Literature: Romanticism and Frankenstein Frankenstein's romantic side

When we hear the word 'romance,' we think of flowers, candlelight, soft music, and snuggles. This is a relatively new take on a word that's only been around since the Middle Ages.

'Romance' in the 14th century referred to an epic adventure told in informal French vernacular. Since so many of those medieval French tales were stories of knights and chivalry and damsels in distress, by the 1660's, love as well as adventure became associated with the story. Roman, in French today, means 'novel.'

However, when Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, she and other 18th and 19th century writers accepted the idea that a romantic story involved not only love and adventure, but also an imaginative element that bordered on the fantastic

Indeed, Webster's 1828 dictionary defines 'romance' as 
A fabulous relation or story of adventures and incidents, designed for the entertainment of readers; a tale of extraordinary adventures, fictitious and often extravagant, usually a tale of love or war, subjects interesting the sensibilities of the heart, or the passions of wonder and curiosity. Romance ... vaults or soars beyond the limits of fact and real life, and often of probability.

Romantic exoticism in prose and poetry was expressed through literary elements that included foreign settings, cataclysmic events, metaphysical exploration, the supernatural, and wild imaginings. It's not surprising that Gothic and Romantic genres are inextricably mixed.

Mary Godwin Shelley, a quintessential romantic, explains in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, that though as a young girl she enjoyed writing stories,
...[s]till 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 dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed, my dearest pleasure when free...
In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbors of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing his 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...
"We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to...
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 awaking thrilling horrorone 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.

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 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 cage, 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 had 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 bound 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...

[H]e 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! Oh, if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!

Norton Critical Edition

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