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THE MODERN PROMETHEUS.
BY MARY W. SHELLEY.
AUTHOR OF THE LAST MAN, PERKIN WARBECK, &c. &c.
[Transcriber's Note: This text was produced from a photo-reprint of
the 1831 edition.]
AND ILLUSTRATED WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION,
BY THE AUTHOR.
HENRY COLBURN AND RICHARD BENTLEY,
NEW BURLINGTON STREET:
BELL AND BRADFUTE, EDINBURGH;
AND CUMMING, DUBLIN.
The Publishers of the Standard Novels, in selecting "Frankenstein" for
one of their series, expressed a wish that I should furnish them with
some account of the origin of the story. I am the more willing to
comply, because I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so
very frequently asked me - "How I, when a young girl, came to think of,
and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?" It is true that I am very
averse to bringing myself forward in print; but as my account will only
appear as an appendage to a former production, and as it will be
confined to such topics as have connection with my authorship alone, I
can scarcely accuse myself of a personal intrusion.
It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished
literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing.
As a child I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given
me for recreation, was to "write stories." Still I had a dearer pleasure
than this, which was the formation of castles in the air - the indulging
in waking dreams - the following up trains of thought, which had for
their subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents. My
dreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings. In
the latter I was a close imitator - rather doing as others had done,
than putting down the suggestions of my own mind. What I wrote was
intended at least for one other eye - my childhood's companion and
friend; but my dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody;
they were my refuge when annoyed - my dearest pleasure when free.
I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable
time in Scotland. I made occasional visits to the more picturesque
parts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern
shores of the Tay, near Dundee. Blank and dreary on retrospection I call
them; they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, and
the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of
my fancy. I wrote then - but in a most common-place style. It was beneath
the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides
of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy
flights of my imagination, were born and fostered. I did not make myself
the heroine of my tales. Life appeared to me too common-place an affair
as regarded myself. I could not figure to myself that romantic woes or
wonderful events would ever be my lot; but I was not confined to my own
identity, and I could people the hours with creations far more
interesting to me at that age, than my own sensations.
After this my life became busier, and reality stood in place of fiction.
My husband, however, was from the first, very anxious that I should
prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enrol myself on the page of
fame. He was for ever inciting me to obtain literary reputation, which
even on my own part I cared for then, though since I have become
infinitely indifferent to it. At this time he desired that I should
write, not so much with the idea that I could produce any thing worthy
of notice, but that he might himself judge how far I possessed the
promise of better things hereafter. Still I did nothing. Travelling, and
the cares of a family, occupied my time; and study, in the way of
reading, or improving my ideas in communication with his far more
cultivated mind, was all of literary employment that engaged my
In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours
of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or
wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third canto
of Childe Harold, was the only one among us who put his thoughts upon
paper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all the
light and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories of
heaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him.
But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined
us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from
the German into French, fell into our hands. There was the History of
the Inconstant Lover, who, when he thought to clasp the bride to whom he
had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her
whom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of his
race, whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the
younger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age of
promise. His gigantic, shadowy form, clothed like the ghost in Hamlet,
in complete armour, but with the beaver up, was seen at midnight, by
the moon's fitful beams, to advance slowly along the gloomy avenue. The
shape was lost beneath the shadow of the castle walls; but soon a gate
swung back, a step was heard, the door of the chamber opened, and he
advanced to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep.
Eternal sorrow sat upon his face as he bent down and kissed the forehead
of the boys, who from that hour withered like flowers snapt upon the
stalk. I have not seen these stories since then; but their incidents are
as fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.
"We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron; and his proposition
was acceded to. There were four of us. The noble author began a tale, a
fragment of which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa. Shelley,
more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant
imagery, and in the music of the most melodious verse that adorns our
language, than to invent the machinery of a story, commenced one founded
on the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori had some terrible
idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through
a key-hole - what to see I forget - something very shocking and wrong of
course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned
Tom of Coventry, he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to
despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she
was fitted. The illustrious poets also, annoyed by the platitude of
prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.
I busied myself _to think of a story_, - a story to rival those which had
excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears
of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror - one to make the reader dread
to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the
heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be
unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered - vainly. I felt that blank
incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship,
when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. _Have you thought
of a story?_ I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to
reply with a mortifying negative.
