17 Apr 2024

Frankenstein by Mary Shellley

Social and economic background

The French Revolution in 1789 was a reference point for the Romantic movement. It marked the shift of economic power from the aristocracy to the middle classes, provoked by the rise in industrialism. Advances in technology also alarmed the working classes who saw their jobs in jeopardy, replaced by machines. With the rise of Napoleon war broke out between the UK and France, ending in 1815. However the economic and social problems of the country were not addressed due to a laissez-faire government policy which favoured deregulation and did not attempt to solve the economic shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. This led to poor wages and conditions for the working class who were forbidden by law to unionise. Eventually the workers turned to violence to protest and the Luddite movement was born.

Literary thinkers, like Shelley's father, grasped the opportunity to argue for a more equal distribution of property. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), demanding equality between the sexes.

As well as technological advances scientific ideas also matured and one of the most significant was Erasmus Darwin’s thinking on biological evolution, which prefigured his grandson Charles' later research. Mary Shelley joined discussions in Byron's house on Erasmus' notions. She was also influenced by Crosse's galvanism, the study of electrical experiments.

The Gothic Novel

By the second half of the eighteenth century Walpole's gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) had appeared. It deviated from the traditional novelistic theme of fictional realism, pretending to describe the world as it exists. The gothic novel ignored the contemporary Augustan Age neoclassical culture of rationalism and gentility and its rejection of enthusiasm and superstition. 

Yet, the gothic novel was widely read at the time, possibly as a reaction against the culture of restraint and the Protestant ethic. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1811) carried over the gothic tradition into the next century as the novel of experimental science.

No comments: