Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley - Romanticism and The Rise of the Novel • 1800–1855

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Romanticism and The Rise of the Novel • 1800–1855




Early Gothic


1764 The Castle of Otranto by English writer Horace Walpole is published. It is later hailed as the origin of Gothic fiction.

1794 English author Ann Radcliffe publishes her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, introducing readers to the dark, romanticized, and brooding Gothic “hero”.

1796 Inspired by Radcliffe’s novels and German horror stories, Englishman Matthew Lewis writes The Monk, one of the most sensationalist Gothic novels of the period.

1817 E T A Hoffmann, from Prussia, writes a collection of short stories, Nachtstücke, that includes his now famous tale “The Sandman”, which blends Romantic philosophy with Gothic themes of horror and irrationality.

Gothic fiction established its main themes in the late 18th century, years before the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Works such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and E T A Hoffmann’s Nachtstücke, set out the key elements of the genre. In these books, exiles roam sublime foreign landscapes, or are trapped in ruined castles in nightmarish tales of abuse, tyranny, and murder.

At the heart of early Gothic fiction was a combination of Romantic preoccupations with the power of the mind, the limits of the imagination, and contemporary social questions, coupled with Gothic tropes of evil aristocratic villains, gory deaths, and gloomy medieval settings. This mixture was frequently embodied in beings such as vampires, ghosts, monsters, and terrifying and mysterious female figures.

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley expanded on these elements, linking them to wider philosophical debates, and forever changing the Gothic genre in the process. The inspiration for the novel came from conversations she had with, among others, the English Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. One evening, the group told stories around the fire, as a storm raged outside. Byron suggested they devise ghost stories, and Mary Shelley’s imagination was stirred.

"A flash of lightning illuminated the object ... it was the wretch, the filthy daemon, to whom I had given life."


An unsettling age

Although the stormy origins of Frankenstein are perhaps fitting, the novel is much more than a simple tale of terror. One of Shelley’s most significant contributions to the Gothic genre is her ability to expand on the stock themes of persecution, threat, and monstrous hauntings into a more sophisticated exploration of one of the key Romantic preoccupations of the period: the alienated individual in the modern world.


A fable for the times

The title name of Frankenstein refers not to the infamous monster, but to Victor Frankenstein, the novel’s protagonist — the scientist, artist, and creator of the unnamed creature whom he describes as “the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life”.Frankenstein is a solitary creative genius, whose “secret” horror stems from within, as he overreaches the ethical laws of humankind in typical Romantic fashion. Through him, Shelley reworks the Gothic theme of monstrosity in the form of the idealized persona of the exiled or wandering outsider. As scholar David Punter suggests, the book focuses on “rejection of the strange, at both social and psychological levels”. Frankenstein’s monster is a product of the moment of his creation in the new and unsettling age of industrialization and of the author’s negotiation of the political and social upheaval of the time.

The horror of Frankenstein lies not with its monster but rather — in its melding of key Gothic tropes of haunting, exile, and isolation — with the anxieties of the period that so preoccupied the Romantics, such as questions about religion versus science; philosophies of justice; debates about the origins of life; and the role of education, culture, and nurture in shaping identity.

Frankenstein’s downfall through his own monstrous creation is the ultimate modern fable, cleverly wrapping moral and social issues in the guise of Gothic terror.



The birth of novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley on 30 August 1797 in London, England, was closely followed by the death of her mother, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, 11 days later. Her father was the radical philosopher William Godwin.

At the age of 14, Shelley was sent to live in Scotland. In 1814 she returned to her (remarried) father’s London home and met the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was already married, but the pair eloped to Europe and wed in 1816. It was a loving but tragic union: only one of their four children survived, and in 1822 Percy drowned. Mary wrote until her death in 1851. She is best remembered for her novel Frankenstein, which she began drafting in 1816, during happier times with her husband and their circle of close friends.

Other key works

1817 History of a Six Weeks’ Tour

1819 Mathilda

1826 The Last Man

1830 The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck

1835 Lodore

See also: Doctor FaustusNachtstückeFaustWuthering HeightsThe Picture of Dorian GrayDracula