Ever since Boris Karloff's striking performance in 1931, Mary Shelley s Frankenstein (1818) has symbolised everything that seems bad or frightening about science--the atomic bomb, genetically modified foods, luminous transgenic animals. But, when the teenage author dreamt up her plot and her characters, she was commenting on her own experiences rather than designing a manifesto for the future. As one early reviewer commented, Frankenstein 'has an air of reality, attached to it, by being connected with the favourite passions and projects of the times'. Unlike now, science was not central to society--even the word 'scientist' was not coined until 1833 (by William Whewell, future master of Trinity College, Cambridge). Frankenstein was published in that key formative period of the early 19th century before professional science became established in the Victorian era. Conventionally deemed a work of fiction, this gripping novel offers an exceptionally fascinating insight into scientific issues of the day.
When Shelley (1797-1851) was growing up, many teachers--women as well as men--still believed that girls' emotional natures made them incapable of understanding the cold reason of science. But attitudes were changing. Shelley's own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), had been a famous advocate of female education and by the end of the 18th century enlightened parents ensured that their daughters studied geography, mathematics and chemistry. In consequence, although educated women were excluded from laboratories, they made important contributions to science by writing popular primers disguised as fictional dialogues. Because these imaginary conversations aimed not to make girls into scientists, but to help daughters become better wives and mothers, their scientific concepts were interspersed with moral homilies about good behaviour. Set in cosy domestic surroundings, these chatty books made science appear safe.
The most famous didactic female writer was Jane Marcet (1769-1858), a well-educated woman of Swiss origins who belonged to a London circle of eminent scientific families. As a child, Shelley may have read Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Especially for the Female Sex, published anonymously in 1805, in which a knowledgeable mother called Mrs B. encourages her two daughters to think and to experiment. This imaginary family might well have been based on the real one of Margaret Bryan (fl. 1795-1816), an author and headmistress who taught girls scientific topics usually reserved for boys. Marcet's books were often republished and translated in the first half of the 19th century, reaching young men as well as women--most notably, Michael Faraday, discoverer of electromagnetism. The son of a blacksmith, Faraday was a bookbinder's apprentice, who taught himself chemistry by reading Marcet's Conversations in the evenings after work. Long after he became one of England's leading scientists, Faraday sent Marcet copies of his scholarly articles and praised his first teacher for giving him great pleasure as well as factual information.
Like Marcet, Bryan and their female colleagues, Shelley used fiction to present recent scientific discoveries. Most obviously, she drew on the latest research on electricity to tackle the most controversial issue of the day--the nature of life. In addition, she read many books and articles to make sure that she kept up to date on a variety of topics, including chemistry, evolution and Arctic exploration. For instance, in only the second paragraph of Frankenstein, the narrator, a polar explorer named Robert Walton, echoes real life expectations of the time by proclaiming that at the North Pole he hopes to find:
... the wondrous power which attracts the needle ... you cannot contest the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation ... by ascertaining the secret of the magnet ...
Shelley deployed fantasy to express both her reservations about science and her dissatisfaction with society. Through the magnetic ambitions of Walton, Shelley indicates her fascination not only with the study of science, but also with its direction and goals. The earth's magnetism, so important for ships' compasses, was a scientific mystery with no clear explanation in sight. Through Walton, Shelley emphasises how this theoretical problem was inseparable from political and commercial questions about funding research by government or private investment. Shelley's parents--Wollstonecraft and William Godwin--were both known for their fierce political tracts, but she preferred the more enigmatic genre of fiction. 'Some have a passion for reforming the world,' she told her diary. 'I respect such; she continued, 'but I am not for violent extremes, which duly bring on an injurious reaction.'
Shelley's diary also reveals the intensive reading programme she undertook while writing Frankenstein. Scholars have examined in detail the influence of many books she studied, especially the published lectures on electricity and chemistry delivered at the Royal Institution by Faraday's patron, Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829). Yet strangely they have neglected one scientific novel on her lists. In January 1817 Shelley recorded that on 'Teusday [sic] 28th' she 'Read journey to the World Underground--return to the Godwins--read the Rehearsal.' She was referring to A Journey to the World Under-ground: being the subterraneous travels of Niels Klim, originally published in Latin in 1741 by Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), Scandinavia's closest approximation to Voltaire. The novel, describing the underground adventures of a young philosopher, Neils Klim, was an immediate success. Klim inspired Giacomo Casanova, for example, to compose Icosameron (1788), a fantasy visit to the world's interior inhabitants, while the opium imbiber Thomas de Quincey began (but never completed) a translation and Edgar Allan Poe referred to it in The Fall of the House of Usher (1839).
Holberg created his underground travel narrative to satirise European civilisation. Like Shelley's Frankenstein, his book was also crucially underpinned by his scientific knowledge and reflects contemporary opinions on topics such as extraterrestrial life, astronomy and attitudes towards other races.
