Sir Christopher Frayling tells BRLSI a Gothic horror story - by Paul Stephens
Professor Sir Christopher Frayling came to
Bath to right a wrong. For 200 years the author of one of the world’s most famous novels had remained uncommemorated in the city where she wrote most of the book. Now, outside the Pump Rooms on a cold February afternoon, Prof Frayling had unveiled a plaque in her memory, then come over to BRLSI to tell a packed Elwin Room audience the story behind it.
The novelist was, of course, Mary Shelley, the book Frankenstein, and the speaker a leading authority on Gothic horror, with credits including a TV series entitled Nightmare: Birth of Horror and a newly-published book Frankenstein: The First 200 Years. The story is well-known of how, in 1816, the 19 year old Mary Godwin spent a summer near Geneva with a party including her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, how they held a competition for the best short horror story, and how Mary won with her tale of a scientist creating a humanoid monster from assembled parts. Prof Frayling filled in the details, describing how Mary, while living in
Bath, expanded the story into a full-length novel, and giving insights into the many and disparate factors which influenced her to write it.
It was the story of a young woman eclipsed by the fame of those around her – her parents were Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, two leading intellectuals of their day – but with a determination that saw her bring her book to fruition during a period of intense upheaval that included pregnancy, her father’s rejection of her because of her relationship with Shelley (then already married) and the death by suicide of her half-sister. She read voraciously and wrote with similar single-mindedness (a typical day in her diary reads “Read…eat…write”), producing a work that draws on everything from creation myths to galvanism and the lectures of family friend Sir Humphry Davy, with themes, such as the fatherless child and artificial creation of life, that are sharply relevant today.
Mary knew no-one in Bath (Shelley chose the location to avoid London, where he had many creditors), but this, and the fact that she lived above a lending library (now replaced by the present Pump Room complex) worked in her favour, giving her the time to work on the expanded manuscript. After multiple rejections it was published, anonymously, in 1818, with many people assuming that Percy Shelley had written it. It appeared under Mary’s name (by now Mrs Shelley) in 1822, but sadly she made little money from it, and none from the many stage adaptations of the early 1800s.
Prof Frayling ended his lecture with an enjoyable run-through of Frankenstein’s cinematic history, from his conversion into grunting brute (Shelley’s monster was intelligent and articulate), through to interpretations by the great Boris Karloff and later Robert De Niro. Today, he told us, the once-eclipsed Mary Shelley is more famous then either of her parents, or even her husband’s exalted poetic circle. And at last, she has the plaque she deserves in the city where Frankenstein grew up.
Prof Frayling recalled that he had first proposed a plaque to Mary Shelley in
Bath some 20 years ago, but that his suggestion hadn’t been taken up. The driving force behind the new, successful plaque proposal had been BRLSI’s own Betty Suchar, Chair of Management and organiser of the evening’s lecture. As Betty told us afterwards, “It’s a win for the recognition of women – and dogged persistence”.
The image is of Prof Sir Christopher Frayling with Betty Suchar, BRLSI Chair of Management and the driving force behind the new plaque commemorating Mary Shelley’s time in