In June 1816, exactly 200 years ago, Mary Godwin was holidaying with friends in Switzerland. She was just 18 years old. Among the group was the poet Percy Shelley, her partner, who would later become her husband. Driven indoors by relentless rain, the group decided they would each write a horror story.
At first, Mary struggled to find a plot. Then, a few nights later, she had a waking dream: a scientist created a fearsome man from corpse remains.
Her nightmarish vision was fuelled by the scientific interests of the day, and also by a personal tragedy. The year before, Mary had given birth prematurely. The father, Percy Shelley, had been repelled and rejecting of both baby and mother. After their fragile infant daughter died, Mary was lost in grief and haunted by visions of the baby.
That grief put the most amazing energy into her novel, Frankenstein. The flawed protagonist, Dr Victor Frankenstein, is filled with love and hope initially. His dream is to create a beautiful new human being. But the moment the Creature opens his eyes, Victor Frankenstein is utterly repulsed and abandons his creation. He doesn't even name him. In turn, the Creature himself expects to love his creator. When he is rejected, that powerful capacity for love becomes an equally powerful drive towards hatred and destruction.
Frankenstein was published two years after Mary Godwin's waking dream, to mixed reviews. However, it could not be forgotten: within five years it had become a stage production, full of thrills and horror. Dr Frankenstein's monster has stalked our imaginations ever since.
Last month, Liam Scarlett's ballet at the Royal Opera House produced the latest batch of mixed reviews. My friends Caroline and Katharina went to the live streaming. They were profoundly moved and gripped by the performance. "But the audience around us appeared unmoved," said Caroline later. "I even heard one person say that it wasn't scary enough."
So here's the question: what is the real meaning of Frankenstein? Opinion is and always has been divided... where does the truth lie?
The answer, I believe, lies in three interrelated insights.
1) It's a mirror to our inner monster
When pioneering psychologist Carl Jung introduced Europe to its own collective unconscious, a century after Frankenstein was written, the explanation seemed clear: the monstrous Creature is a representation of our own shadow selves. Those aspects of our behaviour that are not approved by our society lie buried, deep in the psyche: a dark, hidden force that lurks just below the levels of our consciousness. It influences our behaviour, acting as a saboteur that we cannot control. This is the monster that we each create for ourselves.
The more uncomfortable we are about our shadow self, the more we will disown it. We will project it onto another, or others, whom we will demonise. Those of us who are in in that category expect Victor Frankenstein's Creature to be supremely frightening and repellent. However, if we are at ease with our shadow selves, we will not see it as monstrous. We will see it entirely differently. I believe this is a major reason for all the mixed reviews. Frankenstein pushes our buttons.
2) It's a plea for heart and mind to be in balance
Mary Godwin married Percy Shelley, but he died in a sailing accident when she was 24. Mary was now a single mother, with a young son. She made her living as a writer of novels, travel books and short stories. Within her works there is a golden thread that celebrates heart, hearth and family. She was certain that the enquiring mind needed to be balanced by heart-wisdom. In the original text of Frankenstein, she wrote:
"If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind."
3) It's a manifesto for love and forgiveness
Mary Shelley, as she became known, understood completely the value of a loving interpretation. And so, in 2016, does choreographer Liam Scarlett.
Dr Victor Frankenstein was misguided to create his monster from corpse parts. But having made the mistake, he could have treated the Creature with compassion and transformed him with love. At the same time, he could have forgiven himself.
This kinder interpretation matters in ways we can't fully fathom. The truth is, there are dark, untended areas equally in our own psyches and in the wider world. We may be tempted to hide away from these places. But the better solution is to give them tender loving care: to feed them with love, tears and compassion.
In nightmares, when we become aware that we are running away from a monster, the most powerful action is to turn around, and face the monster with love. We can even, perhaps, hug the monster. In dreams, the monster then becomes transformed. Our changed behaviour changes it, for the better.
I think that's why my friends Caroline and Katharina were moved by the Royal Opera House production of Frankenstein. They saw that it contains an immense, compassionate invitation to love.
So the real meaning of Frankenstein is not horror. The real meaning is love. And that is healing for us all.Suggest a correction