Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) attempts to recount events from the summer of 1816 in Geneva, when Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Mary Shelley shared ghost stories on stormy nights and subsequently challenged each other to write their own chilling tales. To say that Gothic misses the mark is being kind, but for director Ken Russell taking liberties with the facts is usually only a starting point.
Gothic gets many details right initially but after the first half hour it degenerates into a typical, over-the-top Ken Russell mish-mosh of visual excess, incoherence, and kinky sex. And after all that, the movie ends with a short, out of place narration that points out that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a result of her summer reading spooky tales with Lord Byron. It’s almost as if the producers watched the rough cut, realized that it made no sense at all and felt obligated to provide the audience with some clue as to why what they just endured mattered.
The greatest crime committed by Gothic is what the movie does to the memory of Mary Shelley. Poor John Polodori gets completely screwed as well, but at least he was a hack writer. Mary Shelly, on the other hand, wrote one of the enduring masterpieces of English literature…when she was only 19.
I just finished reading Miranda Seymour’s excellent biography, Mary Shelley, and was struck by how different the real Mary Shelley was from her popular portrait as the mild mannered wife living in the shadow of her brilliant husband. In truth, Mary was better educated than either her college dropout husband, Cambridge frat boy Byron, or Doctor John Polidori, and she was known for being an intimidating figure in intellectual conversation.
Contrary to popular legend and Mary‘s own later mythmaking, Frankenstein did not arise as the result of a dream Mary experienced following a stormy night of reading ghost stories in Switzerland. There was indeed a challenge between Mary, Shelley, Byron, and John Polidori to each write their own horror tale, but Frankenstein was assembled from a patchwork of Mary’s literary influences, existing story fragments, scientific discussions held throughout that summer, and bits of history and geography picked in their recent travels. This included a visit two years earlier to the vicinity of the Castle Frankenstein, where alchemist Conrad Dippel had supposedly attempt to reanimate the dead.
Gothic, however, gives all the credit for the inspiration of Frankenstein to ranting conversations between a bed-hopping Byron and an opium maddened Shelley, leaving Mary as little more than a weepy spectator.
From its initial publication in 1818, Frankenstein was an important and influential book. Although Frankenstein was published anonymously with a small print run that was mainly distributed amongst English literary circles it quickly gained notice for Mary. Most of its readers knew Mary and were aware that she was supposed to be the author, although some thought that Shelley had either written it himself or had a heavy hand in its development. This unfortunate mis-perception continued throughout Mary’s life and long past it, especially as Shelley’s fame grew posthumously.
Frankenstein is a tremendous literary accomplishment and it is all Mary’s. At the time, Shelley was an obscure figure, known more for his scandalous life than his poetry and Mary was famed from birth as the daughter of two towering figures of English intellectual circles. This was the sort of greatness expected of her by her father’s friends, but sexism and her own later dedication to the memory of her beloved Shelley helped to rob Mary of her proper due.
So, to clarify: Mary Shelley, brilliant; Ken Russell, self-indulgent hack. And poor Polidori was not ugly or gay and in fact was quite handsome.