The Invention of Reason

On the 1st February 1851, the English novelist Mary Shelley died. She was just 53 years old and had succumbed to brain cancer, an illness that she had endured for many years. She was buried alongside her beloved mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had passed away shortly after her birth and with the heart of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley who had drowned on an Italian boating trip in 1822.

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Mary Shelley conceived the story of “Frankenstein” at an alarmingly precocious but also prescient stage of her life. It was 1818, a year when political and social conventions were being tested across Europe. The old order of feudalism and natural hierarchy was clashing with a new, enlightened philosophy which maintained that human reason must triumph over superstitious beliefs.

However the proponents of pure reason censured any notion of human sentiment, in fact they could not conceive that the human soul existed as there was no scientific evidence to prove its physical existence. This radical, progressive ideology that spawned the French Revolution, meant that individual human life had no real significance beyond his or her material manifestation on Earth. This was how, in the wake of the Terror, these supposed rationalists could coldly dispatch any ideological enemy beneath the blades of the Guillotine if they were deemed inimical to the cause.

The rationalists maintained that society was the primary influence upon human character, and if society became more ethical human beings would behave more ethically. They seemed unaware of other elements that shaped the character, namely inheritance which could never be altered whatever society that person lived in, but it is difficult to prove whether this ignorance was wilful or real. Coincidentally new scientific ideas emerged alongside the political foment, and these ideas were a source of fascination for the Shelleys and their contemporaries.

Science conjectured that human life was a purely physical process and that there was no divine intervention involved. Mary Shelley argued that if a human being had no soul then his body was merely expendable. She imagined that a scientist like Victor Frankenstein could be so swayed by his own hubris to create a human being, not in the traditional way, but through his own experimental methods. The fact that the “creature” proves to be a destructive force suggests that the application of science and rationality cannot create perfection.

All human ideas are our own invention, something that we frequently ignore, often due to our own arrogance and complacency. The trope of “Frankenstein” has become embedded within our cultural consciousness. It is cited whenever a crude and unethical science is engendered. It is sometimes necessary to heed Shelley`s warnings for the future.

The Curse of a Vivid Mind.


(Picture: memorial to Percy Bysshe Shelley by Henry Weekes in Christchurch Priory, Dorset.)

In the summer of 1814 an aspiring young writer called Mary Godwin began an affair with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. As news of the scandal broke it sent ripples of outrage across the country. In anticipation of bad press Mary and Percy fled the country. They spent the rest of the summer travelling around Europe. However terrible tragedy would unfold upon their return.002

Mary discovered that she was pregnant but experienced a difficult confinement. Her daughter was born premature and did not survive. Mary`s father disapproved of her relationship with Percy. Matters were made worse when it transpired that he had previously lent him a huge sum of money and now could not pay it back. Then in 1816 Percy`s estranged wife Harriet took her own life. Guilt, shame and overpowering grief overwhelmed the couple and they sought exile once more. Eventually they found an appropriate place to stay when Lord Byron invited a newly married Mary and Percy to Geneva. Unfortunately it was a year marked by inclement weather and Mary was frequently depressed. She was haunted by the death of her baby and consumed with guilt about Harriet`s suicide.

However this conspicuous setting inspired Mary`s infamous novel “Frankenstein”. One stormy evening they all told each other ghost stories. According to literary legend the idea for “Frankenstein” came from a terrifying dream that Mary experienced later that night. She dreamed about a monster hewn from the ungodly imagination of a scientist.

In the weeks and months leading up to that night Mary and Percy had troubling conversations about the human impact of science and invention. Galvanisation had just been discovered. This was the process involving electrical current. A successful scientific experiment was undertaken where a dead frog was reanimated using the galvanisation process. Consequently they had genuine fears that science could supersede the natural order of things, including the actual will of God.

“Frankenstein” is the scientist consumed with ambition, but lacking in any human conscience. He soon creates a monster with a terrifying and uncontrollable force. Unexpectedly the reader begins to feel for the monster, a non sentient and dangerous being created through a combination of foolhardiness and scientific error. It is perhaps its lack of insight that arouses pity in the reader, its creator is the truly evil one. This monster is the curse of a vivid mind.

“Frankenstein” is now immortalised into our conscience and culture. He represents the ultimate scientist who chooses to play God. Whenever crude scientific experiments fail spectacularly, the name Frankenstein is often uttered. However at the time of publication this idea must have seemed far-fetched.

In our modern age we regard Mary Shelley as a perceptive and prescient voice. However her life was continually marked by tragedy. She lost a further two children to disease and her only child became a frail and sickly boy and barely survived. Yet he clung stubbornly to life when others around her could not. In 1822 Percy died after drowning off the Tuscan coast. Two years later Lord Byron also died after he succumbed to sepsis. In 1832 her brother William Godwin Jnr died after contracting cholera.

In truth her life had become lonely, as malicious gossip surrounding her marriage and friendship with Byron meant that she rarely ventured outside. In her latter career she kept copious diaries which focussed increasingly upon illness and death. Her 1826 novel “The Last Man” is a reflection upon the blight of disease that threatened to engulf the world and would eventually take the life of her brother.

Many of us are seeking solace or wisdom in literature during this crisis, and Shelley`s novels along with Daniel Defoe`s “Journal of A Plague Year” seem oddly comforting. At this time of global crisis the life and work of this brilliant and imaginative writer can help steer us out of the dark.