M. R. Arnold: The truth behind Mary Shelley’s famous Waking Dream illustrates the difficulty in interpreting fact for use in historical novels.
Questions related to writing historical novels often include a discussion about the research and verification of information. Often overlooked is the interpretation of information. I believe this is because most writers assume what historians have written is true. While there are several reasons why this is not the case, there can be few stories more illustrative of the problems in interpreting historic fact than that of Mary Shelley’s Waking Dream. Most literary people have heard the story of how Mary Shelley’s attributed the genesis of Frankenstein to a dream, however few people have stopped to question what such a thing is.
When I was writing my book, Monster: The Story of Young Mary Shelley, I identified four possible reasons for Mary’s explanation that her inspiration was what she called a waking dream.
The first is something very like a daydream or the types of thoughts that come when one simply cannot sleep. This is the explanation most people imagine when they bother to question her inspiration at all.
The second is an exercise called, ‘conscious dreaming.’ Percy cultivated the practice of getting in touch with his subconscious while a student at Oxford. He describes the process as falling asleep, having a dream, and then forcing oneself to wake and write down what was seen, or felt, during that episode. There can, and most often are, several such occurrences each night.
On a personal note, I do not recommend this. I tried this while I was a grad student and found that while achieving results from the practice is fairly easy, ending it is not. It was more than a year after I determined to end the experiment with recalling my dreams that I was able to sleep normally without waking following a dream again.
The third is a 200 year old lie. As outlined by Catherine Godwin in her wonderfully researched book, Romantic Outlaws, telling people the concept of Frankenstein came to Mary in a dream was an invention of Percy’s to deflect the approbation that attended Mary’s little book. The question asked by a public fascinated by such a horror story became, ‘what kind of person could conceive of such horrors?’ For many, the answer was, an unbalanced mind. To have such thoughts enter Mary’s head in a dream was more acceptable than that her creative imagination was responsible.
It is worth noting that Percy’s threesome had plenty of trouble by this time because of the rumors of wild debauchery attendant to their menage-a-trois lifestyle. Less than two years earlier, an English aristocrat and poet laureate of the realm, Lord Byron, had been driven from the sceptered isle because of a lascivious lifestyle that caused one former lover to brand him for posterity as “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Rumors of an affair with his half-sister did nothing to help his reputation. The idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity rebounded on Byron and he was forced to leave England. Percy feared the same fate might befall his little family.
The fourth is my Occam’s Razor solution. The weeks Mary, Percy and Claire spent with Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva can be characterized as an exercise in the type of debauchery we associate with the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of mid 1960s San Francisco; a time of unbridled creativity, philosophic freedom, and lifestyle experimentation. One slogan from the Haight that echoed throughout America was, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” Those denizens of the late 1700s and early 1800s might well have voiced the rallying cry, “Sex, Drugs and Poetry.”
A family friend of Mary’s famously succumbed to the temptation to use drugs as a road to creativity. Samuel Taylor Coleridge found himself ostracized from England for his use of Opioids, but he also gave the world, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Xanadu. In The Villa Diodatti, Lord Byron introduced his guests to Laudanum as a way to pass a few rainy hours in blissful conversation. I tend to the belief that Mary’s waking dream was drug induced.
There are at least three reasons why this 200 year old lie has been perpetuated. One: it could be due to the victorian’s tacit censorship of anything to do with sexuality or a lack of propriety, especially anything to do with a famous woman.
A second cause of inaccuracy is evident in the way I portrayed Mary Shelley. I chose a first person present point of view of her as a young girl growing up. There are few more unreliable narrators than someone telling of his or her exploits. While most people wish to appear in a favorable light, social pressures to conform on young people are magnified.
Three: Mary Shelley seems to be canonized by many historians seeking to make the point of her status in terms of authorship or as a figurehead for a cause. They have sought to sanitize her life of any possible impropriety.
Regardless which of these reasons for promoting the genesis of Frankenstein is operating, these reasons for a character’s actions must be examined in order to properly portray any historic personality.
Such, I believe, is the case with the waking dream.