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Contents > Author > Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley > Frankenstein 02 1797- 1851
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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Frankenstein 02
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Chapter 2

We were brought up together; there was not quite a year difference in
our ages. I need not say that we were strangers to any species of
disunion or dispute. Harmony was the soul of our companionship, and
the diversity and contrast that subsisted in our characters drew us
nearer together. Elizabeth was of a calmer and more concentrated
disposition; but, with all my ardour, I was capable of a more intense
application and was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge.
She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets;
and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss
home --the sublime shapes of the mountains, the changes of the seasons,
tempest and calm, the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of
our Alpine summers--she found ample scope for admiration and delight.
While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the
magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their
causes. The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine.
Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature,
gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the
earliest sensations I can remember.

On the birth of a second son, my junior by seven years, my parents gave
up entirely their wandering life and fixed themselves in their native
country. We possessed a house in Geneva, and a campagne on Belrive,
the eastern shore of the lake, at the distance of rather more than a
league from the city. We resided principally in the latter, and the
lives of my parents were passed in considerable seclusion. It was my
temper to avoid a crowd and to attach myself fervently to a few. I was
indifferent, therefore, to my school-fellows in general; but I united
myself in the bonds of the closest friendship to one among them. Henry
Clerval was the son of a merchant of Geneva. He was a boy of singular
talent and fancy. He loved enterprise, hardship, and even danger for
its own sake. He was deeply read in books of chivalry and romance. He
composed heroic songs and began to write many a tale of enchantment and
knightly adventure. He tried to make us act plays and to enter into
masquerades, in which the characters were drawn from the heroes of
Roncesvalles, of the Round Table of King Arthur, and the chivalrous
train who shed their blood to redeem the holy sepulchre from the hands
of the infidels.

No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My
parents were possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence.
We felt that they were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to
their caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights
which we enjoyed. When I mingled with other families I distinctly
discerned how peculiarly fortunate my lot was, and gratitude assisted
the development of filial love.

My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some
law in my temperature they were turned not towards childish pursuits
but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things
indiscriminately. I confess that neither the structure of languages,
nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states
possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth
that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of
things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man
that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical,
or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.

Meanwhile Clerval occupied himself, so to speak, with the moral
relations of things. The busy stage of life, the virtues of heroes, and
the actions of men were his theme; and his hope and his dream was to
become one among those whose names are recorded in story as the gallant
and adventurous benefactors of our species. The saintly soul of
Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home. Her
sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her
celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the
living spirit of love to soften and attract; I might have become sullen
in my study, rought through the ardour of my nature, but that she was
there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness. And
Clerval--could aught ill entrench on the noble spirit of Clerval? Yet
he might not have been so perfectly humane, so thoughtful in his
generosity, so full of kindness and tenderness amidst his passion for
adventurous exploit, had she not unfolded to him the real loveliness of
beneficence and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring

I feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of
childhood, before misfortune had tainted my mind and changed its bright
visions of extensive usefulness into gloomy and narrow reflections upon
self. Besides, in drawing the picture of my early days, I also record
those events which led, by insensible steps, to my after tale of
misery, for when I would account to myself for the birth of that
passion which afterwards ruled my destiny I find it arise, like a
mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but,
swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course,
has swept away all my hopes and joys. Natural philosophy is the genius
that has regulated my fate; I desire, therefore, in this narration, to
state those facts which led to my predilection for that science. When
I was thirteen years of age we all went on a party of pleasure to the
baths near Thonon; the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a
day confined to the inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of
the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory
which he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he
relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed
to dawn upon my mind, and bounding with joy, I communicated my
discovery to my father. My father looked carelessly at the title page
of my book and said, "Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not
waste your time upon this; it is sad trash."

If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to
me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a
modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much
greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were
chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical, under
such circumstances I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside and
have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with
greater ardour to my former studies. It is even possible that the
train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led
to my ruin. But the cursory glance my father had taken of my volume by
no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents, and I
continued to read with the greatest avidity. When I returned home my
first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and
afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the
wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me
treasures known to few besides myself. I have described myself as
always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the
secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful
discoveries of modern philosophers, I always came from my studies
discontented and unsatisfied. Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed
that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and
unexplored ocean of truth. Those of his successors in each branch of
natural philosophy with whom I was acquainted appeared even to my boy's
apprehensions as tyros engaged in the same pursuit.

The untaught peasant beheld the elements around him and was acquainted
with their practical uses. The most learned philosopher knew little
more. He had partially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal
lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery. He might dissect,
anatomize, and give names; but, not to speak of a final cause, causes
in their secondary and tertiary grades were utterly unknown to him. I
had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep
human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and
ignorantly I had repined.

But here were books, and here were men who had penetrated deeper and
knew more. I took their word for all that they averred, and I became
their disciple. It may appear strange that such should arise in the
eighteenth century; but while I followed the routine of education in
the schools of Geneva, I was, to a great degree, self-taught with
regard to my favourite studies. My father was not scientific, and I
was left to struggle with a child's blindness, added to a student's
thirst for knowledge. Under the guidance of my new preceptors I
entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the
philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon
obtained my undivided attention. Wealth was an inferior object, but
what glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from
the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent
death! Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or
devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the
fulfilment of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were
always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own
inexperience and mistake than to a want of skill or fidelity in my
instructors. And thus for a time I was occupied by exploded systems,
mingling, like an unadept, a thousand contradictory theories and
floundering desperately in a very slough of multifarious knowledge,
guided by an ardent imagination and childish reasoning, till an
accident again changed the current of my ideas. When I was about
fifteen years old we had retired to our house near Belrive, when we
witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from
behind the mountains of Jura, and the thunder burst at once with
frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained,
while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and
delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire
issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from
our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had
disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited
it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner.
It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin
ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.

Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of
electricity. On this occasion a man of great research in natural
philosophy was with us, and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on
the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of
electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to
me. All that he said threw greatly into the shade Cornelius Agrippa,
Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, the lords of my imagination; but by
some fatality the overthrow of these men disinclined me to pursue my
accustomed studies. It seemed to me as if nothing would or could ever
be known. All that had so long engaged my attention suddenly grew
despicable. By one of those caprices of the mind which we are perhaps
most subject to in early youth, I at once gave up my former
occupations, set down natural history and all its progeny as a deformed
and abortive creation, and entertained the greatest disdain for a
would-be science which could never even step within the threshold of
real knowledge. In this mood of mind I betook myself to the
mathematics and the branches of study appertaining to that science as
being built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of my consideration.

Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments
are we bound to prosperity or ruin. When I look back, it seems to me
as if this almost miraculous change of inclination and will was the
immediate suggestion of the guardian angel of my life--the last effort
made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even
then hanging in the stars and ready to envelop me. Her victory was
announced by an unusual tranquillity and gladness of soul which
followed the relinquishing of my ancient and latterly tormenting
studies. It was thus that I was to be taught to associate evil with
their prosecution, happiness with their disregard.

It was a strong effort of the spirit of good, but it was ineffectual.
Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and
terrible destruction.


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