today the race still takes place on a Saturday in late August or early September. The 1923 winner was former Olympian water polo player Charles “Cecil” Fagan, who would go on to enter the race for many years to come. The runner up was the previous year’s winner Thomas Hayes Dockrell. The 1924 Olympics were the first Olympic Games after the years of conflict and war that had plagued Ireland. The fact that artists of such ability and stature wanted to take part arguably shows a great commitment to the new Irish Free State, and a desire to show the positive side of Ireland. The Liffey Swim is a positive and vibrant depiction of Dublin. For this one moment in time all are united in the joy and excitement of the competitive swim.

The bright blues of the painting reinforce the idea of this being a delightful day out. In reality it is likely that Yeats took a few artistic liberties with the colouring. On the actual day in 1923 the Irish Independent reported that “it rained now and then, but like a deluge during the concluding stages of the race” and that “a canopy of umbrellas ten deep lined the river”. Interestingly Yeats has also included himself in spectator scenes. The man wearing the brown fedora is thought to be Yeats, and the woman in the elaborate yellow hat his wife Cottie. In the painting the swimmers are approaching O’Connell Bridge. There is a feeling of activity and movement from the thick loose brush strokes and multiple layers of oil paint. The audience are placed in with the spectators, looking over shoulders to see the swimmers as they come into view. It captures the celebratory feeling that can be seen each year at the event.

Ultimately the fledgling Irish State only took home two medals from the 1924 Olympic Games. Both of these were from the arts categories: Yeats’ silver medal for The Liffey Swim and a bronze medal in literature for Irish poet Oliver Gogarty for his poem Ode to the Tailteann Games. Overall Ireland came joint fourth, with Denmark,in the arts section. Although Yeats was the first Irish artist of the twentieth century to sell for over £1,000,000 the silver medal did not initially lead to a sale. In 1925 The Liffey Swim was exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, with a £300 price tag. It wasn’t until December 1930 that the painting finally sold, for £250 to the Haverty Bequest Fund, who presented the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1931.

Surviving Freshers Week in 1660

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James Duport’s Guide to Surviving Freshers Week 1660

In 1660, James Duport, a fellow at Trinity College Cambridge compiled a list of 149 handwritten rules aimed at new students. In doing so he established a tradition of advice-giving that has endured over the centuries. Each new academic year, students are inundated by a plethora of do’s and don’ts; covering a wide range of issues such as studies, sex and alcohol. So how similar are Duport’s rules to those given out today and what do the 149 items tells us about students through the ages?

The most unsurprising rule urged students to “forbear wine and tobacco”. Students have always been associated with heavy drinking and the endless rounds of parties and drunkenness that haunt parent’s dreams. Even in the sixteen hundreds, it seems that there was concern about the role of alcohol in student’s lives.

Following on from this there was a desire for students to focus more on their studies. This was developed on with the rule: “never go into the town, except, to ye Church or Schools or Book-seller or Book-binders shop”. By today’s standards this seems extreme however Duport was writing immediately after the end of Cromwell’s Puritan time of rule when taverns were widely frowned upon as dens of sin in which a good man could come to harm, financial ruin or succumb to the influence of ‘loose women’. Bear in mind that the carrying of arms, daggers and such, was relatively common and minor arguments could easily escalate. In 1593 Cambridge alumni Christopher Marlowe had his life and stellar career (he was a spy, playwright, atheist and early contemporary of Shakespeare) cut short when a tavern brawl got out of hand.

It seems that Marlowe was one of the many who did not follow the rule to “beware of riot, excess & intemperance, which hath drown’d & devoured ye most pregnant parts & choicest of witts.” When away from home for the first time parents often worry that their children will be drawn into a life of excess and idleness in which riotous behaviour can bloom. One only has to look at the antics of the infamous Bullingdon Club in Oxford to understand the fear. Perhaps it was with behaviour such as this that encouraged Dupont to write the rule “take heed how you spend your time”.

Students were also given advice about what to wear and how to behave. “Wear no boots, nor powder your hair, let yr Garb be grave & sober, yet cheerful & pleasant.” After the Reformation the study of canon law declined in Universities and courses were increasingly preparing students for careers in the priesthood of the national church, in which outward presentation would have been considered important. This point is particularly interesting when you remember that in 1610 few people actually went to University, and those that did tended to be young, well off men often from high ranking families. Yet there have always been set ideas of how students should behave and dress. In turn this implies that there were also common ideas about how students should not dress and behave. This is something current students will be aware of when they go on pub crawls, fresher’s parties and end of term balls.

The complete set of 149 rules only came to light in 2013 when they were published in a Cambridge Bibliographical Society. This is the first time that the rules have been printed in their entirety after being prepared for publication by Dr Preston and Dr Oswald. The first known version of the rules have been held in the Wren Library, until recently when the missing page was located. In a post publication interview Dr Preston summed up that: “The rules are fascinating – they build up a picture of what was going on in the university at the time, and show how parents were anxious that their children be properly looked after”.

Although the rules are over three hundred years old tips such as rising early, making use of local book shops and avoiding the perils of binge drinking are still given out today by worried parents as their children are branching out on their own for the first time. These rules help to show that going away to University has always been a rite of passage, eliciting excitement and nerves in equal measure. It is interesting that the list focuses more on the social and practical side, rather than the academic, of being a student, expressing the fears of parents and guardians throughout the centuries. Who would have thought that the beliefs of a seventeenth century scholar could have so much resonance with twenty-first century parents who given the chance would often love for their children to “forbear wine and tobacco” and focus on their studies rather than socialising.