Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 ErN 5, entry May 2008  


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and his wife, Mary (Wollstonecraft Godwin) (1797-1851) visited Naples in December, 1818. They stayed for three months. During that time, Shelley wrote Stanzas written in dejection near Naples, the final portion of which is:

Yet now despair itself is mild, 
Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child, 
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne, and yet must bear,— 
Till death like sleep might steal on me,    
And I might feel in the warm air 
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea    
Breathe o'er my dying brain its last monotony.   

Nothing surprising there. Anyone who has ever lived in Naples feels that way sometimes. Shelley’s wife, Mary, was fond of citing the line, "Naples is a paradise inhabited by devils….” Again, nothing new.

The Neapolitan interlude in the complicated soap opera that was the life of both Shelleys (free love, illegitimate children, abandoned wives, incest and suicides —for starters) was just a few years after Percy and Mary had hunkered down near Lake Geneva with Byron and John William Polidori to read ghost stories and write their own. It was the disastrous summer of 1816, the world-wide “year without a summer” brought about by the climate-changing eruption in April, 1815, of Mt. Tambora in far-away Indonesia. Thus, it was cold and dark in Geneva, so the group wrote some scary stuff. Polidori penned the progenitor of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction, The Vamypre, and Mary Shelley, famously, wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

I have actually been in Frankenstein, a town near Kaiserslautern, Germany. Well, I saw it from the window of a train. It was a dark and stormy night (!) and I was jogged out of fitful slumber as our train pulled into a small station. I opened the window, looked out and saw the sign on the station. We were in Frankenstein! Not the movie, the real deal! I got all spooked, closed the window and started muttering, Come on, let's go...let's go...let's go. (I was very young.) There is even a Frankenstein Castle, which may be the source of the name Mary Shelley chose for her good doctor. She claimed she got the name in a dream, but then she was telling stories, wasn’t she? She might have taken it from whatever passed for a phone book in 1816. It’s not that rare a name. There are currently 408 Frankensteins in Germany. One claims to be “Dr. Viktor Frankenstein,” but he runs Frankenstein Tours in Ingolstadt, near Munich, (where Mary Shelley’s fictitious doctor studied to learn the dark art of reanimating corpses), so I’m betting that Vic’s real name is Otto or Fritz.)

So, the other night on the popular Italian TV quiz show, Alta tensione, there was a tricky question (tricky because most people have not actually read Mary Shelley’s original novel). Even the set-up to the question surprised audience and contestants: “Frankenstein was born in an Italian city.” (!) Then, “Which one?” It was multiple choice from among five possible cities: Florence, Venice, Naples, Genoa, Rome. The contestant blew it and guessed Florence. Correct answer (as if you didn’t know) —Naples!

What?! Gasp! Sputter! Even if you knew that the question referred to Dr. Victor Frankenstein and not to his creation, the monster, how could he have been born in Italy? It all happens in Germany, right? Wrong. The novel is told in a series of “frame letters” written by a ship’s captain who meets Victor Frankenstein and repeats the story that Frankenstein tells him:

“He [Victor Frankenstein] then told me that he would commence his narrative the next day when I should be at leisure….” 

Then “Chapter One,” the narrative, starts with Victor speaking in the first person:

“I am by birth a Genovese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic.”

(Careful, quiz-show types —that doesn’t mean he was born in Genoa; it means he was a citizen of the Republic of Genoa because his parents were.) Then, after two pages of description of how his parents met, Victor says,

“I, their eldest child, was born in Naples…”

Mary Shelley,
painting by Richard Rothwell

If Victor was born in Naples in the first edition (1818) of Frankenstein, then everything is much less interesting. Mary Shelley just chose the city by coincidence, or maybe out of girlish enthusiasm for the trip she and Percy could finally make now that the Napoleonic wars had ended and all of Italy —including Greek and Roman Naples— was again open to Grand Tourists. But! —if she put in Naples as the birthplace of Victor Frankenstein in a later edition, then things get interesting. Not clear, mind you, just interesting.

Frankenstein was first published, anonymously, on Jan. 1, 1818 (months before the Shelleys ever set foot in Naples); in 1823 there was another edition crediting Mary Shelley as the author; the first “popular” edition, the one most widely read today, is from 1831 and contains revisions, although Shelley says in the introduction to the 1831 edition that “...[Alterations] are principally those of style. I have changed no portion of the story, nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances.”

In spite of that disclaimer, parts of the 1818 edition differ substantially from the 1831 edition, especially in the first section, where Victor Frankenstein talks about his childhood. The first five paragraphs of chapter 1 (where his narrative starts) are identical in both versions, but then the chapter expands significantly, growing into two chapters for the 1831 version. Although the first edition indeed has Victor saying, “I am by birth a Genovese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic,” there is no mention of Naples in the first edition. Mary Shelley put that part in later.

Why? Here, this is sheer speculation on my part because I don’t know. When the Shelleys were in Naples, they registered the birth of a child, Elena Adelaide Shelley, born December 27, 1818. Most who have studied this episode in some detail are of the opinion that Mary was not really the mother. (Both Shelleys were believers in “non-monogamy,” so it gets complicated. I refer you to the “soap opera” reference, above.) One theory is that the Shelleys adopted an orphan to take Mary’s mind off of the fact that one of her children had died a few months earlier. (In all, only one of her four children, Percy Florence Shelley [1819-89], survived infancy.) The mystery has remained. The child was placed in foster care almost immediately, and the Shelleys moved on. Elena Shelley, whoseever child she was, died only 17 months later in Naples.

I really want Victor Frankenstein’s birth in Naples to be more than coincidence. I want it to be something Mary Shelley added to the first edition after the Neapolitan episode in her life, something to connect the birth of her fictitious creation to the birth of a mysterious child in Naples, maybe hers, maybe not. But, as I say, I don’t know. And that puts me in good company.

(The memory of Naples stayed with Mary Shelley for the rest of her life. She even used the Sibyl of Cuma as a device to advance the narrative in her 1826 novel, The Last Man.)

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