Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Eponymous Entanglement of the Creator and the Creature

                            Mention the word ‘Frankenstein’ and then take out your stopwatch because it won’t be too long before someone says, “You do know that Frankenstein is the Doctor and not the Monster.” Which is perfectly true, but referring to the Monster as Frankenstein has a long pedigree and the usage is now so common that it’s a tad too pedantic to argue the point. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was one of the two works to come out of the literary challenge set by Lord Byron at Villa Diodati in June 1816, (the other being John Polidori’s The Vampyre). It was written by the eighteen year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley, after she married the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley), and was eventually published anonymously in 1818, as a three-volume novel, in a limited edition of 500. 

Frontispiece - M Shelley - Frankenstein - 1831 ed.

The initial reviews were not favourable but a second edition followed in 1822, in two volumes, with Mary credited as the author, following the success of a stage play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Peake, and then in a ‘popular’ edition, heavily amended and revised by Mary, was published in 1831.

William Ewart Gladstone, the four time Liberal Prime Minister, in an account of his visit to Sicily in 1838, published in Murray's 'Hand-book for Travellers in Sicily' (1864), writes of the mules that “… they really seem like Frankensteins of the animal creation.”

J Payn - By Proxy - 1878

In James Payn’s 1878 novel By Proxy, in Volume 2, Chapter 5 A Jesuitical Letter, is the sentence, 
To them the world is peopled by Frankensteins of their own creation, - who are necessarily wanting in the attributes which they do not themselves possess.”

Walter Pater, in his essay on Rossetti in Volume 4 of Ward’s English Poets (1880), wrote,  
“… his hold upon them, or rather their hold upon him, with the force of a Frankenstein, when once they have taken life from him.”
And in the English Illustrated Magazine for July 1895, in a short article on Prince von Bismarck, the writer says, 
Bismarck had, of course, not the faintest idea that he was creating a Frankenstein for himself and for the German monarchy.”
So, it seems, the usage was very common in works throughout the Victorian period, and not only in written texts. 

The Irish Frankenstein - Punch 1843

As early as 1843, Punch was using depictions of monsters with the title Frankenstein – an Irish Frankenstein appeared in November 1843, with another Irish Frankenstein, by Alfred Forrester, featured in 1882. 

The Irish Frankenstein - Punch 1882

Another, by John Tenniel in September 1866 depicts a Brummagen Frankenstein as a monstrous working class giant threatening John Bull.

The Brummagem Frankenstein - Punch 1866

The real uptake of the Frankenstein/Monster interchange of names began when the creature began to appear in the cinema. 

C S Ogle as The Creature in Edison's Frankenstein 1910

In 1910, in the earliest telling of the story on film, Charles Stanton Ogle appears as the monster in the ten minute silent Frankenstein by the Edison Studios. Another version, Life Without Soul, followed in 1915 but unfortunately this film is now lost. 

Lobby Card - Life Without Soul - 1915

The definitive monster appeared in the 1931 Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff (billed as ‘?’) taking the role. His make up, by Jack Pierce, has the now familiar flat-topped head and the bolt through his neck, and Karloff plays the part as a lumbering but tender giant, who kills by accident and is tormented by Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz (played by Dwight Frye). 

Boris Karloff as The Creature - 1931

The film was controversial because of the scene where the creature accidentally kills a little girl by drowning, and the line uttered by Frankenstein, “It's alive! It's alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!” caused other problems, as it was interpreted to be blasphemous. Karloff reappears in 1935, in The Bride of Frankenstein (with Elsa Lancaster in the title role) and in Son of Frankenstein (1939). 

Karloff in colour

In The Bride of Frankenstein, Frye again appears, as Karl, a crippled murderer who falls foul of the creature, and in the Son of Frankenstein, the crippled, deformed assistant, now called Ygor, is played by Bela Lugosi (who played the creature himself in the 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman), giving us the ubiquitous Igor now associated with the story. The name Frankenstein is now firmly associated with the creature, rather than the creator, as an avalanche of films appeared throughout the twentieth century.

Andrew Crosse

A confusion of another sort concerns Andrew Crosse, the pioneer scientist and gentleman scholar, who some claim to be the model for Victor Frankenstein. Mary Godwin knew Crosse through a mutual acquaintanceship with the poet Robert Southey, and she attended one of his lectures on atmospheric electricity in December 1814. Crosse was an early experimenter with electricity, and his use of voltaic piles at his home at Fyne Court, Somerset earned him the name ‘the thunder and lightning man.’ 

Description from Memorials, Scientific and Literary of Andrew Crosse - 1857

In 1836, he experimented with electrocrystalization, dripping acid onto a porous volcanic stone from Vesuvius, with the apparatus linked to voltaic piles and with the intention of producing silica crystals. He noted small white excrescences appearing, which continued to grow until, on the eighteenth day, they put forth seven or eight filaments, followed by the appearance eight days later of small, perfectly formed animals which, two days later, detached themselves and moved about ‘at pleasure.’ 

Crosse's note on the Acarus

Crosse called the creatures ‘Acarus galvanicus’, placing them in the mite subclass of arachnids, although he was not a trained biologist. In reporting this occurrence in conversation with friends, there happened to be present the editor of a West of England newspaper who, unauthorised but in ‘a friendly spirit’ reported the experiment. The story spread across the country and the continent, resulting in a vicious attack on Crosse by many who believed that he had intentionally ‘created’ the creatures, thereby challenging God’s position as the Creator. He was accused of blasphemy and received death threats; one ‘gentleman’ wrote to him, calling him a ‘disturber of the peace of families,’ and ‘a reviler of our holy religion,’ and local farmers blamed him for bringing blight on their crops.Crosse’s response was that “ …he was sorry to see that the faith of his neighbours could be over-set by the claw of a mite.” Other scientists tried to repeat Crosse’s experiment – W H Weeks achieved the same result but did not publish, for fear of reprisals. Crosse himself thought that the eggs of the mites had been impregnated in his specimen rock and the general consensus now is that the apparatus had been infected by either cheese or dust mites. 

Some authors have claimed that this incident inspired Mary Shelley to create Frankenstein and his monster animated by electricity, but these same authors have overlooked one important detail – Mary began writing her story in 1816 and Crosse carried out his experiment in 1836, some twenty years later. It just goes to show – you can’t believe everything you read.

Boris Karloff - not in character


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