IT is one of the most influential novels of the past 200 years, and now a new BBC ALBA documentary explores how the roots of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – and its monster – can be traced to Scotland.
Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein – produced by Caledonia TV for BBC ALBA’s literary series – explores the origins of
Shelley’s iconic book.
First published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein is believed to have been heavily influenced by Shelley’s time in Dundee and includes a journey to Orkney.
While the connection to the Northern Isles is undeniable, as Victor Frankenstein creates a new monster on a remote, isolated island in an attempt to right the wrongs of his first creature; the ties to the City of Discovery are more cryptic.
Broadcaster, Cathy MacDonald, travels to Dundee to meet local experts on and fans of Shelley’s work – believed to be one of the earliest examples of science fiction, written at a time when science was advancing at a rapid rate.
In Dundee, Cathy finds tales that run as deep as the Tay – the river the city is set on and where the young Shelley spent some of her formative years living with one of Dundee’s wealthy 19th century barons, The Baxter family.
It was mused that Shelley, born into an academic and influential family to mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and father, William Godwin, went to Dundee for reasons of education and health. However, it is also suggested a teenage Shelley – whose mother died shortly after childbirth – was sent north from London to put distance between her and love interest, poet Percy Shelley, whom she would later marry.
The Dundee of the early 1800s, that Shelley observed, was a growing industrial settlement.
In the introduction to the 1831 edition, Shelley wrote: “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.
“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.”
Jute barons, The Baxter family, were at the forefront of this, but whaling and the city’s docks, too, played a huge role in the local economy and life in Dundee at the time.
It is even suggested Shelley, who is believed to have lived in a house near what is now Dundee’s South Baffin Street, took her inspiration from the whalers and the ships coming back into port.
Speaking to Cathy, Dr Daniel Cook of the University of Dundee, set the scene at the time, including ‘The Cottage’, where Shelley lived with William Baxter and his family.
Dr Cook also spoke about the Frankenstein Steps – that were attached to the now-demolished mansion. The steps, however, remain standing to this day.
He said: “There are two major theories about The Frankenstein Steps.
“One is it’s located exactly where ‘The Cottage’ would’ve been in which Mary Shelley lived while in Dundee.
“The other theory, which is quite popular with locals, is that it’s really named after the Boris Karloff movie – Frankenstein (1931) – because the Royal Cinema was located there as well and that was a big source of pride.
“It was one of the first places in the world to screen the movie.
“The Cottage, unfortunately, no longer stands. It was demolished in the 1890s, in the spirit of progress, and is now the site of tenement buildings.
“It might’ve been named that with classic Dundee humour, a kind of ironic nickname and it would’ve been in the grounds of an acre, perhaps as many as four acres.
“I think she would’ve been very comfortable there.”
Dr Cook added: “There is certainly a sense that the sailors and the seamen and shipmen and people involved in that industry would have been known to Mary through family connections.
“The Baxter family did have their hand in all kinds of industries… and overlooking the harbour, the sounds, the smells, everything would’ve been there.”
It wasn’t just the industry of Dundee that had an impact on Mary, but the morbid, darker side of the city, too.
Arriving in Dundee shortly after plague and the Battle of Culloden scarred a generation, Shelley also heard stories of witch-burning and grave-robbing in Scotland.
Cathy speaks to academics such as Dr Peter Mackay and Thomas Elliott, author, Mairi Kidd, and local arts enthusiast, John Morrison, about 19th century Dundee and Shelley’s place in it.
Cathy visits The Howff – a city centre cemetery that dates back to the 16th century – and hears tales of similar graveyards that were raided by resurrectionists, who sold body parts to anatomy classes of the day. Something you feel Victor Frankenstein might’ve found useful!
Bringing things up to the present day, Cathy also hears from Professor Chris Murray of the University of Dundee about the evolution of Frankenstein into comics.
In Orkney, Cathy discovers why Shelley chose the islands to play out a crucial part of the Frankenstein story.
Dr Peter Mackay suggests that Shelley chose the isolation of the Orkney Islands to reflect the feelings both Frankenstein and the creature had as they became increasingly lonely in a society they didn’t feel a part of.
Dr Mackay muses: “Isolation, friendship and lack of friendship are at the heart of the book.
“At the start of the book, (Robert) Walton is bound for the North Pole, but on a boat full of people, the one thing he (Victor) lacks is a friend.
“The monster also needs a friend, a companion or a family, but the interesting thing is that Victor has everything.
“He has a family and friends, but time and again, he turns his back on them to be alone in nature or with the monster. Why?”
Dr Cook added: “The hut in which he places himself is just far away enough from, quote on quote, civilisation to not affect or harm anybody.
“But also I think the way that Mary Shelley describes the natural habitat there: the wind, the seas and everything, I think it just captures and mirrors Victor’s own thinking at the time.
“That sense of turmoil and danger as much as excitement.”
Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein (Classic Tales: Frankenstein) airs on BBC ALBA on Thursday 9 June at 9pm and is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.
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