Frankenstein: graveyards, scientific experiments and bodysnatchers

Ruth Richardson shows how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written as a result of a challenge to compose a ghost story, was influenced by thoughts of death, scientific experimentation and Gothic tales.

Frankenstein is one of the most unusual and important novels of the 19th century, as well as one of the most famous. Written in the form of letters, the story is told from several different points of view, which means that the reader learns to see events in complex ways, not always from the same angle as the narrator. It is probably the first ever science fiction novel, too.

The story tells of a scientist so involved in his own researches that he loses touch with reality. He creates a new life from an assemblage of older body-parts, a monstrous being who nevertheless has human feeling, and who reacts to rejection with hurt, sorrow and fury. Many people think they already know the story from films and other dramatizations, but when they come to read the book, they are struck by how unexpectedly short and exciting it is, and how easy to read, being simply and brilliantly well written. When readers learn that its author was a young woman of only 18, eyebrows tend to rise in disbelief.

Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, 1831

Frontispiece with illustration of Frankenstein's monster laid on the ground, eyes open, and Frankenstein standing in the shadows, from the 1831 edition of Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus

The frontispiece illustrating the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1831.

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Mary Shelley was the daughter of two political philosophers. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of one of the greatest feminist texts, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. William Godwin, her father, was author of An Enquiry concerning Political Justice. She was born in 1797 in Somers Town, an arty area very close to where the British Library now stands. The house in which she was born and grew up was called 'The Polygon', and stood just north-east of the present Library site. It has since been demolished, but a road there is still named after it. Mary's mother died of childbed fever soon after her birth. She was buried in the parish graveyard of Old St Pancras Church, just north-west of the British Library.

Devastated, Godwin planted two willows over her grave. Being very close by – a short walk across the fields – it was a favourite place to visit with his little daughter. Later, when she was a teenager, her father wrote a book called An Essay on Sepulchres, which argued for the importance of the graves of great writers and artists. At that time, only royalty and the wealthy had memorable tombs: people who died in poverty – however famous – had no gravestones.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Page 1, containing the opening of the introduction, from Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a ground-breaking work of feminist philosophy, primarily attacking those who felt that education should be withheld from women. This copy contains Wollstonecraft’s manuscript notes.

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An Enquiry concerning Political Justice

Printed title page from An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its influence on general virtue and happiness

William Godwin’s An Enquiry concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness (1793) is a radical work that argues the case for humanity’s power to progress and achieve fulfilment without the institutions of the state.

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Mary Shelley’s upbringing

Mary had an unconventional upbringing, being well-educated for a girl of her time. She had free access to her father's library, and was knowledgeable in arts, sciences, politics and languages. She was a free spirit, and from a young age had enjoyed writing fiction.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley admired the work of both her parents, and it was this high regard that brought him and their daughter together. She was 16, he was in his early 20s, and already married, when they fell passionately in love, and eloped together. They would remain together for the next eight years. They travelled together, wrote together, revised and commented on each other's work, married, and had children together. Shelley was drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822.

Mary Shelley was only 18, when in the early summer of 1816 she travelled with her poet sweetheart by road south and east through France to meet up with Lord Byron at Geneva. Napoleon had finally been vanquished only the previous June, and the peace following the years of war with France was just becoming established. Byron took a different route to Geneva, via the battlefield at Waterloo (now in Belgium). He arrived at the Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, in his new coach – modelled on one owned by Napoleon – accompanied by his personal physician, John William Polidori. The Shelleys settled in a smaller house nearer the lake, but spent many evenings up at the villa with Byron and the doctor. Polidori came from a literary and artistic family. He had trained in medicine in Edinburgh, and had dissected bodies supplied by grave-robbers. His dissertation had been a study of somnambulism, or sleepwalking.

Illustration of the Villa Diodati

Double page containing text and an illustration of the Villa Diodati house on the shore of Lake Geneva, surrounded by trees and lush plants, from Finden's Illustrations of the Life and Works of Lord Byron, Vol 2

The Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, where in 1816 Byron, Polidori, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont met and told each other ghost stories.

