Frankenstein Cometh!

How far can you trace back your personal canons?

Anyone who has spent just a bit of time in our house will notice that Frankenstein’s monster has a bit of a presence. My ur-text is King Kong, which I saw when I was about six, but it was Frankenstein which really took root in my imagination a few years later. It’d be tempting to tell you how I identified with the sad, lonesome creature, trying to make sense of the world, but – I won’t. At that age I firmly saw the monsters as them while my heroes were more like Superman and Tarzan.

To be honest, aside from ‘general cultural osmosis’ I don’t quite know where I had picked up the basic story of “scientist creates monster, and monster goes on a rampage,” but I do know that in my imagination the creature was firmly that: a monster, an it even. I was ten when I saw my first Frankenstein film, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and I managed to ignore the comedy and be scared by the tropes it sought to parody: thin gruel does satisfy the hungry. My mind extracted from it a story of a man-made monster, a castle in thunderstorm and a sinister assistant mournfully blowing his horn. All that, hung on the skeleton of a single picture found in library book when I was seven.

The book is Hilary Henson’s Robots (in Dutch, pedantically, Robots en Computer) and the miracles of the Internet brought it to my doorstep today. And there it was, on page 19: it’s just a small image, a cut-out of Boris Karloff in his monster makeup. Out of all the other things that could grip me, and may have at another time (like the robot from Metropolis) it was that one image that fascinated me; I must indeed have been in a monsters! frame of mind. At the time, I made a drawing of it in my sketchbook. I can’t account, really, for the shirt. Perhaps it’s a transplant from the Universal Werewolf movies, but I think it’s more that these were typical shirts of the early ’80s.

It would be years before I got to see James Whale’s Frankenstein films properly. That is; I’d saved up for my own small TV set for in my room, and with the advent of cable, the BBC had been added to the few Dutch and German channels we’d received until then. The Beeb had an all-night Frankenstein night, and I remember watching Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride with the skylight above the bedroom door taped shut with black cardboard; mom and dad wouldn’t approve staying up until an ungodly hour. I also had the sound turned completely off. Just as well; I doubt I’d have appreciated the campiness of Bride of Frankenstein!


Now Playing: Frankenstein

It’s tucked away on the advertising page, with ads for Esperanto, children’s wound ointment, steam washery Ozon and the family notices (Hermanus Gosses Offringa, Klaaske Faber and Tjitje Dijkstra have passed). Then, underneath a big advertisement for Droste’s Nurses Cacao (“Prices from before 1914.” we find the programming for the cinemas of Leeuwarden, Friesland, for the Friday after onwards, in the Leeuwarder Courant of 8th September 1932.

CINEMA has De Verloren Zoon (The Prodigal) with Lawrence Tibbet, the LEEUWARDER “again brings 2 features: Het Geheim van een Priester.” (Lubitsch’ Broken Lullaby, I think) and Paniek in Chicago (Robert Wiene’s German film Panik in Chicago), promising “A tense filmwork, set in the underworld of Chicago.” Both films start at 7:30, and you’ll have to be 18 to enter.

You’ll also have to be 18 or older for what the TIVOLI has to offer:
This week the great, mysterious sensation-filmwork:
Made after the novel, written in 1818 by Mrs MARY WOLSTONECRAFT SHELLEY, the wife of the great English poet PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY. A film that has broken many records.

I wonder. What would you make of this, in lieu of a photo, review or other description? There’s an awful lot of focus on Shelley the poet; his name is printed in bold, even. Coupled with “mysterious, sensation” we expect thunder and lightning, perhaps, but especially grand gestures, exotic countries, doomed love, thigh breeches and floofy hair and people who orate in ‘dost’ and ‘thou’. And written by a Mrs, his wife, so surely it’s wholesome. Alas and Alack. What the Frisian purveyor of a Tivoli ticket, pre-sales courtesy of the cigar shop D. Ebbens at the Wirdumerdijk, got instead:

