It was a dreary night in summer, that Joan Passey beheld the accomplishment of her toils. She had been asked by the Communications Team at the K-SAA to commit to paper her dreadful time and horrifying experiences within the newly-opened and ominously named ‘Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein’. Dear reader, her tale begins as follows…
Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein in Bath, England opened this year following Covid delays, with a banner on their website declaring ‘we are now open – it’s alive!’ The same tongue-in-cheek tone continues once visitors cross the museum’s threshold, and at the door you are confronted by an eccentrically glad ‘mad scientist’ luring you into a darkened corridor. The grand Georgian townhouse is just a few doors up from the Jane Austen Centre, and it feels fitting to have these sites in such close proximity – both solely dedicated to a female author from the Romantic period oft over-simplified and misunderstood.
Like Austen, Shelley visited Bath at the height of its popularity, writing parts of Frankenstein in a boarding house in the city in the autumn and winter of 1816/1817 after returning from the summer that never was at Lake Geneva, where she first conceived of her tale on perhaps the most famous night in Gothic history. The city has only recently capitalised on this connection. A plaque was placed outside the Pump Room on the novel’s bicentenary in 2018, whilst the museum was approved in 2020. Significantly, unlike the Jane Austen Centre, this is not strictly a ‘Mary Shelley museum’. While making passing reference to her work beyond her most famous novel, and the intellectual network of friends and family that inspired her, the museum is, as the title suggests, primarily dedicated to Frankenstein as a phenomenon.
As I zip past the ‘mad scientist’ greeting visitors at the door and collect my tickets I’m made to promise that I will absolutely not miss the basement on my way out. With this foreboding offering ahead of me, I climb the narrow stairs to the first displays.
The house, being a Georgian townhouse, is tall and narrow with confined staircases, and each room is given over to a particular ‘theme’, the corridors painted in dark colours and decorated with posters from Frankenstein’s illustrious cinematic history. It’s worth noting that this is far from an accessible space and those unable to use stairs will not even be able to enter the building. This is disappointing, and sadly common for spaces in Bath, with its many protected buildings. Wheelchairs, buggies and prams cannot be accommodated, and the visual effects used mean the space is not suitable for those with epilepsy.
A glowing, colour-changing brain welcomes you into the first room, where displays illustrate Mary Shelley’s parents, childhood, and associations with figures like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Humphry Davy. Davy is used here to emphasise the Bath link, as a young Mary attended Davy’s lectures, amongst others, at Bath’s Royal Society.
The next room is dominated by a giant, ominous death mask of Shelley, glowing, shadowed, and marble-like above the fireplace.
Here some interesting stylistic choices become apparent – throughout the museum, alongside the well-researched display boards, are absolutely buckets of what I would fondly describe as ‘goth tat’. Some of it feels somewhat incongruously Neo-Victorian – taxidermied animals, mounted birds, small skeletons, many generic spectral black and white photos, antlers, bottles, and a hodgepodge of tumblers and test tubes. It illuminates one of the key difficulties of a museum such as this: it doesn’t really contain many ‘artefacts’, so much as information – beautifully curated information, but the material culture side is somewhat lacking (in these first few rooms, at least). There is an attempt to compensate for this instead through a somewhat eclectic collection of morbid panoramas and grotesque trinkets.
The effect, with development, could be somewhat atmospheric, but in these early days feels a bit sparse, and in some places detracts from genuinely atmospheric moments – the looming head of Shelley is impressive and emotive, and doesn’t necessarily need the other ornaments. It centres Mary Shelley in the museum, indicates her looming influence, her spectral presence throughout our understanding of British literature, science, and culture.
Shelley’s life provides the initial structure for the first two floors, with a focus on the loss of her first child that lends itself towards a rather specific reading of the ‘monstrous creator’ narrative. One particularly disturbing room, telling the story of Shelley’s grief, features an empty cradle, rocked by an unseen mechanism, with the sound of a baby crying pumped over the speakers. This feels like a somewhat sensationalised treatment of her real-life pain, and I imagine might be quite upsetting for some visitors.
