From a volcano in Indonesia to a frog in Bologna, a ghoulishly large number of ideas and events wormed into Mary Shelley's dazzling mind as she imagined the "hideous phantasm of a man" at the throbbing heart of Frankenstein, first published two centuries ago and twitching back to life this month in the new Steampunkish movie Victor Frankenstein. Here are some key connections to Shelley's cautionary novel.
The 13th-century Castle Frankenstein, in the Odenwald, where Johann Dippel (b. 1673), alchemist and grave robber, is said to have experimented with reviving corpses—and, some believe, inspired Shelley. Though it's unclear whether she knew about Castle Frankenstein, it's easy see how Dippel conjures the image of a mad scientist. He was an avid dissector, claimed to have discovered an elixir of life, and peddled a variety of oils and potions concocted from animal flesh and bones.
The April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, which killed tens of thousands, spewed so much ash it cloaked Europe in gloom for many months. According to climate experts, the atmospheric debris even played a role in bizarre weather patterns that chilled the Northern Hemisphere through 1816. It was during that "year without summer" that Shelley and friends enjoyed a haunting Swiss holiday.
Shelley places Victor Frankenstein's childhood in Geneva—a nod, perhaps, to where she first conjured him. In June 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, then 18, joined her future husband, the poet Percy Shelley, her stepsister Claire, Lord Byron and the physician John Polidori for a holiday here. In the narrative poem "Darkness," Byron described days where the "bright sun was extinguish’d" and people were "chill'd into a selfish prayer for light." The unseasonable rain and cold kept the group indoors, so they told one another ghost stories: Shelley's "creature" and Polidori's The Vampyre were born.
Mary visited Percy at Oxford in 1815, where his rooms were full of Leyden jars, a friction generator and various alchemical instruments. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein visits the city after meeting England's top scientists, describing his melancholy in a prophetic passage: " For an instant I dared to shake off my chains and look around me with a free and lofty spirit, but the iron had eaten into my flesh, and I sank again, trembling and hopeless, into my miserable self."
In 1781, Luigi Galvani, a physician in Bologna, used an electrically charged knife to make a dismembered frog leg jump. The idea that electricity could "infuse a spark of being," as Victor puts it, impressed Shelley. Galvani's pioneering work led to a new field of science, electrophysiology, which became crucial to Alessandro Volta's invention of the electric battery at the turn of the century.
Victor hikes into Chamonix after the creature kills his brother. His descriptions of the valley as a "glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature" echo letters that Mary and Percy wrote on an 1816 trip. The region inspired Percy as well: during their trip, the "still and solemn power" of nature led him to write the epic poem "Mont Blanc," which would be published in 1817.
Shelley spent two teenage years near Dundee. In the Orkneys, Victor abandons his effort to fashion a companion for the creature: "During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment; my mind was intently fixed on the consummation of my labour, and my eyes were shut to the horror of my proceedings. But now I went to it in cold blood, and my heart often sickened at the work of my hands." After Shelley's novel was published, a Glasgow doctor named Andrew Ure tried to revive an executed convict.
Victor pursues the creature to "the blue Mediterranean" around Spezia. In a real-life Gothic twist, Percy drowned nearby when his boat capsized in a storm four years after the novel was published. His corpse washed ashore ten days later on the beach near Viareggio. In "Notes on Poems of 1822," a widowed Shelley describes her grief: "hard reality brings too miserably home to the mourner all that is lost of happiness, all of lonely unsolaced struggle that remains."
The novel ends north of Archangel, where an explorer had found Victor, on the verge of death chasing the remorseful creature, who in the finale sets off to "the northern extremity of the globe" to destroy himself in a fire. "I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt," the creature says. "Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus."