Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Square heads, round tables.

I was over at the Frankenstein place. Not the castle overlooking Darmstadt in Germany but the Science Museum in South Kensington. My friend Kathy had kindly invited me to an illustrated lecture on the history, myth, and continuing popularity of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein whose first draft was written 200 years ago in 1816.

So I sacrificed a night of watching Ireland play Sweden and Italy beat Belgium in Euro 2016 for an evening in the IMAX with Sir Christopher Frayling as my host. He was giving an illustrated lecture and there was to be a round table panel discussion afterwards.

We got a Night at the Museum vibe wandering through the almost empty galleries of old space hardware and Stephenson's Rocket. It set the scene nicely. Frayling, too, seemed a good fit. He was clearly very passionate about the book and had made television programmes about it in the past. Clips of which were interspersed with his talk.

A minor quibble was that the whole thing felt a touch too academic. Witness members of the audience scrawling in notebooks like eager students. Observe, also, Frayling's odd forays into the realm of absent minded professor. It's possible he spoke a little too long about the genesis of the book and cut into time he could've been expanding on other themes or chatting to his guests.

The story, nevertheless, was fascinating. Eighteen year old Mary Godwin had eloped to Switzerland with Percy Shelley, eight years her senior and already with a wife back home, and they'd set up home on the banks of Lake Geneva along with Byron, a man whose attitudes were sexist even by the standards of the early 19th century, Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont, and Byron's physician Dr John William Polidori who went on to write the first published modern vampire story.

1816 was seen as the year without a summer. The weather was shit, basically. Geneva was a walled city and each night the gates closed at 10pm. This gave our party little chance to go out on the town. Percy and Mary refused to smoke as they felt that aided the slave trade. They were also strict vegetarians. Television hadn't been invented so those long, gloomy, Swiss evenings were spent amusing, and scaring, each other by telling competitively macabre stories.

Each night Mary was asked if she'd come up with one yet. Each night she deferred until one evening she told them the story of Dr Frankenstein and his monomaniacal attempt to create life from its raw materials. The others were blown away and soon she was fleshing it out, adding the story of the creature, and working through to its conclusion. Percy helped. That'd be called mansplaining now.

Frankenstein (the book) was a combination of many things happening at the time. A storm as perfect as those that battered their Alpine windows. Elements of Erasmus Darwin's proto evolutionary theories, a nod to Greek mythology in the form of the Titan Prometheus, a debt to John Milton's 17th century blank verse poem Paradise Lost, and possibly some influence from Neuchatel's eerie automatons who, still to this day, will knock out a tune or draw a picture for you.

After several drafts the book was published and became one of those overnight successes that take years. Soon West End plays were taking liberties with the story. They were nothing as to what Hollywood would do with it.

We all picture Frankenstein's monster (no longer a creature but a monster) as the bolt-necked, block-headed Boris Karloff (who was born just down the road from me, outside a doctor's surgery as I found out to my concern when visiting the quack once) but initial drawings showed a romantic lank-haired hunk with a six pack. He looked like one of the Chippendales.

Frayling suggested the popular image of the monster had been cribbed from a Goya artwork (below) which seems reasonable enough. Others suggested the inspiration was from medical books showing severely disfigured humans. Either way, if you're wearing a 'Frankenstein' mask at Hallowe'en it won't be one of Robert De Niro in Kenneth Branagh's under rated 1994 film.

Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare (1781) also became a template for later illustrated versions of the book. Skulls and other signifiers started placing the book in the realm of the gothic horror. Having initially been seen as early science fiction. Later on it became a warning against monomania, a precursor of feminist literature, and many other things to many other people.

That Mary Shelley nee Godwin was able to write a classic in a year of such misery, and at an age when most scholars these days struggle with simply studying the book, is amazing. Percy's wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine. The similarly youthful Claire Clairmont fell pregnant to Byron who proved a useless father, promising to take care of baby Allegra but actually placing her in a Catholic convent where she died five years later. Mary's half-sister Fanny also committed suicide using the method du jour of overdosing on laudanum.

Stories nearly as remarkable as those told in the book. Which, as the lives of those involved in it disintegrated, developed a life of its own. In 1927 Fritz Lang's Metropolis expanded on the themes of revivification and reanimation. Later the Karloff film came out. We were even shown a clip of Bride of Frankenstein. Something Mary Shelley hadn't mentioned at all and something that made the age old mistake of mixing up the monster with the scientist.

On the subject of which Frayling explained that he'd visited a school and asked the kids to draw a scientist. They'd all gone down the 'mad scientist' route. Einstein hair, thick glasses, bubbling test tubes, white coats, and, somewhat bizarrely, Mr Men shoes. He posited the theory that it was the Frankenstein movie mania that started all this.

There was a brief postscript about Frankenstein foods, test tube babies, and other scientific breakthroughs that have, more often than not, shocked the public before he called on Kim Newman (journalist, critic, writer, eccentric dresser), Dr Alice Roberts (anatomist, tv presenter, and owner of a fine Bristol accent), and Ben Russell (the Science Museum's own robot expert).

The chat was all too brief. Dr Roberts suggested any creature would now be built using 3d printers and stem cell research. Ben Russell spoke a little about uncanny valley. The concept where the human psyche likes androids up to the point they start to look too much like us at which juncture we get repulsed by them. Kim wrestled with the untapped potential of Claire Clairmont's story and wondered aloud if there was a book in it for him.

It was just getting going when proceedings were called to a close. I got the impression the panellists, and Frayling in particular, could've chatted all things Frankenstein all night long. He said if there was one day in the history of the cultural world he could go back to he wouldn't revisit Michelangelo painting one of his masterpieces, nor witness JMW Turner tied to the mast of a boat in his dotage gaining inspiration for one of his seascapes, but instead time travel to the shores of Lake Geneva on that night in 1816 and witness Mary Shelley make literary history. He made quite a compelling case for it. Perhaps I should read the book now?

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