Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Frankenstein and Friends: A Selection of Books From 1818

The 1st January 2018 saw the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For my first Hannah’s Bookshelf (on North Manchester FM) of the year, I thought it would be good to mark this anniversary by looking at some of the other books that were also published in 1818. What did the literary world look like when Frankenstein burst onto the scene? You can listen to the show on the player at the end of this post, but (as promised) here are the details of the books I talked about…

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Obviously, the first book I talked about on the show was Frankenstein. Shelley’s first novel was published anonymously in January 1818 by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones, in 3 volumes. However, many people who have read a modern paperback edition of Frankenstein will not actually have read the originally published version. Shelley revised the novel in 1831 for a ‘popular edition’, and it is this text that is used for many of the mainstream editions available today. The 1818 version is available though, and some scholarly edition include interesting and informative comparisons between the two texts.

Given this year’s anniversary, there are lots of people talking about Frankenstein at the moment, so I don’t really feel there’s much more I can add to that conversation. What interests me today is the rest of the literary landscape of 1818. It’s widely acknowledged (nowadays, at least) that Frankenstein was a groundbreaking novel, so it’s fascinating to look at what other novels first hit the shelves that year…

Gothic Novels

The first wave of ‘Gothic’ fiction came towards the end of the eighteenth century. By 1818, it was a mainstay of ‘popular’ fiction, with some presses (like the Minerva Press) specializing in the sentimental (and sometimes supernatural) stories that readers were still lapping up. Many of the authors of ‘Gothic’ novels (though they weren’t known by this name at the time – they were more commonly called ‘romances’) were women, and it seems that many readers were too. In many ways, Frankenstein was an antidote to these Gothic fictions – it is a bold new type of ‘women’s writing’, which substitutes melodrama with philosophy and science – but that doesn’t mean the romances had gone away. 1818 saw the publication of a number of popular novels by women (though not necessarily ones that have survived the test of time), including: Selina Davenport’s An Angel’s Form and a Devil’s Heart; Ann Hatton’s Secrets in Every Mansion; Mary Meek’s The Veiled Protectress; and Louisa Stanhope’s The Bandit’s Bride and The Nun of Santa Maria di Tindaro.

But the proliferation of Gothic fiction in the preceding decades had got on a few people’s nerves. 1818 was a bumper year for critiques and satires of the Gothic. The best known of these today is undoubtedly Jane Austen’s posthumously published Northanger Abbey, but also interesting is Patrick Brontë’s (yes, the father of Charlotte, Emily and Anne!) moralizing corrective The Maid of Killarney – a short novel that manages to combine a sentimental adventure plot with heavy-handed criticisms of Catholic emancipation, Irish Home Rule and women’s education!

Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock

As well as the raft of Gothic fictions, 1818’s literary landscape was dominated by the Romantic poets. And, of course, this dominance was also satirized. Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey mocks some of the concerns of Gothic novels, but it is a much more pointed lampooning of the Romantics and their circle. Peacock, who was friends with Percy Shelley (but not a big fan of Lord Byron’s work), wrote Nightmare Abbey as a (kind of) affectionate satire of the pretensions and posturings of the Romantic movement. The novel focuses on Christopher Glowry, a misanthrope who lives with his son Scythrop at the eponymous abbey. The plot – mostly set in motion by Scythrop’s desire to heal a broken heart – is convoluted, overblown and downright ridiculous in places, managing to work in the Illuminati, German Romantic literature and mermaids. But it’s the characters that have been of most interest to literary scholars.

It is quite clear that Scythrop is a satirical portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Of the visitors to Nightmare Abbey, Mr Flosky is based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Mr Cypress is Lord Byron. However, it is a little trickier to pin down the inspirations for the female characters (partly due to the complicated web of relationships enjoyed by the Romantic poets, and partly due to the fact that not all the details of early-nineteenth-century ‘celebrity’ relationships are well-known now). It is possible that Marionetta, one of Scythrop’s love interests, is based on Harriet Westbrook. Does this mean that the earnest and intense Stella is a portrait of Mary Shelley? Or could Peacock have had another woman in mind when he wrote this character?

The Heart of Midlothian by Walter Scott

The Heart of Midlothian is the seventh of Scott’s Waverley novels, and it was originally published in four volume as Tales of my Landlord. The author/editor, as with most of the Waverley novels, was given as ‘Jedediah Cleishbotham, Schoolmaster and Parish-Clerk of Gandercleugh’. The Waverley novels aren’t a series as such, but, as the author was anonymous/pseudonymous, they acquired the overarching name of the first novel due to the fact that subsequent novels were ‘by the author of Waverley‘.

The Heart of Midlothian tells the story of Jeanie Deans, a young woman who travels from Edinburgh to London on foot, seeking an audience with the queen to get a pardon for her sister Effie. As with many of the Waverley novels, there is a historical background to the fiction. In this case, it is the 1736 Porteous riots, which took place after the execution of two smugglers at the Old Tolbooth prison (from which the novel takes its name). Scott claimed to have based the character of Jeanie Deans on a real woman, who made the long journey to save her sister’s life.

The History of the Fairchild Family by Mary Martha Sherwood

The first volume of Sherwood’s Fairchild Family children’s fiction was published in 1818, with  subsequent volumes appearing in 1842 and 1847. The book follows the moral education of the Fairchild children – Emily, Lucy and Henry – by their parents. But be warned: this is not children’s literature as we’ve come to know it! The children learn about their ‘moral depravity’ (due to Original Sin) and about earthly morality through a series of lesson-like stories, including the deaths of two of their neighbours. When Charles Trueman and Augusta Noble die, the children learn about the need to prepare themselves for salvation – Charles is saved, but Augusta horrifically (and literally) burns. Also of note is a story in which the children are taken to see a rotting corpse on a gibbet in order to learn about the perils of sibling rivalry.

Sherwood’s book has little of the innocence of childhood so worshipped by the Victorians. Instead, the books are Evangelical Christianity taught through domestic tales, rather than preached through allegory. Later editions of the book would revise this approach, replacing ‘moral depravity’ with ‘naughtiness’. Sherwood’s own approach also softened somewhat in the later volumes, with the lessons of the 1842 and 1847 volumes featuring notably fewer rotting and burning bodies!

Dictionnaire Infernal by Collin de Plancy

And finally for today’s list, a work of ostensibly non-fiction… Collin de Plancy was a French occultist and demonologist whose Infernal Dictionary describes and categorizes demons and their hierarchies. de Plancy intended his work to take an encyclopedic approach, rather than offering a poetic description of Hell and its torments. He attempted to imbue his subject with rationalism, but traces of religious faith and superstition can be discerned.

The Dictionnaire Infernal doesn’t offer anything controversial (or, indeed, original) to the field of demonology. Many of the 65 categories/names of demons listed by de Plancy will be familiar: Belzebuth, Mammon, Lamia, Lucifer, Behemoth, Astaroth… and Leonard. While the book was first published in 1818, it is perhaps the 1863 edition that was most influential, as it included illustrations that became well-known and reproduced.

de Plancy’s claim that he wanted to leave the descriptions of Hell to the poets undoubtedly reminds us of the most famous of these poetic descriptions: John Milton’s Paradise Lost. And, given the repeated references and echoes of Milton’s work in Shelley’s novel, that brings us full circle back to Frankenstein!

To find out more about these books, and about my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show here:

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