Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Twere easier for God to make entirely new men…

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Exactly 199 years ago today, during a stormy night at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley had a waking dream that gave birth to Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus. How do we know? Astronomers. They back-calculated the moon cycles to determine the precise timing of her dream: between 2 and 3 a.m. on the morning of June 16, 1816.

The story of how Frankenstein was born is well known. It begins in the summer of 1816. One late night by the fire, Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori discuss the galvanic experiments of re-animation by Professor Aldini and speculate about the generation of artificial life. Thereafter, each of them is challenged by Byron to write a ghost story for fun.

Byron wrote a vampire horror story called “A Fragment," Shelley composed “Mont Blanc," Polidori penned the novella “The Vampyre” (which he later tried to pass of as Byron’s), and Mary Shelley labored—through the next 14 months, while she was 19 and pregnant—over a 90, 000-word masterpiece that became Frankenstein.

One hundred and ninety nine years later, I showed my students this video from the Smithsonian Channel in class. When we came to the part about the cloned dogs with glowing nails, I heard someone whisper, “Frankenstein.”

“But where does the name come from?” another student asked me.

“What name?”

“Frankenstein.”

“Oh.”

I didn’t know the answer and resolved to investigate. After class, I went forthwith to SFU’s library and searched the 19th Century Fiction database.

It was a terrific question. Where did the name Frankenstein come from? “Frankenstein” has become such a big part of pop culture, and yet no one I asked knew its origin.

I remembered that Mary Shelley had traveled in Germany prior to coming to Lake Geneva, so the name sounded right. But why did she name her hero Frankenstein, specifically, and not, say, Schulz, Schneider, Fischer, or any other German name?

Neither the database nor Google were any help at all. I pressed on. Two hours later, an ancient librarian shuffled over, clutching a piece of paper in her beautiful hand. A call number for Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder was carefully written on it.

I thanked her, climbed five flights of stars, and plucked a dusty volume off the shelf.

In a Chapter entitled “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul,” I found what I was looking for:

When Mary eloped with Shelley to France and Switzerland in 1814, their shared journal indicates that they were already discussing notions of creating artificial life. As they returned penniless, by public riverboat down the Rhine, they remarked on the monstrous, inhuman appearance of several of the huge German labourers on board, and noticed that they sailed beneath a lowering schloss (German for castle) known as “Castle Frankenstein.”

Determined to get to the bottom of it, I located The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-1844, hidden on the eerily empty fifth floor.

The entry for Sunday, August 28, 1814 reads:

Depart six o’clock. The river is exceedingly beautiful: the waves break on the rocks and the decents are steep and rapid – it rained the whole day – We stopped at Mettingen to dine and there surveyed at our ease the horrid and slimy faces of our companions in voyage – our only wish was to absolutely annihilate such uncleansable animals to whom we might have addressed the boatmans speech to Pope – Twere easier for god to make entirely new men than attempt to purify such monsters as these – after a voyage in the rain rendered disagreeable only by the presence of these loathsome creepers we arrive, Shelley much exhausted, at Dettingen, our resting place for the night.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Irina Kovalyova

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.

You can contact Irina throughout the month of June at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Irina Kovalyova’s Author Page