There are some fun audio commentaries – a reading of a particularly scathing Percy Bysshe Shelley obituary springs to mind – that fleshes out the experience, though given Covid restrictions I felt I couldn’t make the best of these. On one floor I encounter red velvet theatre curtains, with a room dedicated to Frankenstein on stage.
This is where the narrative of the museum gained momentum, orientating itself towards the reception, impact, and legacy of Frankenstein and his monster. The posters of original productions and audio tracks of the original script work well, luring the visitor towards a very different red curtain, this one seemingly made of meat…
This room, the ‘laboratory’ contains a tremendous animatronic Frankenstein’s monster true to Shelley’s original description, pointing out the incongruities between our popular imagining of the monster and her yellowed, hulking, eloquent creature. The effect is subtle – the monster breathes slowly, and his eyes move around the room, with a board explaining his inspiration and construction.
This focus on Frankenstein’s reception and legacy continues on the final floors, where the museum really finds its strength. A bright, candy-scented room is dedicated to Frankenstein and pop culture, jam packed with an immense variety of objects lovingly labelled ‘Franken-tat’, including a playable pinball machine.
Displays walk the visitor through a cinematic history of the monster, with one screen, on my arrival, playing clips from Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein. Another display illuminates the modern history of Frankenstein on stage, including references to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Another details the use of Frankenstein in political cartoons, including references to ‘Frankenfoods’, gesturing to the ways in which Frankenstein has shaped our contemporary relationship with science and science communication. This visual media history of Frankenstein is where the collection really sings, demonstrating the pervasiveness of images in advertisements, packaging, toys, games, and the very origins of cinema history. The screening room, full of old-fashioned folding theatre seats, on my arrival was showing Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein.
Having reached the top of the building I had to keep my promise to venture back down to the basement. A terrified teenager burst through the door gasping, which probably did a lot to shape my impression of the space. If you’ve ever done the Saw Ride at Thorpe Park, it’s a bit like that, without the actors, with spurts of dry ice and flickering lights serving as jump scares. It’s a maze of hanging plastic bodies and blood-splattered plastic curtains and finishes off the experience with the same dismembered tongue jammed firmly into the same revenant cheek. The House of Frankenstein, crucially, does not take itself too seriously, selling jars of body part sweets in the gift shop, with pop art renderings of Mary Shelley, Byron, Percy, and John Polidori.
It appreciates the long, neon, tacky, kitschy history of Frankenstein, jammed alongside its historical, poignant, and often tragic origins. This simultaneous consideration of Frankenstein’s lime green monster meets Shelley’s own tumultuous life makes for a bit of a rollercoaster of an experience. On the whole it is richly researched – there is something here for those new to Frankenstein as well as die-hard Gothicists. I learnt a lot of new things in my trek up the building, and especially appreciated the vintage adverts, Playbills, and snippets of Mary Shelley’s juvenilia. It knows what it wants to do, understands its own limitations, and celebrates Frankenstein with a genuine love and respect, without being too dry or dogmatic. It is very convincing in its focus – that Frankenstein is a hugely important part of our culture, influencing so much of our thinking and media, an inescapable, lumbering presence in the popular imagination. It was a wonderful day out, it made me incredibly happy, and it is a joy that this author and this book are receiving such overdue recognition in a museum space.
Dr Joan Passey
Joan Passey is a lecturer at the University of Bristol where she specialises in Victorian literature and the Gothic. She is co-founder of the Haunted Shores Network, providing opportunities for collaboration on the histories, cultures, and literatures of haunted coastal spaces. She is the Edge Hill Nineteen Wilkie Collins Fellow, and previously a BBC New Generation Thinkers finalist, 2020-2021. Her anthology of nineteenth-century Gothic tales, Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land’s End was released by the British Library Tales of the Weird series in 2021, and her monograph with University of Wales Press, Cornish Gothic, is forthcoming.