The Leewarder Courant’s reviewer, on the 10th of September, indeed was not impressed:
The Monster of Frankenstein” was made after the novel of Mrs Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley and written in 1818. It’s more than 100 years ago that the writer enriched (?) the world with this product, and if it’s a paragon of the literary taste of that time, we cannot have else than pity with them who indulged in such nonsense.
The contents are a sheer fantasies about which one cannot but shrug. Who has ever heard of a learned young man who, with a miscreant of a helper, collects bodyparts from a graveyard, steals a prepped and abnormal brain from the university, and then put all these elements together, to bring it to life with the aid of a certain electrical current.
But what the use of filming all of this is a mystery to me. The film has once more returned to its early stages, to speculation and the urge for the most primitive sensation.
And to this, the current technical improvements have been expended, which does not help the case, because they’ve been used most skillfully. You could argue that the film brings something special in direction, mime and make-up, sure, and we have pointed out little things that can make a film so beautiful. However, with “Frankenstein” this is null and void because here the rough-sensationalism and the appearance of the monster dominate so strongly, that everything else falls away. We are not surprised at all, that several ladies left the room and neither were the pale faces at the film’s end a surprise.
No, then “Charley’s Aunt”, the jolly, fun student comedy (9 acts) which preceded it. Howls of laughter erupted about the hilarious situations. It was a good compensation for the main feature and it would maybe be recommended to switch them around.
The news was interesting and extensive.

Nobody could accidentally blunder into The Bride of Frankenstein, 4 years later, based on the advert, though. (Of course, that’d not always be the case). The Cinema theatre had this sequel:

CINEMA presents You:
Freely adapted from the story by MARY WOLLSTONE CRAFT SHELLEY. In the lead BORIS KARLOFF as THE MONSTER
The sensational driven to a peak!
An unbelievably fascinating depiction on film of Frankenstein’s sinister monster!
Hundreds of thousands of sensation lovers, trembling of emotion, have already witnessed the creation of the artificial bride and hundreds of thousands will follow their example.

Frankenstein’s Monster, the Great Belzoni

This one was destined for Fortean Times, but remained on the shelf. Perhaps it was too… Fortean. In any case, we blow off the dust, and provide some speculation on what may have inspired Mary Shelley’s monster… 

“I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionately large.”

In 1818 Mary Shelley, daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of superstar poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, unleashed on the world the book that would immortalise her: Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as a young girl

The basic plot has left such a footprint on popular culture that it needs no introduction, and its genesis too is oft related. According to Mary’s preface to the 1831 edition of the book, it was all invigorating intellectual discussion and cosy night-time reading at Lake Geneva. Contemporary diaries however give a darker sheen to her memories, divulging one-upmanship between Percy Shelley and Byron, a highly dysfunctional Claire Clairmont chasing both their tails, with Mary in a post-natal depression, comforted by Dr. Polidori and his laudanum.  

Of course, by 1831 she was the only surviving member of that group, sanctifying the memories of Byron and especially Shelley, while all but erasing Clairmont and Polidori. She rehashed the convenient dream she had, of a ‘pale student of hallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together’, but did not mention the one she had a year earlier, after the Shelleys had lost their baby daughter: ‘Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.’ 

Early illustration of Frankenstein’s creature

From the results of Byron’s famous story writing contest, Mary’s tale is the only one to really stand the test of time. It’s full of evocative descriptions and high drama, benefiting from Percy’s literary experience, their shared travels across the Alps, Mary’s heritage and the scientific and philosophical theories entertained by the Romantics. And yet, in this patchwork of influences something seems to be missing: where did the central image of Frankenstein’s larger-than-life creature come from? Consider this: 

In early 1803 the Italian Giovanni Battista Belzoni arrived in London, aged 24, having spent the preceding years wandering Bonaparte-harried Europe. He’d been working as a barber and peddler, and utilised his skills as an hydraulics engineer wherever he could, but it was his imposing physical appearance that would first bring him fame. For a man of his size, 6’7″, Sir Walter Scott thought him ‘the handsomest man I ever saw’; Belzoni looked like a Greek god and hefted weights like a Titan.

Giovanni Belzoni as a young man

He got his break in the Sadler’s Wells theatre, playing the parts you would expect – giant, cannibal chief, wild man of the woods. He also made audiences gasp by donning an iron apparatus which allowed him to stride around the arena carrying a human pyramid of up to a dozen men, earning instant fame as “The Patagonian Sampson”. In the next seven years he appeared at Bartholomew’s Fair and schlepped his act the length and breadth of the country. 

