What to Read Next (No. 242): Mary Shelley and Frankenstein
Happy Friday, readers!
As I teased a handful of weeks ago, I’m starting a new book with The Big Read in October: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — a pioneering early example of science fiction with a cultural impact that’s nearly impossible to overstate.
Frankenstein will take The Big Read through the month of October, then in November and December we’ll read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. (And you can take a look at the entire 2023 schedule here.)
For the next two weeks, I’m offering 20% off annual subscriptions. That’s $40 for your first year instead of $50. With that, you’ll get:
a detailed reading plan for each book
weekly recaps of the reading
access to the comments/discussions
a bunch of background material
reviews and recommendations for movie/TV adaptations, provided by my good friend Kyle Smith (whose free newsletter you should also read)
Any questions? Please email me or leave a comment!
As for this week, I’m going to convince you to read Shelley’s classic, as well as review a fantastic dual biography of Shelley and her mother, the groundbreaking writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
Let’s jump in.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein has one of the great origin stories in all of literature.
During a cool, rainy summer (the famed “Year Without a Summer”), young Mary Godwin was part of a group of friends who spent a few months together at Lake Como in northern Italy.
Percy Shelley, who would later become Mary’s husband (and a famous poet), suggested a writing contest to match the melancholy environs: Who could write the most unnerving supernatural tale?
Little did this group expect the clear winner to be Mary, who workshopped Dr. Frankenstein and his infamous monster. While other notable work was produced that summer — Lord Byron’s “Darkness” and John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre” — none would go on to shape the cultural universe the way Frankenstein would.
Over the next couple years, Mary polished up Frankenstein, found a small publisher, and was able to get a few hundred copies printed — albeit without her name on the cover (most work by women was published anonymously back then).
And the rest is history.
There are a lot of great stories out there that haven’t managed to stick around for 200+ years. Why has Frankenstein? What makes it so powerful?
It starts with the title: Frankenstein. We know, from the beginning, that the story is really about the mad scientist and not his hideous creation. Through Victor Frankenstein, the reader gets a terrifying look at the consequences of unchecked, obsessive ambition and the pursuit of “progress” at all costs.
At the same time, we see what happens when a problem of our own making goes un-acted upon. Frankenstein muses, in an entirely relatable way: “I clung to every pretense of delay, and shrank from taking the first step.”
And ultimately, through the monster himself, we encounter the devastating effects of rejection and loneliness. There’s no greater threat to our human spirit than loneliness, a universal and timeless truth that Shelley so elegantly captured 200+ years ago.
Beyond the psychological benefits, Frankenstein is incredibly entertaining and truly terrifying at times, providing a thought-provoking distraction during the (hopefully) chilly nights of October.
Frankenstein is a must-read book for your lifetime reading list.
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
Mary Shelley was not the only writer in her family. Far from it, in fact. Her mother and father — Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin — produced dozens of well-known books, articles, and poems as well (though Frankenstein would easily eclipse them all).
Before Mary was born, Wollstonecraft was a groundbreaking feminist who wrote book reviews, scorching treatises on gender roles, and even soul-searching travel memoirs, while Godwin was more of a stodgy philosopher.
After a shocking couple decades of tragedy and heartbreak for the family, including Wollstonecraft’s multiple attempts to end her own life, things seemed like they might turn around for the family when baby Mary came along. In a sad turn of fate, though, mother Mary succumbed to a deadly post-partum infection just a week and a half after giving birth.
Historian Charlotte Gordon convincingly argues, however, that the two women’s lives were tightly interwoven despite never having the chance to get to know each other.
Wollstonecraft deeply believed in the idea of women’s freedom and independence, but then surprised herself by finding great solace and satisfaction in her family life. Shelley learned those same lessons after gallivanting through Europe with her boyfriend (Percy Shelley) before realizing that a stable, loving home was as fulfilling as any romantic adventure.
Each chapter offered highlighter-worthy insights into early feminism, the creative process, and the all-important bonds that keep us moving forward, be it family or friends or even the surprising kindness of strangers.
Romantic Outlaws is long (well over 500 pages), but Gordon’s structure — giving each woman full attention on an every-other-chapter cadence — served to keep my interest throughout. (As did the near-constant high stakes drama of their lives helped that part.)
Overall, I quite enjoyed Romantic Outlaws. It provided a ton of great context into Mary Shelley’s life and the creation of Frankenstein, but more than that, introduced me to the life and work of total badass Mary Wollstonecraft. I can’t believe her name isn’t more well-known. This one is absolutely worth reading if you’re into literary or feminist history.
Don’t forget to sign up for The Big Read if you’re interested!
That’s all for me this week. Thanks so much for the time and inbox space — I deeply appreciate it.