Every thing must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase; and that
beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give
the world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant stand
upon a tortoise. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist
in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the
first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless
substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all
matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the
imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and
his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the
capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning
ideas suggested to it.
Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to
which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these,
various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the
nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability
of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the
experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did,
or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken
of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a
glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with
voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a
corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things:
perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought
together, and endued with vital warmth.
Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by,
before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not
sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed
and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with
a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw - with shut
eyes, but acute mental vision, - 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 mechanism of the
Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would
rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope
that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated
would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect
animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the
belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient
existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle
of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the
horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on
him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of
fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my
fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the
dark _parquet_, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling
through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps
were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still
it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my
ghost story, - my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only
contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been
frightened that night!
Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I
have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only
describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the
morrow I announced that I had _thought of a story_. I began that day
with the words, _It was on a dreary night of November_, making only a
transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.
At first I thought but of a few pages - of a short tale; but Shelley
urged me to develope the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe
the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to
my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken
the form in which it was presented to the world. From this declaration I
must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirely
written by him.
And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I
have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when
death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart.
Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a
conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion was one who, in
this world, I shall never see more. But this is for myself; my readers
have nothing to do with these associations.
I will add but one word as to the alterations I have made. They are
principally those of style. I have changed no portion of the story, nor
introduced any new ideas or circumstances. I have mended the language
where it was so bald as to interfere with the interest of the narrative;
and these changes occur almost exclusively in the beginning of the first
volume. Throughout they are entirely confined to such parts as are mere
adjuncts to the story, leaving the core and substance of it untouched.
M. W. S.
_London, October 15, 1831._
The event on which this fiction is founded, has been supposed, by Dr.
Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of
impossible occurrence. I shall not be supposed as according the remotest
degree of serious faith to such an imagination; yet, in assuming it as
the basis of a work of fancy, I have not considered myself as merely
weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the
interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere
tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of
the situations which it developes; and, however impossible as a physical
fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of
human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the
ordinary relations of existing events can yield.
I have thus endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary
principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate upon
their combinations. The Iliad, the tragic poetry of Greece, - Shakspeare,
in the Tempest, and Midsummer Night's Dream, - and most especially
Milton, in Paradise Lost, conform to this rule; and the most humble
novelist, who seeks to confer or receive amusement from his labours,
may, without presumption, apply to prose fiction a licence, or rather a
rule, from the adoption of which so many exquisite combinations of human
feeling have resulted in the highest specimens of poetry.
The circumstance on which my story rests was suggested in casual
conversation. It was commenced partly as a source of amusement, and
partly as an expedient for exercising any untried resources of mind.
Other motives were mingled with these, as the work proceeded. I am by
no means indifferent to the manner in which whatever moral tendencies
exist in the sentiments or characters it contains shall affect the
reader; yet my chief concern in this respect has been limited to the
avoiding the enervating effects of the novels of the present day, and to
the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the
excellence of universal virtue. The opinions which naturally spring from
the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived
as existing always in my own conviction; nor is any inference justly to
be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical
doctrine of whatever kind.
It is a subject also of additional interest to the author, that this
story was begun in the majestic region where the scene is principally
laid, and in society which cannot cease to be regretted. I passed the
summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy,
and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and
occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which
happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful
desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of
whom would be far more acceptable to the public than any thing I can
ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story, founded
on some supernatural occurrence.
The weather, however, suddenly became serene; and my two friends left me
on a journey among the Alps, and lost, in the magnificent scenes which
they present, all memory of their ghostly visions. The following tale is
the only one which has been completed.
Marlow, September, 1817.
THE MODERN PROMETHEUS.
_To Mrs. Saville, England._
St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17 - .
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the
commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil
forebodings. I arrived here yesterday; and my first task is to assure my
dear sister of my welfare, and increasing confidence in the success of
I am already far north of London; and as I walk in the streets of
Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which
braces my nerves, and fills me with delight. Do you understand this
feeling? This breeze, which has travelled from the regions towards which
I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes. Inspirited by
this wind of promise, my day dreams become more fervent and vivid. I try
in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and
desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of
beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible; its
broad disk just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual
splendour. There - for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust
in preceding navigators - there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing
over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in
beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its
productions and features may be without example, as the phenomena of
the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes.
