To mark the birth 200 years ago of the gothic novel Frankenstein on 17 June, and help celebrate our forthcoming Robots exhibition, leading figures discussed Mary Shelley’s extraordinary story of animating the inanimate. Roger Highfield reports
The reasons the novel Frankenstein has become ‘the creation myth for modern times’ were explored during a discussion this week led by the eminent cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling.
Sir Christopher’s opening lecture in the Museum’s IMAX, illustrated with images and clips from TV and films, explored the detailed influences and circumstances behind the creation of Frankenstein on 17 June 1816 by the 18-year old Mary Godwin (later Shelley) late one night at the Villa Diodati Lake Geneva.
Joining her in a literary competition – “we will each tell a ghost story” – were Lord Byron (aged 28), Percy Shelley (24), Byron’s physician Dr John Polidori (20) and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmiont (who was also 18).
The weather was both terrible and appropriate for this milestone in gothic literature: 1816 was the ‘year without a summer’, a global cooling event caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies.
The poets had been mulling over “the nature of the principles of life”, most notably the ‘vitalism’ controversy, a clash of the spiritual and the biological which rocked the Royal College of Surgeons.
At that time Mary Godwin was also probably familiar with doll-like automata built by Pierre and Henri Jaquet-Droz, known as the Jaquet-Droz automata, which caused a sensation in their day and are housed at the art and history museum in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
She had read Humphry Davy’s lectures, in which he spoke of experiments in which man would “interrogate Nature with Power”, and knew about the public demonstrations of the use of electricity to re-animate as performed by Galvani and, more recently, Aldini.
Though ‘she scared them mightily’ with her story of reanimating the inanimate, her original draft of Frankenstein was ‘much more positive about science’ said Sir Christopher.
In fact, he explained, in Mary Shelley’s mind, Frankenstein’s Creature may well have been ‘built like a Chippendale’ – as shown in the one illustration that Mary herself approved for the popular edition of her novel in 1831’.
Sir Christopher discussed the powerful legacy of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and the ways in which the original has been distorted by retelling over time – a two century journey in the company of re-animators, automata, robots and replicants.
His one hour talk was followed by a round table discussion with the anatomist and BBC presenter Prof Alice Roberts, the journalist, film critic, and fiction writer, Kim Newman, and the lead curator of our major 2017 Robots exhibition, Ben Russell.
Newman explained how the story of Frankenstein, and the rejection of his Creation, is ‘a book by a teenager about being a teenager’ which is one reason it remains relevant.
The original’s lack of detail about creation of the Monster has enabled the story to be constantly reinvented, added Prof Roberts. For example, today you would 3D print the monster using stem cells, she explained.
At one point in planning perhaps the most famous film version of Frankenstein, the 1931 American version from Universal Pictures, adapted from a play by Peggy Webling, the monstrous creation played by Boris Karloff was going to be a robot (moreover, they kept confusing the scientist Victor Frankenstein with his creation).
This was a few years after the sensation caused by Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a science fiction play by the Czech Karel Capek, who first coined the word “robot”, the Czech for “serf”.
Ben Russell reassured the audience that, given the current state of humanoid robots, he was ‘not worried’ about robot apocalypse. But he said that there is a fundamental urge to forge mechanical reflections of our own image to understand what it means to be human.
In his lecture, Sir Christopher illustrated the enduring power of the Frankenstein story with drawings of scientists by schoolchildren which show how Shelley’s creature lives on, as an embodiment of society’s anxieties about where science is taking us.
But Prof Roberts added that she sees Frankenstein, “not as an anti-science novel, but as a warning about doing anything (not just science) without careful consideration of the consequences. So in that respect, it is very relevant to the practice of science – as a social, not an anti-social, endeavour. And poor Mary Shelley did not create the meme of the mad scientist, Hammer Horror did!”
The monstrous event was introduced by Director, Ian Blatchford, who shared the success of the Museum’s Kickstarter campaign to rebuild Eric, the UK’s first humanoid robot.