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Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Frankenstein - The Bicentenary!

Sorry, I missed this in my New Year’s post, just found out, so here it is!

First edition. Public domain

Two hundred years ago, on New Year’s Day, a novel was published that would make a huge change to speculative fiction. The novel was written by a young woman called Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was one of the first feminists and had written a book about it. And I had a lot of fun including Frankenstein in a pile of books I showed my creative writing students. I invited them to have a guess at what all those books had in common. They were very different in genre and era when they were written, but they all had one thing in common: they were all written, I told my lovely class,  by teenagers. So they must not assume that they were too young to write something worth reading.

We probably all know about “that” boring, wet weekend in Switzerland where a bunch of British writers decided to see which of them could write the best scary story. Actually, only two of them were already writers, the poets Byron and Shelley. The other two were John Polidori, a doctor, and our girl Mary.

I’m not sure what the two wonderful poets came up with - perhaps a Google search will unearth that. Feel free to look it up and let me know in the  Comments box below.

But in the end, it was the two non-writers who came up with something special.

Polidori wrote a novella called The Vampyre. It’s not that nobody had ever written vampire fiction before. What Polidori did was to make vampires sexy! His villain, Lord Ruthven, is said to have been inspired by Lord Byron. Not sure how Byron felt about that, but let’s face it, he had a bad rep anyway. “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”! And, incidentally, an amazing poet and the father of the “mother of computer programming”, Ada Lovelace.

Anyway, Twilight fans can say thank you to John Polidori, though Ruthven is not exactly Edward Cullen. More like Dracula, perhaps, or at least allowed Dracula to be created. But before him, vamps were ugly critters you really wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley!

Frankenstein - well, what can I say? It has inspired so many books, films and plays. There are send-ups, of course, such as Young Frankenstein, a Mel Brooks film with Gene Wilder. The hero is the grandson of  Victor Frankenstein, who is embarrassed enough to pronounce his name Frankensteen. He goes to Transylvania, where he finds the notes to make another Creature, and meets an Igor who is the grandson of the previous Igor(there wasn’t an Igor in the book). When he offers, as a doctor, to fix Igor’s hunch, Igor asks, “What hunch?” A very funny film, though it probably has more in common with the film than the novel.

And any Terry Pratchett fan will remember an entire clan of Igors(and Igorinas - the women tend to be beautiful, with artistic stitching, while the men are patched creatures). The Igors work as doctors of one kind or another, because they have access to spare parts. The deal is, they help you out with spare parts when you need them and you agree to let them use yours when you die. In fact, they take self-improvement seriously. An Igor's funeral has the family members all going home with paper bags; when an Igor says, "I have my father's hands" he means it literally. They do tend to work for mad scientists if they can get a job with one, but never hang around till the peasants with flaming torches reach the castle, and one of the more modern Igors works as the police surgeon in Ankh-Morpork, where he experiments with such things as instant fish and chips, with swimming potatoes in a tank at the watch house...

Thing is, we tend to associate it with horror fiction. And I suppose it is, but it’s more. The Phillip Pullman play adaptation is on the curriculum at my school. One of the things the students have to do is write a letter from the Creature to his creator, letting him know how he feels about his treatment by Victor. They discuss it in terms of parent and child and also do some stuff about the Prometheus myth. There is definitely meat for class discussion here!

Personally, I think it’s also science fiction. The author asked, “What if...?”and went from there. That’s what you do with SF.

For two hundred years, Victor and his creation have affected us. We speak of “Frankenfoods.” When something that seemed a great idea at the time goes horribly wrong and it’s our fault, we say, “I’ve created a monster!” And everyone knows what we mean! All because a young girl and her friends got bored one wet weekend two centuries ago...

If you’d like to read either The Vampyre or Frankenstein, both of them are free on Project Gutenberg. Enjoy!


Tamara Narayan said...

I love the idea of looking at all the successful books written by teenagers. I bet that was some collection!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue - yes I wrote a blog post about Mary Wollstonecraft back in 2011 and nearly gave a talk on her, but later on did one on Ada Lovelace ... such a fascinating set of people. Well done on inspiring your students they can write at any age ...I've never read Frankenstein - one day I need to .... cheers Hilary

Sue Bursztynski said...

Tamara, yes, some interesting books by teens. Off the top of my head, one of them was The Outsiders by S.E Hinton, a 16 year old girl. Sonia Hartnett’s first novel was published when she was 15. Isobelle Carmody wrote the first of the Obernewtyn series when she was 14(and the last only came out a couple of years ago, and she is now middle aged, but still...). I also showed my class a book written by a 13 year old. It was a truly awful vampire novel, and read like something written by a 13 year old, IMO, but the kids liked it and so did the publishers...

Hilary, Ada Lovelace was an amazing woman. I believe her mother brought her up to be a mathematician so she wouldn’t turn out to be a useless, no-good poet like her bum of a father. But let’s face it, maths was what she was good at anyway, and she wrote the world’s first computer program, to go with Charles Babbage’s world’s first computer. I wrote about her in my children’s book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science.