Frankenstein is a hard book to read – not because it is particularly terrifying, although it has its moments, but because we don't really think we need to read it anymore. More than fifty film ‘adaptations’ later, the book's title irresistibly brings to mind crackling bolts of electricity, a simple moral about the dangers of ‘bad science’, and make-up effects which were cutting-edge in 1931. The memorable tale of a genius whose reckless experiment unleashes a murderous monster can easily distract from the bewildering, convoluted, often hilarious experiment of the book itself. Encoded throughout Victor Frankenstein's self-aggrandising, profoundly unreliable narrative is an ambitious interrogation of the literary and political landscapes of the early 19th century, by a young woman uniquely positioned to observe both.
Even today some critics are unable to accept that a girl of Mary Shelley's age and time could have written such a book, seduced as they are by that ideal of the solitary, radical masculine genius which was and is so popular in the mythology surrounding her male contemporaries. At 19 she had been more extensively educated, had travelled more widely, and had been exposed to more personal loss than might have been expected of a far older woman; all of that experience found its way into the pages of Frankenstein. The book is truly her own "hideous progeny", stitched together from the hugely various materials the young author's life had made available to her; the radical politics of her parents, scientific gleanings from Percy Shelley's short-lived academic career, tropes of cheap gothic literature, and scenes lifted directly from her travels through Europe all appear in a twisted patchwork of turn-of-the-19th-century culture.
Unlike her more celebrated peers, Shelley lived long enough for her youthful radicalism to be tested and tempered by the passage of time. The book’s popular success led to a second edition, published in 1831, which not only tidied up its structure but recast Frankenstein’s downfall in the terms of a religious morality play: “the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world”. What makes the original 1818 version profiled here extraordinary is the disillusionment with radical idealism that is already present, locked in conflict with the very purity of which it despairs. This ongoing struggle between the spirit of progress and a malignant, self-destructive narcissism defines not only the central characters of Mary Shelley's novel but the politically fraught world in which it was written, and makes it worth forgetting everything we think we know about Frankenstein.