Excerpt from Young Romantics by Daisy Hay (2010).
“Frankenstein, like Shelley’s Alastor, is a critique of selfish, isolated creativity. It tells the story of a young man who creates a living being from human remains, only to discover the limits of his power over his creation. Frankenstein brings about his downfall through an act of self-aggrandising creation, which is characterized by his failure to consider the social ramifications of his actions. He rejects the communal, institutional context of the University of Ingolstadt to lurk in charnel houses and his attic room in pursuit of personal glory. Frankenstein condemns much of what Byron’s Childe Harold represents: isolation, self-indulgence and an abnegation of social responsibility. It is Mary’s manifesto for the idealized community of enlightened individuals she and Shelley attempted to assemble. Her description in the elegiac Preface of the process by which Frankenstein came into being may elide some details, but it champions a method of endeavour in which ideas reach fruition through ’many a walk, many a drive, many a conversation’ – a method entirely absent from the novel itself.
Shelley played a key role in the development of Frankenstein. Together he and Mary discussed its plot, its intellectual antecedents and its emerging form… His script is interlinked with hers in the pages of the Frankenstein manuscript, transforming it into a powerful symbol of cooperative creativity… Shelley’s alterations consistently emphasized Frankenstein’s insistence on the necessity of a socially responsible pursuit of knowledge… In several places Shelley added whole sentences to the narrative. For example: ‘The ambition of the enquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur, for realities of little worth.’ … Shelley’s involvement in shaping Frankenstein’s rejection of the Romantic solitary creator (a figure epitomized by his own Alastor) is striking. Shelley strengthened and sharpened Mary’s critique of selfish genius, but did not seek to impose his own ambivalence about the creator’s need for both solitude and sociability on to her work. Through the creation of a manuscript with two hands, in which the second hand consistently emphasized the value of social responsibility, Mary and Shelley established an alternative model for creative endeavour to that practiced by Frankenstein himself…. The novel’s greatness lies in the intensity of its plot and in its virtuosic response to Wollstonecraft , Godwin, Darwin and Shelley himself (1)…. In fact the Frankenstein manuscript reveals co-operative Romantic sociability at its best: equitable, constructive, sympathetic and incisive.” Hay (2010), pp.86-88
(1) “In Frankenstein, Mary brought together ideas that had been germinating for years. The summer of 1816 provided an ideal context in which to knit these ideas together… In the companionable atmosphere of the Villa Diodati [with Byron and Polidori] Mary began to synthesise [her father, political philosopher, William] Godwin’s narratives of historical perfectibility, [her mother, philosopher and feminist, Mary] Wollstonecraft’s visions of parental responsibility, and [her husband, Romantic poet and philosopher, Percy Bysshe] Shelley’s materialist philosophy of the origins of life (a philosophy which owed much to Erasmus Darwin). She did so in an imaginative response, which incorporated years of reading, a new understanding of the power of electricity and a claim for the importance of creative community”. Hay (2010) p.86
Hay, Daisy (2010). Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives. Bloomsbury, London.
Further link to Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude by Percy Bysshe Shelley