As we say goodbye to 2018 – the 200th anniversary year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – first-year student reporter Mathew Hunter reflects on his experiences studying the novel, and its legacy, at Edge Hill.
2018 marked the bicentenary of possibly the best-known Gothic novel of all time: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As an English Literature student here at Edge Hill the novel has followed me throughout the first term. In fresher’s week the 1931 film adaptation was screened for new students; in October students and staff were invited to assemble their own ‘Franken-stories’ from excerpts of the novel, and from Alasdair Gray’s Frankenstein-inspired Poor Things (1992) as part of the international Frankenreads celebrations; and now first-year students taking the LIT1025: Form module have begun studying the novel itself, as well as learning about adaptation and reception studies. I wanted to reflect on my first semester at Edge Hill by thinking about adaptations of Shelley’s novel and what Frankenstein has to say to us more than 200 years later.
Many people already know the story of Frankenstein’s creation. It goes that Mary, along with her future husband Percy Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, the poet Lord Byron and Byron’s doctor John William Polidori were staying together in the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva and challenged each other to write ghost stories. Frankenstein, Percy Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, and Polidori’s novel The Vampyre all owe their origin to this haunted night. And whether or not this story is entirely truthful, this night is an example of how Frankenstein has been mythologized over time.
The Villa Diodati, Switzerland. Public domain.
It its own day, however, the novel had less of an impact than we might imagine from the myths that have grown up about its creation. The Quarterly Review, though it praised Shelley’s ability as a writer, described the book itself as a ‘tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity. Even Lord Byron had a similarly complimentary dig: ‘methinks it is a wonderful work for a girl of nineteen.’ The first edition didn’t sell out for some time after publication. However, when the novel began to be adapted into other mediums its popularity took off.
As early as 1823, Frankenstein had been adapted for the stage as Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein. This version of Frankenstein set a precedent for the later adaptations to come. As a visual version of the play’s artistry, the monster was a tall, powerful, and almost Byronic figure, in contrast to Victor Frankenstein’s meagre and more scholarly appearance. The violence of the monster was emphasised more readily, and his poignant and eloquent speaking role was downplayed for an almost zombie-like role. In response to the play’s success, William Godwin published the second edition of his daughter’s novel in the same year.
T.P. Cooke as the Creature in Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein
Peake’s Creature, as played by T. P. Cooke, survived in popular film adaptations of the 20th century including Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Son of Frankenstein (1939), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974) to name just a few.
It was the 1931 version starring Boris Karloff that transformed Victor into a doctor (rather than a student), gave the Creature green skin rather than a yellow complexion, showed the Creature brought to life by lightning strike, and introduced the figure of the Igor-type assistant. Most significantly, cinema adaptations present the Creature as a zombie and not the eloquent, poetic figure created by Shelley.
There have been more recent attempts to recreate a version of Frankenstein that is more faithful to the original novel, with some terrible failures like 2015’s Victor Frankenstein and I, Frankenstein (2014). But there has been one version truer, I believe, to Shelley’s original. The Creature in John Logan’s excellent television programme Penny Dreadful (2014 – 2016) was a figure of loneliness, poetics and sublimity, most like the Creature in the novel; and Victor is a misanthropic, ambitious student in over his head, with a craving for the sublime and a need for understanding and power over life itself.
Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein and Rory Kinnear as The Monster Penny Dreadful. Showtime USA.
Over these last two hundred years, Shelley’s characters have changed dramatically. I doubt that the obsession with the story will ever cease. I am very much looking forward to in my English Literature courses in 2019 where we will be studying Alasdair Gray’s novel Poor Things, which was inspired by Shelley’s text, and, personally, I am hopeful for more new and innovative adaptions of Frankenstein for another 200 years to come.
 ‘Review of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus’, The Quarterly Review, 18. 379–38 (January 1818).
 Richard Lansdown, Byron’s Letters and Journals (Oxford: OUP, 2015), p.317.