After tumbling down a cave in Norway, Klim discovers several planets beneath the surface of the Earth and encounters bizarre peoples with alien social codes. In a similar vein to Swift and other political commentators, Holberg concocted farcical adventures for his protagonist that are superficially humorous, but at a deeper level savage corruption and ridicule social foibles. In one episode, for example, Klim becomes rich and famous by introducing wigs to the inhabitants of Martinia, a satirical version of France.
Klim first lands in Potu (part of 'Utopia' backwards), a land populated by intelligent mobile trees. The plot hinges on his attitudes towards women. Tried for inadvertently climbing up a female constable, Klim is astonished to discover that the supreme judge
... was a Virgin ... For among these People there was no Difference of Sexes observed in the Distribution of publick Posts; but an Election being made, the Affairs of the Republick were committed to the wisest and most worthy.
He finds himself in an underground province where 'the Males alone perform the Drudgery of the Kitchen, and every such ignoble Labour ... The Females, on the other Hand, are in Possession of all Honours and Employments sacred, civil, or military.' Klim is later banished to the firmament, just beneath the Earth's crust, for proposing a law to forbid women from entering the Potuan government.
Published repeatedly in Britain, with no indication of its Scandinavian origins, Klim can in some ways be described as a 'British' book. It includes sections copied from the diary Holberg kept during his prolonged stay in Oxford from 1706 to 1708, while Potu's three academies have often been interpreted as Oxford, Cambridge and London; the failure of the Superterranean Company to tunnel through to the surface of the Earth precipitates a stock market crash paralleling that of the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Holberg talked about his deep respect for English philosophers such as John Locke and there are strong similarities between Klim and Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Holberg, however, was unusual in his eloquent pleas throughout his work for more tolerant attitudes towards women and minority religions.
When Shelley read Klim she was newly married and in the midst of writing Frankenstein. Presumably she was interested in Holberg's attacks on the subordination of women and she may also have been intrigued by Klim's references to being perceived by the subterranean inhabitants as a meteor when he spiralled down towards them. Shelley liked to boast that her own birth had been presaged by the first comet to be detected by a woman, the astronomer Caroline Herschel. Frankenstein and Klim share three central features: the framing structure, the perspective of a monstrous outsider and the use of mythological imagery. This suggests that Shelley's reading of Holberg shaped her thoughts about her own travel narrative.
In common with other utopian writers, Holberg and Shelley deliberately disguised their authorship by setting their texts within deceptive frameworks. Holberg's name was absent from the original title page of Klim, while Shelley initially published Frankenstein anonymously. She further removed herself by fashioning her novel as a series of letters from Walton to his sister at home. Because the English versions of Klim present the book as an authentic travel adventure, Shelley would have only discovered on the penultimate page that Holberg casts the entire narrative into doubt by revealing it to be the manuscript of a madman who had died almost 50 years earlier. Even this final author is not Holberg himself, but a Master Abeline, who had taught Klim as a student.
The structure of A Journey to the World Underground can be seen as three concentric spheres. The outer sphere describes Klim's journeys to and from the underground world; the bulk of the narrative in the next layer relates his adventures ill Potu and other subterranean realms; and a small central kernel comprises the journal of a second intrepid explorer Tanian, who briefly travels around Europe before descending again to amaze his subterranean friends with tales of the ridiculous behaviour he has observed on the Earth's surface. Frankenstein is similarly structured. The outer layer consists of an account by the explorer Robert Walton; the far longer intermediate level holds the story of Victor Frankenstein; and at the novel's core, Frankenstein's creature narrates his experiences as an outsider.
The surface layers of the two novels show remarkable similarities. In Holberg's opening sequence, Neils Klim is sailing to Norway, 'in order to clear up by Experience some Points of natural Philosophy, the Study I had devoted myself to'. Driven by 'an insatiable Curiosity, to explore the Nature of the Earth'. Klim is determined to discover things 'hardly ever seen or heard of'. Shelley's Walton is also on a northern sea voyage, having 'devoted nay nights to the study of mathematics, the theory of medicine, and ... branches of physical science' and now aiming to 'satiate nay ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited'.
In the next level of both works the plots differ substantially, although both rely on detailed description and on a blend of fact and fantasy to give their narratives greater authenticity. For example, Neils Klim gives details of planetary orbits and carefully describes the characteristics of Potuan trees as though he were a prototype scientific explorer.
The books' cores are both reached through a shift of narrator and both relate the experiences of an outsider. During his travels, Klim discovers a manuscript that is the mirror image of the entire book, an account of a journey on the surface of the earth by a subterranean explorer, Tanian. This internal document is itself shrouded in mystery, inviting readers to suspend disbelief since Klim learns that Tanian is a fictitious character and mould has eaten away the pages of the book explaining how he travelled up to the surface and back again. Here Holberg makes facile jokes about amphibious Dutchmen and lazy Spaniards, but also takes the opportunity to devise more subtle witticisms, for example, about universities being 'shops' for buying academic credit.