Theatre, circuses and fairs were important entertainment for the growing middle class, but the literati were not averse to it. Belzoni was name-checked by Scott, seen by Charles and Mary Lamb and inspired poetry by William Wordsworth. Did they mention him as a fine specimen of a man while discussing philosophy, nature and politics at the Godwins’ house? They were part of the circle into which fanboy Percy Bysshe Shelley sought to ingratiate himself, before whisking the teenage Mary off to the continent. 

Bartholomew’s Fair, drawn by George Cruikshank

As Victor Frankenstein brings a creature to life only to abandon it and see it turn against him, the creature’s progress echoes the debates of its day: Rousseau’s Natural Man versus Locke’s belief in children learning by example. The creature’s abandonment and self-education in the mid-European forest is foreshadowed in the medieval play Valentine and Orson, recast in the Romantic mode. Belzoni played the part of the lost Orson, raised by a bear before being reunited with his twin brother. For Frankenstein’s monster there is no such happy reconciliation. 

Like the creature, Belzoni was no mere brute. As a younger man he had attempted to become a monk, perhaps the only means to an education for someone from his humble background. He grew increasingly disenchanted with performing as strongman before, and indeed carrying, the nation’s unwashed, and began diversifying, incorporating fire, hydraulic effects and phantasmagorias in his shows. In 1812, after Galvani, Aldini and others made corpses jump with electricity, a playbill promised that Belzoni would “CUT A Man’s Head OFF! AND PUT IT BACK ON AGAIN”. 

Belzoni, the Patagonian Sampson

In 1815, with Napoleon exiled on St Helena and the borders opened, Belzoni travelled to then near-mythical Egypt, aiming to sell the Pasha a hydraulic system to raise the level of the Nile. When this didn’t work out he found a lucrative occupation hunting for Egyptian artefacts, until the British Consul General charged him with retrieving the massive stone head of the Younger Memnon, as the statue is still known, for the British Museum. Once more the Great Belzoni made headlines, this time as one of the pioneers of archaeology. It was an era of adventure and treasure hunting. And looting. 

It is these reports that inspired Percy Shelley to write his Ozymandias in 1817, just about the same time as Mary, under his expert but patronising guidance, laid the last hand on Frankenstein. They wrote side by side in a cottage in Marlowe, and the discussions that the couple must have had surrounding the book’s construction echo in the sonnet, and in the “shattered visage” we read of, “whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,” are those of Frankenstein’s creature, and is the creator of this giant statue, whose work now lies in ruin, is not too different from Frankenstein, Mary’s modern Prometheus.

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

The house in Marlowe, in which Mary and Percy wrote side by side

And with those lines we can cast the monster: on the giant, well-proportioned frame of Belzoni we find the features of one of the mummies he uncovered: “Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.” Mary wrote of “his watery eyes that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.” 

The Shelleys certainly knew of Belzoni when sonnet and book were written,and it’s reasonable to suppose that Mary or Percy saw him perform or at least knew about him as a popular entertainer.  Did they then remember him, when Mary began crafting her book and needed a protagonist who was formidable of shape, sharp of mind, but still an outsider? And the necessary question: why haven’t we heard about this Belzoni fellow in Mary’s writing about her most famous work? 

the Younger Memnon, hauled away

The creative process is not a mere mechanical assembling of elements. There is a visceral core to the novel which depends on both conscious and unconscious influences. While Mary’s novel was carefully plotted and constructed, influences from daily life and culture would have added to its fabric. Besides, Belzoni completely omitted his former existence from his autobiography, so when Mary listed Milton, Darwin and Shakespeare as her influences, the name of a circus strongman would hardly have fit in. 

But whether she intended it or not, Belzoni’s impressive shadow still falls heavily across Mary Shelley’s page. 

The Creature meets his maker

Main sources:
Stanley Mayes, “The Great Belzoni”, Touris Parkes Paperbacks, London 2003
Anne K. Mellor, “Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters”, Routledge, Chapman & Hall, New York 1988
Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein, or: The Modern Prometheus”, 1818 and 1831 editions