In November 1831, a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published by Richard Bentley and Henry Colburn in their recently launched ‘Standard Novels’ series. The publishers were responding to a major shift in the fiction market as expensive three-decker fiction gave way to cheaper, octavo-sized single-volume novels which could be purchased rather than borrowed.[i] Significantly, this new format included illustrations as a ‘standard’ of quality and value for money. Following on from Robert Cadell’s successful, illustrated reprinting of the Waverley novels in 1829, Bentley and Colburn provided the reading (and viewing) public with two images per volume: a vignette on the title page and a frontispiece. For Frankenstein, they hired a young protégé of Henry Fuseli named Theodor Von Holst (1810-1844). The son of émigré Russian parents who fled Napoleonic conflict, Holst’s talent for drawing was spotted by both Fuseli and Sir Thomas Lawrence, and he entered the Royal Academy in 1824. Holst’s renown as a master of Fuselian themes and forms made him an obvious choice for being the first illustrator of Shelley’s novel, though his famous image outlived his own reputation, and it was not until the 1990s that he merited a major retrospective.[ii]
Theodore von Holst, Frontispiece to Frankenstein (1831), engraved by William Chevalier
For the frontispiece, Holst illustrated one of the novel’s most dramatic and seminal moments: the awakening of the creature. Following the format pioneered by John Bell’s Poets of Great Britain series in the late eighteenth century, a short quotation from the text was placed beneath each image, usually with a page reference.[iii] This had a dual function: to locate the illustration and to act as hook for the potential purchaser of the volume. In this case the epigraph reads: ‘By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull, yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive agitation seized its limbs…I rushed out of the room.’ Holst’s challenge was to incorporate the two conflicting elements of unhallowed creation and horrified paternal rejection into his compact, octavo-sized design. To do this he borrowed from both high and popular culture, and from Romantic and Renaissance art. The melodramatic aspect of the tableau is captured in Victor Frankenstein’s arrested exit, and his backward-looking, wide-eyed posture (and it is worth adding here that, strictly, this image was not the first visual depiction of the text: the popular theatrical adaptation Presumption, first staged in 1823 produced a number of commercial and satirical paratexts which may have influenced Holst; unlike the epigraph which is from Victor’s point of view, the illustration is framed like a proscenium arch and the creature is front-stage and therefore closer to the reader-viewer who is like a member of the audience,).[iv] The diagonal sight-line, magnified by the shaft of light, connects his gaze to the creature’s larger, bewildered visage. The expanding beam of illumination is one of the scene’s most conspicuous tropes as it has no logical function, contradicting the epigraph’s ‘half-extinguished light’ and the text’s mention of a moon that ‘struggled’ to pierce the gloom. By adding this fiat lux, Holst reinforced the scene’s (and the novel’s) troubling religious and political connotations, as the motif is most commonly found in medieval and Renaissance representations of the Annunciation, though it also figured in British royalist propaganda (in Eikon Basilike (1649), for example, it signifies the apotheosis of the executed Charles I) and in anti-Catholic satirical prints, particularly those depicting or alluding to the anti-hero Guy Fawkes.[v] Holst’s shaft of light also falls on the creature’s cocked left arm, which was a pose used in both sculpture and painting to represent sleeping beauty, as in Titian’s painting The Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-6) and the Vatican’s famous Roman statue the Sleeping Ariadne. This allusion, together with the creature’s ‘lustrous’ hair, handsome visage (another departure from text) and classical torso, mitigates the horror of the ‘filthy’ anatomical hands and legs – features which are reinforced by the theatrically placed skeleton whose raised knee echoes the creature’s posture and who appears to be grinning like an episode from the Romantic revival of the Dance of Death – and implies considerable sympathy for this new Adam. Drawing on his academic training, Holst blended classical and Fuselian, Gothic motifs in order to give his illustration authority and to open up for contemplation the text’s central moral and aesthetic dilemma: should we, like Victor, be repelled by the creature?