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Writing Gothic tales of terror

The story of the writing of Frankenstein is well-known – there has even been a film about it. There had been atrocious weather and a spate of electrical storms, and instead of returning home after supper, the Shelleys sometimes stayed overnight at the villa. One such evening, the friends read aloud from a book which opened with a circle of friends each agreeing to tell a ghost story. The tales excited 'a playful desire of imitation', and on Lord Byron's suggestion, the friends at the Villa Diodati each agreed to attempt the creation of a Gothic tale of terror. Neither of the poets of the group – Byron and Shelley – produced anything substantial, but Polidori later elaborated on an idea of Byron's, and wrote his novel The Vampyre, thought to be first appearance of the vampire story in English fiction, 80 years ahead of Dracula.

'There were four of us', Mary Shelley remembered later:

... I busied myself to think of a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. ...I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir...

It was this idea that became her novel Frankenstein.

By some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion

There are many theories about the influences working upon Mary Shelley's imagination at the time. We know that she was knowledgeable about scientific developments in London. It seems likely that many thoughts converged in her mind that evening, provoked both by the storytelling, the recent storms, and conversations she afterwards described having witnessed:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr Darwin... who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.

The doctor mentioned here was Dr Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) whose home in Lichfield is now a museum. He was a famed medical doctor and poet, a renowned botanist and herbalist, who is known to have given lectures on anatomy in the cellar of his own home. The vermicelli had evidently the eggs of some insect in it, which developed after it had been enclosed. The reference to a glass case may have suggested the glass coffins often seen in continental churches, containing human body-parts the relics of Catholic saints. Often the contents of these cases are wax effigies, like the one apparently writhing with maggots in the famous novel The Mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs Radcliffe, which Mary Shelley had probably read, and could have been mentioned during the conversation about ghost stories. Such grisly things were designed as objects of contemplation for the devout, but may have reminded Mary Shelley of something she did not want to think about – the graveyard back home where her mother's body lay.

Graveyards and bodysnatchers

Mary Shelley grew up during the era of the bodysnatchers. At that time, the only legal source of bodies for dissection was the gallows – dissection played an essential part in medical training, helping students to learn about the human anatomy. For centuries, government had used dismemberment as an extra punishment meted out to murderers, mainly to differentiate murder from the many lesser crimes punishable with death. But there were not enough murderers' bodies to supply the needs of all the medical students of London. Especially during the Napoleonic Wars, when more doctors were needed for the battlefields, there was strong pressure to obtain more. Anatomists offered cash to gangs of bodysnatchers, who would go out at night to dig up the freshly buried dead.

When Mary and Shelley had been courting, they often met up in the churchyard at Old St Pancras, which served a large parish, and many dead were buried there. In those days the burial ground was much more extensive than it is today, and beside it there was a second large burial ground belonging to another parish. The setting of this graveyard was quite rural, too, because it was surrounded by the open fields that lay between the northernmost streets of London proper, and the southernmost parts of the newer village of Camden Town.

Being comparatively lonely, St Pancras churchyard had a local reputation as a favoured place for bodysnatchers. Mary Shelley would have known this: after all, she had grown up in the close vicinity. She may indeed have lived for years with the fear that despite the willows her father had planted there, her mother's body might have been stolen and dismembered.

  • Ruth Richardson
  • Ruth Richardson is an independent scholar, a Visiting Fellow at King’s College London and Visiting Professor at Hong Kong University. A devoted reader in the British Library’s Rare Books Room, she is the author/editor of several books including Death, Dissection and the Destitute, Vintage Papers from the Lancet, Medical Humanities, The Making of Mr Gray’s Anatomy and most recently, Dickens and the Workhouse. She has published many papers in learned journals, created online exhibitions for King's College Special Collections and for the Bishopsgate Institute, and is a frequent contributor to The Lancet. She is currently working on a study of marginalia and topography in Dickens and Tennyson, and working to preserve the Cleveland Street Workhouse.