Saturday, 16 April 2016

Electric Dreams

How does an 18-year-old woman called Mary pass her time during a wet holiday in Geneva, in 1814?  She only goes and writes the world’s most famous horror story.

Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
When I got my first summer holiday job it nearly killed me.  Helping set up posts and wires for now famous marlborough vines, as a gangly 15 year old I was labouring way above my weight. I lost all the skin off my hands to blisters, more skin to sunburn and slept at nights like never before.
Certainly not for the last time I found an evening escape from this punishing routine in fantasy media - most particularly, a two-night television event which I’ve never forgotten.

Audaciously, and mendaciously, called Frankenstein the True Story this was a TV movie shown in two parts with an incredible cast. It boasted James Mason, David McCallum, Jane Seymour and even a cameo from Tom Baker, and seemingly lavish production values (the closing scenes in the Arctic were especially cinematic).

Mason played a sinister character called Dr Polidori, and one of my strongest memories is David McCallum speaking through the monster’s lips and mocking the Doctor in his distinctive, acerbic tones by referring to him as “Polly-dolly”.

James Mason (right) as Polidori about to bring Jane Seymour to life
through the wonders of chemistry. Never got to do that in School Cert science...
John Polidori was actually the vain and long-suffering doctor who attended Lord Byron during that fateful stay at Villa Diodati where 18-year-old Mary Shelley first imagined the story which would become Frankenstein, but what I’ve learned recently is that Byron did actually refer to the hapless medic as ‘Polly-dolly”!

As someone who thought he knew a lot about the creation and countless adaptations of this story, I’ve discovered even more I didn’t know from a book, written, fittingly by a female academic Roseanne Montillo.

The Lady and her Monsters is a fascinating look not only at the remarkable life of Mary Shelley and the famous figures around her, but contemporary factors which would have contributed to her most famous story. Body-snatching and early experiments in the electrical stimulation of deceased tissue are examined in a historical and medical context, which in turn provides an often uncomfortable view of the society of the time.  More than just dead frogs were made to jump around on the end of leads from a galvanic battery.
It’s easy to decry early medical experimentation as barbaric, particularly as many human dissections were made accessible to the general public for entertainment, but discoveries made also helped ensure that we are all so fit and healthy now.

Shelley was the daughter of a writer regard as the 'first Feminist', Mary Wollstonecraft, and went on to lead a sensational but mainly unhappy life. The first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818, it would never have done for the public to know that a woman had written it. Even after she was finally credited, it was Shelley’s collection of her late husband's poetry which finally brought her something approaching financial security.  Percy Shelley died in a sudden storm on the Gulf of Spezia, Byron expired on a remote Greek Island of self-inflicted ill health, and a destitute Polidori poisoned himself.

The achievements of the two Poets are well-known, but even 'Polly-dolly' managed, through his own ghost story conceived at Villa Diodati, to give the world Lord Ruthven, establishing the image of the ‘modern’ aristocratic vampire before Stoker ever wrote Dracula.

The first edition of Polidori's The Vampyre
was erroneously credited to Lord Byron,
which pleased neither men.
And speaking of which, I’ll finish with a piece of trivia which Montillo uncovered which binds the two protean figures from the dawn of literary horror together:

" The real Frankenstein family had settled in a formidable castle overlooking the Darmstadt (Rhineland) region, where their deeds, famous and infamous began to be recorded in the annals of history...
 In the mid-1400s the castle was the site of much bloodshed when a member of the family was locked in mortal combat with an enemy of unusual fortitude and cunning, with a deep understanding of psychological warfare...
Known for his brutality, Vlad the Impaler and his doings provided, in part, inspiration for another gothic masterpiece: Bram Stoker's Dracula."

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

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