The illustration also exemplifies how much significant detail could be included in such a small image. If the bottom half of the scene is dominated by a momento mori, the upper half is crammed with signifiers of modernity and the pursuit of knowledge. In order to impress on the viewer the importance of science, Holst takes liberties with the text and places a cluster of instruments not specified by the novel: a bell jar, two bottles connected by a tube, and a remarkable, horn-like set of Galvanic electrodes that anticipate the Hollywood appropriation of this scene in the early twentieth century. This scientific paraphernalia is also positioned above the creature’s head like some king of surreal coronation, capping a grave-like stone backrest which no doubt alludes to his ‘filthy’ genesis in exhumed corpses (though in the text we are told that he is lying down, not sitting up). The large bookcase with several tomes confirms that this is Victor’s secreted study in Ingolstadt and not, as the large vaulted window implies, a stereotypical Gothic castle. The bookcase also alludes to Goethe’s Faust, which Holst had illustrated several years earlier, but which Mary Shelley could not have read (in English) when she published the novel in 1818.[vi] Hence the illustration adds another tier of intertextuality to an already mythopoeic text. Finally, the tantalizingly open book in the bottom left, next to the creature’s emaciated right hand is a narrative prop: this is Victor’s lab-diary from which the creature later learns his life-story and discovers his ‘author’.
Illustration is never a simple transcription of a text: it simultaneously illuminates, embellishes and interprets. More could be said about the skill of the engraver W. Chevalier (about whom little is known) in realising the central tropes of light and darkness through cross-hatching and contrast. Perhaps more importantly, further thought could be given to the way in which the medium of engraving reduplicates the text’s concern with mechanical reproduction: this illustration marks the point at which Frankenstein is reborn and remythologized as a visual commodity, for better or worse. Does the fiat lux announce this epistemic transformation as its divine light passes through the creature’s body to the unillustrated open book? Viewed as a bibliographical allegory, the electrode-wielding creature is a portent of mass visual culture, a naked, unrealised potential that has burst from the ruined shell of an antique codex which is revealingly draped in a single sheet ( a page?), a symbol of its own demise. Holst’s Frankenstein is an emblem of a new era of mass illustration, though the future lay with wood rather than metal engraving: wood allowed images and letter-press to be printed together cheaply on the same page, and enabled the growth of the illustrated periodical press and the professional literary illustrator.[vii]
There is another sense in which Holst’s image re-allegorized the text. Max Browne suggests that Holst represented the last gasp of Romantic art before Victorian cultural hegemony stripped visual fantasy of its sublime, revolutionary associations and subjected it to the generic codes of melodrama, domestication and sentimentality.[viii] Holst seemed to be aware of these imminent changes in taste as his title-page vignette for Frankenstein shows Victor’s agonized parting from Elizabeth. But what neither Holst nor his publishers could have predicted is that the timing of the book’s appearance reinforced its association with revolution. The novel was published in November 1831, a month which saw devastating Reform Bill riots in Nottingham and Bristol. There is an uncanny convergence of chronology between these events and the ‘dreary night in November’ of the creature’s ‘convulsive agitation’, a lexis which, as Chris Baldick has shown, clearly connotes revolution.[ix] This potential is, as yet, stored up in creature’s incredulous stare. Given the technical difficulties of portraying bodily ‘agitation’ in the frozen medium of art, the scene uses a different method and arranges possible futures around the creature: the way of science and books, or the way of death. As readers viewed for the first time the modern Prometheus, they would also know that Bristol rioters had destroyed the cathedral library, and that Britain was poised on the brink of a political earthquake. Mary Shelley’s creature had a double revolutionary genesis: in 1831, just as in 1818, the text resonated with anxieties about the causes and consequences of radical reform.[x] Holst’s pioneering illustration compressed these concerns into a self-reflexive, compact image in which illumination is both a theme and method.
Ian Haywood, University of Roehampton
[i] See Michael Sadleir, ‘Bentley’s Standard Novel Series: Its History and Achievement’, The Colophon 10 (May 1932), 45-60; Catherine Chittick, Dickens and the 1830s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 28-9, 66-7.
[ii] Max Browne, ed. The Romantic Art of Theodor Von Holst (London: Lund Humphries, 1994). For many years Holst’s works were attributed to Fuseli.
[iii] See Thomas Frank Bonnell, The Most Disreputable Trade: Publishing the Classics of English Poetry 1765-1810 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), chapter 4.
[iv] See the online edition of Presumption edited by Stephen Behrendt for Romantic Circles (2001): http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/peake/
[v] See, for example, The Double Deliverance (1588), British Museum Satires 41, and James Gillray, The Pillar of the Constitution (1807), British Museum Satires 10738.
[vi] This image is reproduced in Browne, 47 and in the British Museum Database. The bookcase and window are in the same position.
[vii] See Patricia Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture (Oxford: Clarenson Press, 1991), and Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor, eds, The Lure of Illustration in the Nineteenth Century: Picture and Press (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
[viii] Browne, 26-7.
[ix] Chris Baldick, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth. Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).
[x] See Adriana Craciun, ‘Frankenstein’s Politics’, in The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, ed. Andrew Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 84-100.