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    The Gothic Influence of Percy Shelley(18 Mar 2015)
    By Miss Arden Hegele

    In the course on Frankenstein and the Romantic Novel that I’m currently teaching, my students have been considering Mary Shelley’s novel in dialogue with other formative texts of Romantic-era prose fiction, and with the letters, short stories, diaries, and poems that surrounded the famous genesis of the Frankenstein story. One thing that the class has been particularly struck by (and sometimes resistant to) is the influence of Percy Bysshe Shelley on Mary Shelley’s literary work. In this post, I’d like to consider Percy Shelley’s gothicisms in their own right, and introduce to you some of the contemporary scholarship about his influence on the composition of Frankenstein.

    As one of a tightly-knit group of writers obsessed with the supernatural, Percy Shelley seems to have been particularly sensitive to the possibility of the metaphysical or the occult within the real world—in spite of his well-advertised atheistic leanings. According to one famous anecdote, set around the time of the 1816 ghost-story competition at the Villa Diodati that resulted in Frankenstein, The Vampyre, and “Augustus Darvell,” Shelley suddenly screamed and fainted upon hearing Byron read Coleridge’s poem Christabel aloud. When Byron reached the lines about the “witch’s breast,” Shelley suddenly remembered a story about a woman with eyes in her breasts, and he was instantly convinced that Mary was suffering under the condition. Much later, in the weeks before he died, Shelley experienced premonitions in dreams of his own death by drowning, and, as Mary Shelley recounted in her letters, he believed also that he had seen his doppelgänger, an apparent harbinger of his own death.

    It makes sense that one so extraordinarily attuned to the supernatural in his daily life should be interested in exploring its tropes in his literary works, and Shelley was no stranger to the gothic. His narrative poetry regularly alludes to well-worn tropes from the gothic novels of the period, like villainous, incestuous patriarchs (The Cenci); tyrants (“Ozymandias”); lovely and innocent imprisoned women (Epipsychidion); decadent and corrupt Catholics (The Cenci, again); students or practitioners of the occult (Alastor; The Witch of Atlas); corpses and burial practices (Adonais); embodiments of death (The Mask of Anarchy); supernatural creatures (Prometheus Unbound; Queen Mab); and madness (Julian and Maddalo).

    Among these poems, one particularly rich repeated gothic image is that of the charnel house. Both a “building or vault in which corpses are piled” and (metaphorically) “a place associated with violent death,” the charnel house is all-pervasive in Shelley’s works.  The poet-speaker of Alastor “made [his] bed / In charnels and on coffins” (23-24); worms “made this earth their charnel” in The Triumph of Life (505); the force of Love in Epipsychidion can “burst his charnel” and “make free / The limbs in chains” (405-406); the cloudless Italian sky is compared to a charnel in both The Cenci (3.1.16) and Adonais (59-60); and in the latter poem, even “We decay / Like corpses in a charnel” (348-49). In addition to these examples, the word “charnel” appears seven more times (at least, by my count) in Shelley’s poetic opus, revealing his fixation on the repository of the bones of the dead, and the potential for their creative animation (notice how often the word “charnel” appears in conjunction with “making” in the quotations above). Shelley was apparently so enthusiastic about the topos of the charnel that it spread from his works into the literature written by his friends: in Byron’s Manfred (1816), which was strongly influenced by Shelley, the eponymous anti-hero’s unholy research involves investigations into charnels, while Victor Frankenstein, in his initial examination into “the cause and progress of [bodily] decay” as he prepares to make the Creature, is “forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses” (Chapter 3). 

    This latter connection between the imagery of the charnel in Percy Shelley’s poetry, and its appearance in conjunction with the central event of Frankenstein, leads us to explore his role in the creation of the novel. The gothic imagery, in particular, was so reminiscent of Shelley’s poetry that many of Frankenstein’s first readers believed that he was the author. In a letter to his publisher, for instance, Byron remarks that “You have reviewed Frankenstein thinking it Shelley’s,” and proceeds to debunk the misapprehension and to attribute authorship to Mary Shelley: “methinks it is a wonderful work for a girl of nineteen—indeed, not nineteen at the time.”

    Though he staunchly referred to the book as Mary’s alone throughout his lifetime (a fact to which their collaborative diaries and the letters written by the Shelleys and their friends clearly attest), Percy Shelley had a profound influence upon the text. He contributed an estimated 5,000 words out of the novel’s 72,000, and wrote the Preface to the first edition in the apparent voice of the author. His contributions to the book are memorable: he changes the Creature’s “handsome” features to “beautiful” ones, and Victor and Elizabeth’s “marriage-night,” where the Creature plans to join them, to their “wedding-night.” In the most recent published edition of the manuscript draft, The Original Frankenstein (2008; 2009), which was produced with the collaboration of the Bodleian, Charles E. Robinson credits the novel to “Mary Shelley (with Percy Shelley)” to reflect his contributions to the work. This edition is particularly notable in that it contains both the 1816-1817 collaborative draft (with Percy’s changes in italics), and the “original” draft of Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s handwriting alone. The text of the earliest draft is excitingly different in diction, style, and structure, and I encourage you strongly to read both versions.

    One final thing that Percy Shelley contributed to the shaping of Frankenstein is a degree of personal expertise in the genre of the gothic novel. He had already written two gothic prose works: as a schoolboy, he wrote the juvenile novella Zastrozzi (1810), his first published text, which establishes many of the dark themes he would later explore in his poetic opus (such as torture, madness, unregulated female sexuality, and distrust of religious superstition). A successor, St. Irvyne, followed in 1811; this more polished gothic novel introduced alchemy and the supernatural into the poet’s register, and these themes would continue to inflect his poetry. Thus, at the time of Frankenstein’s writing, Percy Shelley was intimately familiar not just with tropes of gothic prose, but also with the process of publishing a book in such a genre. His expertise not just in charnels, but also in the very “enervating novels” he later pretended to deplore, contributed strongly to the creation of Frankenstein, and to its enduring appeal in his afterlife.