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The Secret Life of Books: Frankenstein

Updated Wednesday, 29th October 2014

Anatomist and author Professor Alice Roberts dissects one of the earliest examples of Science Fiction, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. 

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Professor Alice Roberts reading a book by candlelight. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC Professor Alice Roberts

About the episode

Presented by Professor Alice Roberts

Nearly 200 years since it was first published Frankenstein has established itself in popular culture as shorthand for the dangers of science run amok. The name Frankenstein conjures images the world over of a square headed Boris Karloff figure with bolts in his neck.

In this film, anatomist and author Professor Alice Roberts returns to the original 1818 book to explore the myths and facts about the way it was written and what its author, 18-year-old Mary Shelley, intended it to be about.

Alice retraces the steps of Mary Shelley from the graveyard at St Pancras where her mother was buried, and where she is said to have consummated her affair with the poet Percy Bysshe, to the Villa Diodati in Geneva where - according to Mary's 1831 preface - Byron first challenged them each to write a ghost story "to awaken thrilling horror... to make the reader dread to look around".

Alice questions how much of this is myth and how much we can really believe. When Alice meets Professor Nora Crook they discuss the contradictory themes and voices in the book and reveal it to be, above all, a novel of ideas.

Alice returns to the earliest surviving manuscript, the hand written draft notebooks from 1816 and 1817 and discovers evidence that there are two different hands at work in the novel. We can see the handwriting of Mary Shelley herself and also that of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Dr Michael Rossington explains that the process of writing the novel matches its main themes, it can be seen a critique of the solo visionary artist or creator.

This episode was first broadcast on Sunday 2nd November 2014 on BBC Four.




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