#56: ‘Frankenstein,’ At The Beginning

Illustration from the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

Hi hi, m’ dearies,

To catch everyone up, the Black Cardigan letter is currently devoted to the idea of “literary beginnings.” We began talking about Zadie Smith in the last letter (with special guest Nicole Cliffe) and I’ll circle back to her and White Teeth in the next one, but I realized that this coming week marks the anniversary of Frankenstein’s genesis—June 16, part of a rainy week in Switzerland, ghost story-telling at Lord Byron’s villa, A BIG NIGHT IN MONSTERS!, etc.—and so I’m interjecting a letter about that here. Years ago, I wrote about Lord Byron, his doctor John Polidori, and the complicated (and funny) ways the assemblage of people cooped up in the villa that summer brought about our modern, western conception of vampires as aristocratic, weary creatures (not unlike Lord Byron).

For this letter, I wanted to focus on the Mary Shelley and Frankenstein-centric part of the proceedings. I’m borrowing from something I wrote elsewhere. The intent is to look at how Shelley was stalled as she began the book and how she got herself moving forward.

First page of the original draft of Frankenstein. It begins: “It was on a dreary night in November that I beheld my man completed.” If you’d like to look at more of the draft, this online exhibit put together by Bodleian Libraries and the NYPL is gorgeous.

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein in 1816 when she was nineteen years old. It was published two years later. First edition: 500 copies. In 1831, a new edition came out and Shelley was asked to write an introduction for it. She was then in her 30s and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had drowned some years before. During her time with the poet, she had given birth to several children, but only one, a son, had survived infancy. This child was born a year after Frankenstein was published, so he would have been twelve or so when Mary Shelley was writing the book’s new introduction. I mention all of this to give some of the emotional context of her 1831 self. This was an author revisiting what must have felt like a long ago, lost part of her life: a novel she’d written when she was young and in complicated love. Now she was a widow with a twelve year old.

At the introduction’s start, she says she’s glad to write it because it’ll give her the chance to answer the question “so very frequently asked me—‘How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” She then tells the now-famous story of the novel’s beginnings. How she and Percy were neighbors to Lord Byron and his doctor, Polidori, one summer in Switzerland. (She leaves out the whirling presence of her stepsister Claire Clairmont, but she was there too.) How the raininess of that summer kept them all indoors in Lord Byron’s villa, reading ghost stories aloud to one another. And how one day Lord Byron proposed that each of them write their own ghost story.

The three men immediately started work on their stories.

Meanwhile, Mary Shelley writes:

I busied myself to think of a story,—a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the bood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

This went on for a few days, until one day she overheard Byron and Percy talking about some recent scientific experiments and how “[p]erhaps a corpse could be reanimated.”

A vision came to Shelley that night:

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. 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 with an uneasy, half vital motion. … His success would terrify the artist: he would rush away from his odious handy-work, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade…

The vision continued unspooling before her eyes, showing the scientist awaking from the swoon of sleep to find his creature standing beside his bed “looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”

It occurred to Shelley that this terrible dream-vision could become the basis for her ghost story, the “tiresome unlucky” one she’d been trying in vain to write. “What terrified me will terrify others,” she reasoned, and she began work the next day.


It’s impossible to know how much of this story is true to the lived, chaotic experience of Frankenstein’s creation. In her book Romantic Outlaws, a joint biography of Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Gordon contends that Shelley’s version of how Frankenstein came about (stalled, stalled, vision, and boom) probably isn’t true to how it went. She points out that, as a female author of her time, Shelley would have felt some pressure to downplay her abilities and intelligence when introducing her work to a large audience (thank god that’s changed) and sees the introduction as a bit of self-deprecating camouflage: “I didn’t write it, my vision did.” As evidence, Gordon points to Percy Shelley’s preface to the original work, which mentions no struggling, and Polidori’s diary entries that describe Mary as setting down to industrious work from the start. (He had a giant crush on her and so her movements are well diary-notated. Poor Mary.)

My own belief is that this doesn’t contradict Shelley’s account—what she was working on might very well have been a different story that ended up stalling out. I’d add that she was spending the summer with three outstandingly self-absorbed men (I’m fond of the lot of them, but THEY WERE), and I bristle at taking their word over hers. In the end, of course, I can only come back to: it’s impossible to know, and allow that any account of “how I wrote my book” given more than ten years after the fact is going to have a suspicious neatness to it as well as some inherent persona management and myth-making, especially given the cast involved.

Mostly, it interests me how much it matters to us almost two centuries later, with the shelves of books written about this particular group of people that particular summer, as if, if we could just get to the bottom of what exactly happened and what was said and who sat where feeling what on June 16th, we would get down to the bottom of creativity and genius and how it sparks and how to capture it.


Still, I do love Shelley’s introduction. It’s one of the more useful examples of a writer talking about how she was blocked and the mechanism by which she worked her way out of it. (Whick makes a nice layer of irony if she made it up.) Here I’d like to draw your attention to three things:

1. From now on when you sit down to write and not much comes out, I invite you to think of it as not being blocked, or stuck, but as a time “when dull Nothing replied to your anxious invocations.”

2. To finally start her ghost story, Shelley had to tap into what truly terrified herself. That is, she had to dig her way from “here are the elements that the other amazing ghost stories contained,” to the layer below that: “what scares me.”

She had sat down, as many of us do, to write with grandiose but generic expectations (“a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror…” ) and got nowhere. The nightmare vision was what took her to that next deeper layer, where she was able to access what scared her. And then she was wise enough to trust that what had frightened her would have the power to frighten others.

3. And, interestingly, part of the truly terrifying story she ended up writing is, on one level, a story of being stalled, finally making something, and being horrified by what you’ve made. (There’s also something there about stalled motherhood, too.) I don’t know whether this mirroring to her own writerly situation was intentional—still, I note this as, a lot of times when we’re stuck, it’s because we’re holding back from our writing our own observations and internal tumult and fears (as well as our jokes and humor) as somehow unworthy to go into the story. When, in fact, the gift of these tumults and turbulences and fears (and jokes!) is that they’re our raw material, no matter how transformed they come out on the page.

Shelley herself seems to allude to this at the end of the introduction. She writes,
And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart…

Note, the “hideous progeny” of that sentence isn’t Frankenstein’s monster. It’s the book she wrote. That part feels like Mary Shelley winking across the centuries:

“Here’s the book I wrote. I call it Frankenstein. I started it one rainy summer long ago when I’d just about despaired of ever writing anything. Hideous as it is, I loved it well.


I mentioned in the last letter that I was taking a week off to work on my book. I had lots of field trips planned to liven up the week, but after the first few days those started feeling less necessary (and too “put on clothes” time consuming) and so I nested in.

A couple pictures from the “field trip” portion of the week. This is the dog’s favorite walk in the world (ecstatic snorting, coming up on other walkers like a ragged-breathed Jack the Ripper) and I counted it as a solid victory that she didn’t jump in the river.

And then one from the “nesting” portion—the cat, beautiful, watching birds while wishing to be admired, and still 98% less high-maintenance than either Lord Byron or John William Polidori.


I’m now offering a new service at Black Cardigan Edit called the Mid-Project Check-In. I had a few requests for this one and so added it! It’s for when you’ve reached a certain point in your book draft and wish to summon aid to your side before you march on. You can learn more about it here.

Zadie next time.

Until then,
wishing you and your monsters happy, well, and hideous,

p.s. If you aren’t subscribed to this newsletter and would like to be, go here.

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit