August 30: Mary Shelly

Mary ShellyToday we celebrate a woman, born on this day in 1797, who gave birth to a monster that haunts the world to this day. We speak of course of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, and her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

You’re probably already familiar with the Frankenstein story, but do you know how the novel came about? In May of 1816, the poet Percy Shelly, Mary Godwin (Although the couple’s friends and Mary herself called her “Mrs Shelley,” the two were not yet married) and their son traveled to Geneva to spend the summer with Lord Byron and his guests. It was an especially rainy summer, so the group were largely confined to the house and often told old ghost stories and folk tales. One evening, the topic of conversation turned to the philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, a man who was said to have reanimated dead tissue. Inspired by the discussion, Byron made the suggestion that the company go about writing their own supernatural tales.

So, Mary Godwin began working on her story about a scientist who decides to play god and bring life to a creature made of human remains. Much like in Greek mythology, where Prometheus created humanity from clay and then stole fire from Zeus for humanity, Victor Frankenstein would steal Zeus’ lightning to create his creature. Godwin described the process of writing Frankenstein as like being in a walking dream, with the idea of a “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” seeming to emerge fully formed within her mind. The tale soon grew into a short story, and Percy Shelley encouraged her to expand the idea into a full length novel.

Now, with any good discussion of Frankenstein, it’s time to be pedantic. If you know where I’m going with this, feel free to say it along with me: Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the name of the creature! In the actual novel, Victor Frankenstein’s creation is referred to by a variety of terms, including “monster,” “creature,” “demon,” “fiend,”  and simply “it.” Sometimes during tellings of the story, Shelly would refer to Frankenstein’s Monster as Adam, a reference to the Biblical first man, and a name that has stuck with many Frankenstein fans.

It’s also interesting to note that, contrary to many contemporary interpretations, in the original novel “Adam” is not a brutish simpleton unable to say phrases longer than “Fire bad!” and the like. The creature, as written by Shelly, learns to speak proper English and later on in the novel rants against his creator’s actions. Despite some of the creature’s more heinous actions (i. e. murdering a couple of people near and dear to Dr. Frankenstein), one still sympathizes a bit with him. After all, he didn’t ask to be brought back to life, forced into an existence as an abomination. If you, like I, are of that opinion, I think it’s fair to view Frankenstein’s Monster as one of fiction’s earliest anti-heroes.

Amusingly, although it was legendary director James Whale who helped shape the now common impression of the monster as having “the mental age of a ten-year old boy and the emotional age of a lad of fifteen” in his two Boris Karloff starring films, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, he also felt a deep respect for the creature. According to some biographical sources, Whale viewed his two Frankenstein films as dark comedies, which is completely understandable when you look at Colin “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Clive’s performance as Dr. Frankenstein. However, Whale thought that everything was fair game for mockery, except the monster! In Whale’s interpretation,  despite being immature of mind, the monster had a quiet dignity and humanity underneath his reanimated tissue, a quality that was lacking in the rest of the story’s characters.

We’re a little over two months out from Halloween, so you might want to save today’s drink for then, but really Mary Shelly’s birthday is as good a day as any to drink a Frankenstein! It’s an appropriate monstrous drink seemingly made up of whatever spare parts the mad doctor who created it happened to have lying around in his laboratory. It’s a dark green cocktail filled with all manner of fruit flavors with a punch like a lightning bolt.

Frankenstein

  • 1/2 ounces Green Melon Liqueur
  • 1/2 ounces Blue Curaçao
  • 1/2 ounces Peach Schnapps
  • Splash of Orange Juice
  • Pineapple Juice
  • 1/2 ounces Jägermeister

Pour each ingredient (except the pineapple juice and Jagermeister) into a Collins glass with ice. Fill with pineapple juice, stir, and then float the Jagermeister on top.

Tomorrow: A pop star who’s performed in front of sold out crowds, but doesn’t really exist. (We’ll explain.)

 

 

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