Aug 302013


Today is the birthday (1797) of Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin),English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. She was very well known in her day as an author, but nowadays she tends to be be reduced to the role of creator of Frankenstein and Shelley’s wife.  It’s time to correct that misperception.

Mary’s mother died when she was eleven days old from complications of the birth. She and her older half-sister, Fanny Imlay, were raised by her father initially, but when Mary was four, Godwin married his neighbor, Mary Jane Clairmont, primarily for her money, although contemporaries say it was a loving marriage.  Mary was not happy with her stepmother, however, probably because she favored her own children over Godwin’s. Though Mary received little formal education, her father tutored her in a broad range of subjects. He often took the children on educational outings, and they had access to his library, and met the many intellectuals who visited him, including the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the former vice-president of the United States Aaron Burr. Godwin admitted he was not educating the children according to Mary Wollstonecraft’s philosophy as outlined in works such as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but Mary Godwin nonetheless received a solid education for a girl of the time. She had a governess, a daily tutor, and read many of her father’s children’s books on Roman and Greek history in manuscript. Her father described her at fifteen as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

In June 1812, Godwin sent Mary to stay with the family of the radical William Baxter, near Dundee. He wrote to Baxter, “I am anxious that she should be brought up … like a philosopher, even like a cynic.” Mary reveled in the spacious surroundings of Baxter’s house and in the companionship of his four daughters. She returned north in the summer of 1813 for a further stay of ten months. In the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, she recalled: “I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. 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.”

In 1814, Mary (aged 17) began a romantic relationship with Shelley who was one of her father’s political followers (and married at the time). Together with Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, they left for France and travelled through Europe. Upon their return to England, Mary was pregnant with Percy’s child. Over the next two years, she and Percy faced ostracism, constant debt, and the death of their prematurely born daughter. They married in late 1816 after the suicide of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

In 1816, the couple famously spent a summer with Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont near Geneva, where Mary conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein. 1816 was known as the “Year Without a Summer,” when Europe was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by several natural events including the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so the group retired indoors talking into the wee hours. Among other subjects, the conversation turned to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life, and to the experiments of the 18th-century natural philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter. Sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, the company also amused themselves by reading German ghost stories translated into French from the book Fantasmagoriana, prompting Byron to suggest they each write their own supernatural tale. Shortly afterward, in a waking dream, Mary Shelley conceived the idea for Frankenstein:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

She began writing what she assumed would be a short story. With her husband’s encouragement, she expanded this tale into a full-fledged novel. She later described that summer in Switzerland as the moment “when I first stepped out from childhood into life.”


The Shelleys left Britain again in 1818 for Italy, where their second and third children died before Mary Shelley gave birth to her last, and only surviving child, Percy Florence. In 1822, Percy drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm in the Bay of La Spezia. A year later, Mary returned to England and from then on devoted herself to the upbringing of her son and a career as a professional author. The last decade of her life was dogged by illness, probably caused by the brain tumor that was to kill her at the age of 53.


I am inclined to believe that in the main people nowadays do not know Mary Shelley AT ALL; not even from Frankenstein, because I don’t believe the vast majority ever read the book.  All people know are Halloween images, and usually, and mistakenly, refer to “the creature” as Frankenstein. Thankfully in recent years there has been an increasing interest in her literary output, particularly in her novels, which include the historical novels Valperga (1823) and Perkin Warbeck (1830), the apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826), and her final two novels, Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837). Studies of her lesser-known works such as the travel book Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844) and the biographical articles for Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia (1829–46) support the growing view that Mary Shelley remained a political radical throughout her life. Her works often take the point of view that cooperation and sympathy, particularly as practiced by women in the family, were the ways to reform civil society. This view was a direct challenge to the individualistic Romantic ethos promoted by Percy Shelley and the Enlightenment political theories articulated by her father, William Godwin.

It’s an impossible task to review her entire philosophy, but even scratching the surface of Frankenstein gets at much of it.  My main advice is – if you have not read it yet: READ IT. The core tale of a scientist animating a creature made of spare parts is just the beginning. Frankenstein is a deep reflection on the nature of humanity (as were all the founding novels of what became the genre of Gothic literature).   Of central importance is the fact that the creature is gigantic and hideous, due not to the fact that he is made out of spare parts, but because Frankenstein does not have the skill to fashion anything more pleasing to look at. Many of the working parts, such as veins, are exposed, and the creature is huge because Frankenstein is unable to work on a smaller scale. His immediate rejection of the creature because of its gruesome appearance is the crux of the matter.  What does a child/creature do when his own father/creator rejects him? In Mary Shelley’s pre-Freudian world the answer is remarkably Freudian. The creature is driven to try to please his creator, while simultaneously harboring profound anger towards him.  In popular culture the angry monster piece is abundantly represented, but not the other side of the picture.  After his initial rejection by Frankenstein, the creature lives on the edges of society learning first to speak and then to read.  He becomes both articulate and well read.  He constantly seeks approval from others, but is constantly rejected purely for his appearance.  In response he becomes murderous.


In many ways Frankenstein foreshadows themes in Mary Shelley’s later works, notably the roles of men and women in society and the family. In a sense the creature is a product of the male-only world.  He is intelligent and thoughtful, but prone to rage and destruction.  He is an outgrowth of the Romantic era’s notion of the heroic individual battling the world which Shelley implicitly condemns. The Romantic hero must ultimately fail.  In her later novels, including Lodore and Falkner, Shelley attempts to show, a little too didactically, that love, compassion, and family can be redemptive for men, and are more powerful than individual struggle. What would the creature have been like if created by a woman? Answer: a woman would not have created him!

Many classic omnibus cookbooks have a section on leftovers, what Mrs Beeton calls the “art of using up.” In a sense Frankenstein’s creature was made out of leftovers, so this seems the perfect time to have a recipe made from spare parts.  I’ve lived alone for several years but can’t seem to get into the swing of making a meal for one. How do you make ONE bowl of lentil soup? Besides I like big pots of soup or stew that simmer gently for hours and fill my apartment with delicious aromas. My freezer’s pretty full most of the time with remnants, but my refrigerator is also usually stuffed with leftover ingredients.  So this is more about using up what you have lying around than about leftovers per se.   I have the general belief that you can stick just about anything that is hanging around in the refrigerator in stock and make a good soup.  I always have stock on hand.


Over 25 years ago I was low on supplies, and in scrounging around I found some bacon, tomatoes, celery, and onions.  So I simply chopped them all into dice, simmered them in chicken stock and my version of refrigerator soup was born.  My wife liked it so much that it became a standard as a quick lunch.  I’d still be making it were it not for the fact that it is very hard to find bacon in Argentina, and, even if you do, it’s not really right for this soup.  You need ordinary old U.S. supermarket bacon; what Brits call streaky bacon.  Here’s a standard recipe for those who can’t work it out from my description.  Quantities are not really important, but having all the ingredients is.  There’s something about the combination that is magical. The soup has a particular freshness because the ingredients are not browned.

© Tío Juan’s Refrigerator Soup


2 pints (1 li) chicken stock
4 strips bacon, cut in bite sized pieces
2 stalks celery, diced (leaves included)
2 medium tomatoes, cut in wedges
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic finely minced
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (or 2 tsps dried)


Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a steady simmer.

Cook for 20 to 25 minutes.  I like the celery to retain a little crunch, but there is no harm in cooking the soup a little longer.

Serve with crusty bread.

Serves 4