‘And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper’ – A Reading Group for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Carl McKeating from the University of Leeds tells us more about what to expect from this year’s Guided Reading Group.
In May 1816, the then Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft (later Mary Shelley) eloped to the Alps with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her half-sister, Claire Clairmont. Motivated by Claire Clairmont’s obsession, the party met up with the exiled Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. Byron was accompanied by his physician, John Polidori, later the author of The Vampyre, a forerunner of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. An aura of mystery surrounded the Diodati Circle that summer in the Alps. They lived out a drama fit for the stage involving rumoured incest, broken marriages, adultery, elopement, illegitimate children, near-drowning, philosophical debates about the existence of ghosts, excursions to the glaciers of Mont Blanc, collaborative writing practices, great literary endeavours and, during a series of vicious storms, a ghost story writing competition from which Frankenstein was born.
The events of that summer fascinated contemporary British and continental society. During the intervening two centuries the summer of 1816 seems to have lost little of its ability to intrigue, while its most famous literary endeavour, Frankenstein, continues to have a peculiar capacity to draw our attention and, as Victor Frankenstein would say, ‘infuse a spark’ to our imaginations.
This reading group offers the opportunity to discuss diverse aspects of Frankenstein in a pleasant atmosphere, where all contributions will be welcomed. It will be an opportunity to see the classic novel in a new light. Discussions will be prompted by interesting introductory material. They will be facilitated by an experienced seminar convener who will also be able to contribute brand new not-yet-published research into the novel. The group will convene for four sessions:
1816: The Year without a Summer? – Introducing Frankenstein
An establishing session that will briefly consider the context from which the novel arose before moving on to hear members’ thoughts on some general aspects of the novel’s plot and its characters.
‘Landscapes of the Sublime’ – Place in Frankenstein
‘It was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings.’ In this session the group will consider the – somewhat surprising – functions of place in the novel.
Problem Child – Frankenstein, Feminism and Parenthood
‘I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth in the bloom of health… I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death… and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms.’ The proto feminist Mary Wollstonecraft died as a result of giving birth to Mary Shelley, a tragedy Mary appears to have explored in her writings. In this session the group will look in detail at some of the key scenes in Frankenstein and consider feminist aspects of a novel that Mary had to defend against suggestions it had been written by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The role of parenthood, partly embodied by the mother/father figure of Victor in the novel, will also be considered.
Bad Scientists and Failed Explorers – Frankenstein and Moral Dilemmas
This session will look at the meaning of Frankenstein during an age of discovery. The group will debate the moral dilemmas explored in Frankenstein and question how we are meant to read the novel.
* Bring your copy of Frankenstein along to the group. Preferred edition: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: 1818 Text (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998)