What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there
discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate
a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to
render their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever. I shall satiate
my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before
visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man.
These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of
danger or death, and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with
the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday
mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river. But, supposing
all these conjectures to be false, you cannot contest the inestimable
benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by
discovering a passage near the pole to those countries, to reach which
at present so many months are requisite; or by ascertaining the secret
of the magnet, which, if at all possible, can only be effected by an
undertaking such as mine.
These reflections have dispelled the agitation with which I began my
letter, and I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to
heaven; for nothing contributes so much to tranquillise the mind as a
steady purpose, - a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.
This expedition has been the favourite dream of my early years. I have
read with ardour the accounts of the various voyages which have been
made in the prospect of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean through the
seas which surround the pole. You may remember, that a history of all
the voyages made for purposes of discovery composed the whole of our
good uncle Thomas's library. My education was neglected, yet I was
passionately fond of reading. These volumes were my study day and night,
and my familiarity with them increased that regret which I had felt, as
a child, on learning that my father's dying injunction had forbidden my
uncle to allow me to embark in a seafaring life.
These visions faded when I perused, for the first time, those poets
whose effusions entranced my soul, and lifted it to heaven. I also
became a poet, and for one year lived in a Paradise of my own creation;
I imagined that I also might obtain a niche in the temple where the
names of Homer and Shakspeare are consecrated. You are well acquainted
with my failure, and how heavily I bore the disappointment. But just at
that time I inherited the fortune of my cousin, and my thoughts were
turned into the channel of their earlier bent.
Six years have passed since I resolved on my present undertaking. I can,
even now, remember the hour from which I dedicated myself to this great
enterprise. I commenced by inuring my body to hardship. I accompanied
the whale-fishers on several expeditions to the North Sea; I voluntarily
endured cold, famine, thirst, and want of sleep; I often worked harder
than the common sailors during the day, and devoted my nights to the
study of mathematics, the theory of medicine, and those branches of
physical science from which a naval adventurer might derive the greatest
practical advantage. Twice I actually hired myself as an under-mate in a
Greenland whaler, and acquitted myself to admiration. I must own I felt
a little proud, when my captain offered me the second dignity in the
vessel, and entreated me to remain with the greatest earnestness; so
valuable did he consider my services.
And now, dear Margaret, do I not deserve to accomplish some great
purpose? My life might have been passed in ease and luxury; but I
preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path. Oh,
that some encouraging voice would answer in the affirmative! My courage
and my resolution is firm; but my hopes fluctuate, and my spirits are
often depressed. I am about to proceed on a long and difficult voyage,
the emergencies of which will demand all my fortitude: I am required not
only to raise the spirits of others, but sometimes to sustain my own,
when theirs are failing.
This is the most favourable period for travelling in Russia. They fly
quickly over the snow in their sledges; the motion is pleasant, and, in
my opinion, far more agreeable than that of an English stage-coach. The
cold is not excessive, if you are wrapped in furs, - a dress which I
have already adopted; for there is a great difference between walking
the deck and remaining seated motionless for hours, when no exercise
prevents the blood from actually freezing in your veins. I have no
ambition to lose my life on the post-road between St. Petersburgh and
I shall depart for the latter town in a fortnight or three weeks; and my
intention is to hire a ship there, which can easily be done by paying
the insurance for the owner, and to engage as many sailors as I think
necessary among those who are accustomed to the whale-fishing. I do not
intend to sail until the month of June; and when shall I return? Ah,
dear sister, how can I answer this question? If I succeed, many, many
months, perhaps years, will pass before you and I may meet. If I fail,
you will see me again soon, or never.
Farewell, my dear, excellent Margaret. Heaven shower down blessings on
you, and save me, that I may again and again testify my gratitude for
all your love and kindness.
Your affectionate brother,
_To Mrs. Saville, England._
Archangel, 28th March, 17 - .
How slowly the time passes here, encompassed as I am by frost and snow!
yet a second step is taken towards my enterprise. I have hired a vessel,
and am occupied in collecting my sailors; those whom I have already
engaged, appear to be men on whom I can depend, and are certainly
possessed of dauntless courage.
But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy; and the
absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil. I have
no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success,
there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by
disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection. I
shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium
for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who
could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem
me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I