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How Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and Sussex are linked

PUBLISHED: 12:33 12 November 2018 | UPDATED: 12:33 12 November 2018

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

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This year marks the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s horror novel Frankenstein. Amanda Hodges explores its Sussex connections

“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”

These were the first words that Mary Shelley (in the fictional guise of Victor Frankenstein) recollected committing to paper when remembering the genesis of her ground-breaking novel Frankenstein, first published 200 years ago in 1818. Not only was it then highly unusual for a woman to write fiction but Mary’s novel would prove revolutionary within its gothic horror genre, fostering the literary cult of the mad scientist intent upon uncovering what Victor calls “the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life”.

The daughter of famous parents, novelist and political philosopher William Godwin and pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary had always been encouraged to think independently and knew from an early age that she wished to write. Highly intelligent, forthright and perceptive, she seemed destined for a remarkable life and this she would certainly have, albeit one tinged with frequent tragedy and considerable hardship as well as romantic intensity.

Viewing Castle Goring in West Sussex, the impressive ancestral home of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, one can easily – and erroneously – imagine Mary here conjuring the intensely imaginative plot for her story, the two seeming in perfect symbiosis. Tempting as it might be to indulge this whim when surveying this Gothic mansion (now owned by Lady Colin Campbell) it was actually many, many miles away that Mary’s fertile teenage imagination first found inspiration. It was at a house party on the shores of Lake Geneva, presided over by poet Lord Byron, that the limitations imposed by bad weather first led to the idea for everyone to compose a ghost story. Long trying to find a suitable subject it was one night that the idea sprung suddenly unbidden into her mind. “When I placed my head upon my pillow... I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous Creator of the world…” She suddenly realised she had the perfect material with which to write: “I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted me my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.”

Mary and Percy had long led a peripatetic life, largely based abroad in order to avoid scandal.

They met and fell passionately in love when Mary was only 16, subsequently running away together (first to the Continent, then back to England) since Percy was already married.

Their nonconformist relationship effectively barred them from conventional society, keeping them frequently on the move, short of money and often unwelcome.

Percy had been born in 1792 at Field Place in Horsham, West Sussex, son to the religious aristocrat Sir Timothy, who was then the area’s local MP. Percy had displayed his radicalism from an early age, being expelled from university after writing The Necessity of Atheism, and his subsequent elopement with Harriet Westbrook and later entanglement with Mary causing widespread disgrace.

He was a singular character, phenomenally gifted yet difficult, living life in an ecstasy of feeling and creative inspiration; a man of conscience dedicated to free love, vegetarianism and political activism.

When Walton, the explorer from Frankenstein recounts his impressions of the wrecked Victor Frankenstein, it sounds like Mary’s tribute to her singular husband who could find solace in nature after any challenge: “Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth.”

Castle Goring had been built by Percy’s grandfather, the 1st Baronet, and – along with Field Place, in which Sir Timothy preferred to reside – it had been intended as his grandson’s future inheritance. Located within what today constitutes part of the South Downs National Park, the building had been designed by John Rebecca, the first of several that Rebecca designed in the Georgian era around the then highly fashionable resort of Worthing on the south coast.

Interestingly, it was a house built with two façades, Greco-Roman on the south side (with apparent influences from a Roman villa) and castellated Gothic on the north, paying tribute in its construction to nearby Arundel Castle. Sadly Percy’s untimely demise at just 29 in a boating accident in Italy meant he was never to fulfil his grandfather’s wish of occupying the property.

Mary returned to England soon after her husband’s death in 1822, dedicating herself to her son’s welfare and a career as a professional writer.

She would take a series of temporary lodgings, visiting Hastings after suffering smallpox in 1828 and often spending time on the Sussex coast convalescing in places like Brighton, her health not being strong for the last decade of her life.

Things eventually came full circle though as years later Mary and her only surviving child Percy Florence would inherit these Sussex houses from Sir Timothy after his death, their fortunes briefly seeming to rally as they gained some financial independence.

With their bequest Mary and young Percy had initially considered the idea of living at Castle Goring where Percy clearly entertained notions of enjoying the life of an archetypal country squire. “There is nothing I should like more,” said Mary at the time to her step-sister Claire (Clairmont), perhaps herself longing for a settled life, but she knew that it was likely to be an impractical proposition since neither she nor her son were well-off and had been left only the most meagre stipend by Sir Timothy in his will. Realistically, in order to sustain a comfortable existence in such surroundings young Percy would need to marry well.

The 1840s, the decade in which they received their inheritance, was a challenging one, marked by agricultural depression and so being bequeathed a dilapidated, debt-ridden country estate was somewhat of a poisoned chalice. Many of Field Place’s furniture and fittings had been taken by Lady Shelley, leaving just the crumbling ruins of a house. Hopes of a comfortable life dwindled and the torrential rain of 1845 wiped out crops as efficiently as the next summer’s drought. With a need for funds gathering pace young Percy’s dreams of castle life were relinquished and reluctantly Castle Goring was sold in 1845 to the resident lessee, Captain Sir George Brooke-Pechell, Liberal MP for Brighton. The sale raised more than £11,000, of which much was immediately engulfed by ancient debts.

After Percy’s marriage of 1848 (which did expand their horizons) Mary’s final years were divided between living in London with her son and daughter-in-law and also at Field Place, which they had finally been able to occupy. She would die young, of a brain tumour, in 1851 aged 53 but her literary influence remained potent. In Frankenstein Victor talks fervently of his studies enabling him to “pour a torrent of light into our dark world,” and by virtue of her bold imagination Mary Shelley did just this with her seminal novel, creating an extraordinary, intensely realised book that would guarantee its author’s immortality. 


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