This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Published in 1818, when she was only 20 years old, her celebrated novel is about an arrogant scientist who comes to despise his hideous yet sentient creation. But through countless adaptations, Mary’s most-famous story has become just as misunderstood and distorted as Victor Frankenstein’s so-called “monster.”
There’s little debate that Frankenstein is a gothic novel. Mary’s idea came from a ghost story competition with famous writing friends while visiting Lake Geneva, during a particularly stormy June in 1816, later called the year without a summer. (No joke: the same competition spawned the vampire genre.) Her novel is full of the typical gothic elements. Old German universities with pseudo-scientific instruments. Romantic subplots in the shadowy Alps. Attic laboratories and spooky graveyards. Plus, a somewhat bizarre scene involving body-parts disposal from a rowboat in the Orkney Islands.
But the general belief that Frankenstein is primarily a horror story comes from 1930s Hollywood, courtesy a grunting and stumbling Boris Karloff. I mean, how else would one rationally attach a stitch-happy head to a pre-assembled body other than two gigantic lag bolts? (This was pre-IKEA, okay.) Other readers have called Frankenstein science fiction. But the included science is fairly superficial, with all specifics about the actual monster-building left conveniently off the page.
Meanwhile, Shelley’s famous novel has many qualities more closely resembling adventure-travel literature. The novel uses an epistolary frame narrative, involving three distinct stories. The outermost frame is letters by an arrogant captain on an ocean adventure to reach the North Pole. The captain meets Victor Frankenstein, who floats past on an ice raft while chasing after his creature, intent on killing him. The middle frame flashes back to Vic building his hideous “wretch,” getting kinda nauseous at the result, abandoning him to the world, and later flabbergasted that his creature turns into a total a-hole.
Finally, the innermost story is by the creature himself, who turns out to be way smart but is violent and vengeful. He speaks (without grunts) like a Victorian aristocrat, wondering if he wouldn’t have become such an a-hole if everyone, including his creator, hadn’t treated him like SUCH an a-hole—pitchforks and brooms included. Scenes throughout the book include plenty of boating (on lakes, down the beautiful Rhine Gorge, across the English Channel), hiking (especially at night), and some light mountain climbing in the Alps.
This makes a lot of sense, because Mary’s first book, co-written with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a travel book. Published in fall of 1817, History of a Six Weeks Tour is an awesome book with an absurdly-long Victorian subtitle about four weeks in length. The book tells about a pair of raucous adventures by the two lovers and Mary’s stepsister, the first being akin to a “gap-year” trip inspired by Don Quixote.
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In 1814, the friends hiked a few dozen leagues around war-torn France, only a year after Napoleon Bonaparte was deposed as emperor and exiled to Saint Helena. First, they bought a donkey, which feeble, so they traded it for a mule, which seemed too slow because they keep getting caught hiking in the dark. Percy sprained his ankle, so they switched to a voiture, or horse-drawn carriage. But the carriage driver kept ditching them, and they chased after their ride practically to Switzerland.
Upon reaching the Alps, they were almost broke. After some sightseeing from the valleys below, they turned toward home. Method of travel? How about a whitewater-ish descent of the Ruess River to the swift Rhine River and through the very gorge that Frankenstein’s creature will later follow his creator? When the trio got to Holland, they grew impatient with that whole wide-sweeping-meander-thing, so they struck out across flat land, marveling at windmills. While crossing the channel, they calculate they traveled 800 miles for less than 30 pounds. (True dirtbags.)
In 1816, they returned to the Alps with a summer house at Lake Geneva. Between storms, they sailed around the lake that would supply a fictional home for Mary’s mad scientist. And they did some light mountain climbing, including an ascent to Glacier Montanvert, which became a critical setting for a fictional showdown between Vic and his tortured creature.
Shelley’s final travel book wasn’t published until 1844, and sadly it was her last. By that point, her life had followed a similarly tortured path as her most famous novel. In 1818, Percy drowned in a storm while sailing off the coast of Tuscany. Only one of Mary’s four children survived to adulthood. During the final decade of her life, she was plagued by headaches and fatigue, possibly caused by a brain tumor. She died in 1851, but not before publishing her final work, Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1844.
At a time when few women, let alone single mothers, traveled for the sake of adventure, there was Shelley—with her only surviving son, Percy Florence—rambling across the continent one final time. While she was noticeably slowed by her condition (the book is more concerned with history, politics, culture, and art), there are several choice episodes reminiscent of her younger days.
One favorite moment comes at the end of Volume 1. Several features recur throughout Shelley’s travel writing. Complaints about the food. Complaints about the cleanliness of the inns. Lots of boats, no complaints. And oddly enough, bad experiences with chauffeurs that lead to her and her companions pushing ahead on foot.
This happens again in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains of Germany. The driver splits, and Shelley and her son’s efforts to hire a guide are at first refused when they’re told it’s impossible for a lady to ascend the Grosse Winterberg at night. They go anyway, sinking into sand up to their ankles. Through pitch-darkness “not a star-beam penetrated the trees.” Using a cigar for a flashlight, they reach the inn at 11 p.m.
While visiting the region, bothered by persistent headaches, Shelley wrote this:
“We must become part of the scenes around us, and they must mingle and become a portion of us, or we see without seeing and study without learning. There is no good, no knowledge, unless we can go out from, and take some of the external into, ourselves.”
Mary Shelly was probably not the first female travel writer of the western world. But could an argument be made that she was the second? The first may have been her mother, the author Mary Wollstonecraft, who died 10 days after Mary was born. Celebrated today as a trailblazing feminist author, Wollstonecraft also wrote a travel narrative titled Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Among other things, the 1796 book tells about Wollstonecraft searching for a stolen treasure ship. Like mother, like daughter—in absurdly-long titles as in adventure—historically badass.