'Frankenstein' is on the move at 200

Jason Kelly with a copy of "Frankenstein"View print quality image
British history professor Jason Kelly holds a copy of "Frankenstein," which was first published 200 years ago. Kelly and his students created A Frankenstein Atlas, a website that breaks down all 331 geographic points associated with the 200-year-old book and its creation. Photo by Tim Brouk, Indiana University

First published on Jan. 1, 1818, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and its undead monster have been captivating international audiences for two centuries.

The tale has been made into almost 100 movies around the planet -- from Boris Karloff's 1931 classic to 2017's "Mary Shelley," which depicted the trailblazing creation of the story in the early 19th century.

With so many reiterations and takes on the book, Jason M. Kelly, an associate professor of British history and director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, and his spring 2018 "Machines and the Age of Invention" class took a deep read of the book, poring over the many locations visited -- or even just mentioned in passing -- by Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the numerous other characters. From this, Kelly and his students constructed A Frankenstein Atlas, a living research project that maps 331 locations that reside in the book or were visited by Shelley during the writing process.

"It's a slowly growing site to learn about 'Frankenstein' and explore the many facets of the book," Kelly said. "In class, it allowed us to think about what kinds of historical sources and methods we use in the context of literary analysis."

Kelly and his students are still publishing new data to A Frankenstein Atlas. Fueled by Github, other researchers and classes will be able to add new "branches" to the work, allowing the atlas -- and the legacy of "Frankenstein" -- to grow for another 200 years.

Question: How was the data created to fill and launch A Frankenstein Atlas?

Jason Kelly: The first thing we needed to do was read "Frankenstein." So we did a group read of the book pretty quickly. Our first pass set the groundwork for our semester-long discussion of the historical context of "Frankenstein." Each student was assigned two or three chapters, and their job was to code them. I created an online interface and helped them map their data.

Q: What struck you most about the novel while conducting the research?

JK: It's an epistolary novel, a novel of letters, and it's a travel journal at the same time. Mary and Percy Shelley, Claire (Clairmont, Mary Shelley's stepsister) were touring through in 1816. They had been keeping travel journals. You can actually read sections of "Frankenstein" and go back to the travel journals to flesh out the spaces and places they're talking about.

Because there is a strong geographical element to "Frankenstein," and we used location as our jumping-off point, which gave us the opportunity to pursue historical geographic information systems approaches. The model that helped shape the project was "Mapping the Lakes," a project that examined the Lake poets. We borrowed the format and developed it into this pedagogical platform. We made it an open source data set so that people can add to and develop it.

Q: As a professor of British history, how did your travel experience influence the project?

JK: I do a lot of research on the Grand Tour, a one- or two-year trip through Europe that many British elites took during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. And, fortunately, my research takes to locations across the continent. So, Percy and Mary's visit to the continent -- specifically Lake Geneva where she composed “Frankenstein” -- was similar to my other work.

Q: What other sources did you use during your analysis?

JK: In one instance, we pulled data on where historical ice sheets, and we read journals from the 18th- and 19th-century scientific expeditions. We even studied where whaling ships were likely to travel. These were the types of information that Mary had access to when she described the ice at the beginning and end of the book. We triangulated these data sets, and when we brought it all together, we were able to get a good sense where Mary was situating the action in the novel. It was a great exercise in the ways that science and literature can come together and talk to each other.

Q: What were your students' reactions to the book?

JK: They loved it. They arrived with an image of Frankenstein mediated by the movies. But when they read the book, like almost anyone I've spoken to who has never read the book before, they said, "Oh, this isn't at all what I thought it was about." This is talking about all the same issues we're grappling with today, like religion, ethics, responsibility and what makes us human. It's such a contemporary novel, and it's 200 years old.