The theme of judging by external characteristics recurs throughout Klim and reflects Holberg's experiences of discrimination as a Scandinavian traveller. For many Europeans during the 18th century any country further north than Scotland was an unknown quantity. 'In England,' wrote Holberg, 'there is great freedom, good food and drink, but haughty commoners who consider foreigners as werewolves or half-humans.' Ignorance of the Nordic areas was even greater in Italy, where Holberg recounted that:
A young Piedmontese would not believe that I was a Norwegian, because he had learned from a historical itinerary, which he had at Rome, that the Norwegians were a deformed race of people, having pigs' eyes, and mouths which reached to the extremities of their ears.
This memory seems to have haunted Holberg, since Klim visits one 'execrable City' where the people are classified according to the shape and number of their eyes. But in Potu, an ideal state, Klim repeatedly comments that although creatures look like trees, they exhibit civilised, rational behaviour. To his delight, he can walk:
... without any Molestation, and what was more to be admir'd, without any crowding or jostling; quite otherwise than it is with us, where People flock in Heaps to any Thing that is new and uncommon, that they may feast their Curiosity.
In Frankenstein, the creature's account of his initiation into human society also enables Shelley to provide a critique of European culture and morals by making the outlandish appearance of the creature crucial to his rejection by everyone except a blind cottager. Once educated out of his original innocence, the creature (significantly in Shelley's story not called a monster) has learned to become appalled by his own reflection in a pool. He is an emblem of hideousness, just as statues could represent an ideal of beauty rather than an existing person. In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) Mary Wollstonecraft described how 'the Grecian statues were not modelled after nature ... beautiful limbs and features were selected from various bodies to form an harmonious whole'. Similarly, Shelley fused together her epitome of ugliness from a selection of body parts found in charnel houses and dissecting rooms.
Enlightenment utopian romances often commented on reality by reworking familiar myths. Edmond Halley, Holberg and Shelley all made mythological allusions to Hell which would have been recognised far more readily then than now. In Holberg's fiction, when Klim returns to the surface, Abeline tests his sanity by interrogating him about 'the Damn'd in the other World; concerning the Elysian Fields, and divers other Matters of that Kind.' Abeline advises Klim to keep silent, but reports that 'at certain Times of the Year' Klim would make a pilgrimage to 'the old Mountain, and take an earnest View of the famous Cavern' before shutting himself away for a few days in miserable solitude. Klim's periodic departure from normal life is reminiscent of Greek myths about the underworld. Klim's worst experiences, however, were not in the central interior, but in the firmament just below the crust, perhaps a reference to the liminal location of limbo.
Shelley's full title, Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus, referred explicitly to classical mythology. Prometheus made the figure of a man from clay and then, with the help of Zeus's daughter Athene, stole the secret of fire from the Gods so that he could infuse his statue with life. Shelley was also familiar with the second part of this story. To punish the human race for Prometheus's transgression, Zeus gave life to a clay statue, Pandora. At her birth, the Olympian gods taught Pandora all the female virtues, but when she was presented as a gift to Prometheus's brother, she lifted the lid from her giant jar and unleashed evil throughout the world; only Hope remained inside. William Godwin recruited the children in the household to test read his books. Shelley would have encountered this version as a child in Godwin's The Pantheon, or Ancient History of the Gods of Greece & Rome (1809). In this he explained:
The fable of Prometheus's man, and Pandora the first woman, was intended to convey to how many evils the human race is exposed; how many years of misery many of them endure ... how many vices are contracted by man, in consequence of which they afflict each other with a thousand additional evils, perfidy, tyranny, cruel tortures, murder, and war.
Modern readers forget how closely the stories of Prometheus and Pandora are tied together, yet Godwin's summary reads like an outline of his daughter's fictional nightmare. Frankenstein shocked its first readers by hovering on the edge of feasibility. For them, it revealed what might happen if the horrors of the French Revolution seeped across the Channel to infect the English population. In contrast with Pandora and the biblical Eve, Shelley held a man rather than a woman to be responsible for the consequences of human presumption. At first, Frankenstein succeeds in usurping the female gift of procreation, but his audacity unleashes a new reign of terror across the earth when he opens Pandora's box of evil consequences. Perhaps reassuringly, Karloff's film removes the blame from Victor Frankenstein by focusing on the monstrousness of his creation, the demonic destroyer electrically unsprung from Pandora's casket.
Further reading Marilyn Butler's introduction to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus: 1818 Text (Oxford University Press,1993); Miranda Seymour, Mary Shelley (Picador, 2000); Ludvig Holberg, A Journey to the World Under-ground, edited by James McNelis (University of Nebraska Press, 2004); Patricia Fara, Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (Pimlico, 2004). Stephen Bann (ed), Frankenstein: Creation and Monstrosity (Reaktion Books, 1994).
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Patricia Fara is Senior Tutor of Clare College, Cambridge. Her latest book is Science: A Four Thousand Year History (Oxford University Press, 2009).…