Shelley was also well-versed in the philosophical and scientific ideas of the time. Her father, William Godwin, a well-known philosopher, and her stepmother home-schooled her, and Shelley studied Latin and Greek, and read widely in philosophy, the sciences, and other fields—extremely unusual for a woman of that era. Shelley was particularly interested in galvanism, a new scientific theory that electricity could be used to stimulate or restart life.
As a result, Shelley came up with a strange new kind of book that has the plot of a gothic adventure story filled with murder and mayhem but also reads like a work of philosophy. Because of its strangeness, its violence, and the author’s gender, only a third-rate publisher would take the project and the author’s name was kept secret. Finally, on January 1, 1818, Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus appeared in a print run of 500 copies in London. The reviews were mixed.
“Early readers did not like Frankenstein,” says Charlotte Gordon, author of Romantic Outlaws, a biography of Shelley and her mother. “They did not know who the author was, as it was published anonymously. When they found out that Frankenstein was written by a woman, they were horrified.”
One critic, Gordon says, thought the author must be as “monstrous” as the monster she created. But despite the public’s uneasiness, the proof of Frankenstein’s impact was in how quickly people “borrowed” it, and by that measure the novel was a huge success, with numerous stage adaptations in the years that followed. These plays often opened to huge crowds and scandalous publicity.
When the English Opera House in London advertised the first adaptation of the “improper work called Frankenstein” in 1823, the advertisements said, “Do not take your wives, do not take your daughters, do not take your families!!!!”