Mary Shelley’s preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein details some of the events surrounding the genesis of the story.
It was on 26 May 1816 that John Polidori and Lord Byron first saw and tried to rent the Villa Diodati near Geneva. Two days later they met with Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley – still, in reality, Mary Godwin at the time although she referred to herself as ‘Mary Shelley’ and she and Percy were married later that year – and Claire Clairmont. Claire Clairmont was Mary Shelley’s half-sister, and pregnant by Byron. The Shelley party were living close to Byron, possibly at the insistence of Claire Clairmont. Byron and Polidori moved into the Villa Diodati on 10 June, by which time they were spending a lot of their time with the Shelley party.
Mary writes that the heavy rain kept them indoors, and to pass the time they read Fantasmagoriana, a French anthology of German ghost stories. She states that Byron, who was the only one of the set engaged in active writing (Childe Harold), said, ‘We will each write a ghost story’, and that she took on the challenge along with Percy Shelley, Polidori and Byron. Polidori’s tale she dismisses, though he later developed Byron’s into a substantial work (The Vampyre), and Percy Shelley’s story about his early life was abandoned. Mary Shelley relates her difficulties in trying to think of a story, having to admit each morning when asked that it wasn’t forthcoming. On 17 June Polidori in his diary gave the first mention of the ghost story challenge, ‘The ghost-stories are begun by all but me’.
Mary listened to Percy Shelley and Byron talking about natural philosophy (science), particularly the essence of life. She had seen demonstrations of scientific experiments at the Royal Institute, and knew how electricity could be used to recreate movement in dead muscles. Erasmus Darwin had written about the possibility of spontaneous vitality, and the ‘vermicelli’ account may be a muddled story about microscopic worms in apparently inanimate matter (vermicelli means ‘little worms’). The story of creating a living perfect being from inanimate materials occurs in the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea as well as Paradise Lost by John Milton, who was supposed to have been an earlier resident of the Villa Diodati. And it's possible that Mary, an enthusiastic reader, knew of Le Magicien et Le Monstre; this was used as one of the sources for a dramatisation of Frankenstein in 1826. Mary’s personal history may also have affected her writing, consciously or unconsciously. Before her birth her parents had hoped for a boy, an early parental rejection. Her first child, born in 1815, died at the age of a few weeks, and four days later Mary dreamt she had revived it.
Two key statements in the preface show how Mary was influenced by existing ideas. She writes, ‘Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos’. Also, ‘Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it’. The combining of existing parts into a new whole echoes the action of Frankenstein himself. Her relation of this as a waking dream is told long after the event; whether or not it is true, it is an interesting comment on the process of authorial invention, seen as the process of bringing existing things together rather than total invention.
What does the frontispiece illustration depict?
The text beneath the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein refers to the moment the monster becomes conscious and Frankenstein abandons him in horror. Pieces of scientific apparatus are visible in the background of the image, with what may be a pair of electrical terminals appropriate to fit around a human head. Around this time such equipment was used for medical purposes. Note also the alembic (two vessels connected by a tube) and the bell jar, both used in the process of distilling, and the row of skulls above the cupboard.