Shelley’s Frankenstein has spoken to technological and cultural anxieties from the Enlightenment to #MeToo. But its author’s achievements have too often been dismissed or treated with scepticism
I became fascinated by Mary Shelley and her most famous novel because of her husband. Back in 2011, I found myself trying to make sense of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry. It was a tricky assignment. Percy was above all a creature of his own cultural moment, and nothing dates like a zeitgeist. Yet Mary’s Frankenstein comes out of just the same heady cultural and political nexus as her husband’s verse, and her novel has continued to fascinate us. Two hundred years after its publication in January 1818, it still speaks to us directly as a myth about contemporary life. It has inspired film adaptations across genres, from the comedy caper Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the quasi-rock opera The Rocky Horror Picture Show and sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner. Then there’s the apparently endless schlock and kitsch in comics and cosplay (where fans dress up as their favourite fictional characters). It has become the go-to journalistic shorthand for technological interventions in human biology or medical science: Dr Frankenstein and his creature make their way in the mainstream of modern life. They reappear in our fantasies and nightmares more consistently than most fictional or historical characters. Now we can expect a slew of new Frankensteins, as everyone’s favourite scar-faced shuffling giant and his creator are remade for a new time.
How did Shelley create her great work? Some critics have claimed that she didn’t