In search of the real Frankenstein

Was a Somerset scientist and his daring electrical experiments the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece?

It’s 1816, a volcanic eruption has shrouded the world in darkness, making this the ‘Year Without a Summer’. Lord Byron, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley’s 18-year-old lover, one Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, find themselves huddled for warmth in a shadowy villa in Switzerland. Their only entertainment? A competition to see who could think up the most bone-chilling, blood-curdling horror story. As the two famous poets and their female companion began dredging the darkest recesses of their minds, who would have thought that what emerged from the lips of the young Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) would become literature’s most iconic monster?

The legend of how Frankenstein came to be is almost as famous as the tale itself. But how much do we really know about what sparked off the freakish idea for the first science fiction novel in this teenage girl? Two hundred years exactly since its anonymous publication, we are beginning to learn the fact behind the fiction.

Andrew Crosse

Flashback four years to 1814. Scribbled in the diary of the future Mary Shelley are the words: ‘Shelley and Clary out all the morning. Read French Revolution in the evening…Go to Garnerin’s. Lecture on Electricity; the gasses and the Phantasmagoria.’ It was at this lecture in London that one Somerset scientist, known as ‘the Thunder and Lightning Man’, laid out his theories on how to harness the power of storms to create electricity.

Amid the wild Quantock Hills the crashes and explosions emanating from an isolated manor house sparked off rumours of devils dancing on electricity wires and hell itself unleashed. In fact, the manor’s owner, Andrew Crosse, was channeling lightning strikes by capturing the electrical discharge inside jars in his ‘philosophy room’, to use for medical purposes. The sounds let off by the electricity discharging created blasts that were often mistaken for the sounds of man-made storms.

Crosse’s own letters report his amazement at the deafening noises and five-hour long ‘stream of fire’ let out by his electrical experiments which ‘must be witnessed to be conceived’. Could it be that the man-made thunder claps of the ‘Wizard of the Quantocks’, as locals nicknamed Crosse, inspired Mary Shelley’s eccentric scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who in another ‘stream of fire’ from ‘a most violent and terrible thunderstorm’ begins his search for the secret to creating human life?

Not only her main character, but Mary Shelley and her poet husband too were obsessed with the power of electricity. Growing up Percy Shelley would ‘practise electricity’ on his family, administering them small shocks at the dinner table. While studying at Oxford University he even threatened to electrocute the son of his cleaner.

Pages from the original manuscript of Frankenstein (Getty)

This year a new story has emerged from two centuries worth of shadows: the tale of Mary Shelley in Bath. It was here that the author experienced the most dramatic events of her life and wrote the majority of Frankenstein. Yet, besotted with its Austen heritage, only in 2018 did the Somerset city commemorate Shelley’s connection to Bath. Mary Godwin arrived in the city the mistress of a married man with the beginnings of a story in her mind. Hit by news of the suicides of her lover’s wife and her own half-sister, she left Bath with a husband, a new surname, a baby on the way, and with an almost complete manuscript for her novel. This February the city of Bath finally decided to embrace its Mary Shelley legacy by installing a plaque dedicated to the writer. Did Shelley use her time in Somerset to visit the laboratory of ‘The Electrician’ of the Quantocks? We may never know, but the pages of her novel are tantalisingly suggestive.

Eerily enough, some years after the publication of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus as Shelley subtitled it, Andrew Crosse announced that he himself had created life from his experiments. He claimed that one day as if from nowhere appeared on his desk ‘the perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail’. A few days later the Acarus crossii (named after their creator) began moving their legs. Just as Prometheus was tortured for daring to challenge the powers of Creation, Crosse was devastated by the ensuing accusations of blasphemy and became increasingly reclusive.

Skin-crawling visions of Crosse’s ‘beetles’ and the story of a scientist destroyed by his creation immediately bring to mind the screams of ‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ amid thunder claps as Boris Karloff begins to raise a mottled finger in the 1931 Frankenstein film. Could it be that Mary Shelley’s all-too-real inspiration caused her to write not only one of literature’s most gripping horror stories but also, inadvertently, the tragic ending of a story playing out all too close at hand?


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