After watching and loving Hugo, especially the scenes with the automaton “Draughtsman-Writer” (Henri Maillardet, early 19th century), I was inspired to pen a kid-friendly version of the “French Frankenstein.” Nogaret’s story, Le Miroir des événemens (The Looking Glass of Actuality), was truly at the forefront of period invention.
The True Story of Frankenstein
A long time ago, a girl named Mary lived alone with her father and a ghost they called Mother. Mother was tall. Her eyes were purplish-blue. Her stiff skirts swished through the rooms and left a lemony perfume behind. You could never see her, but you could feel her being there. When Mary and her dad felt confused (which was often), they asked, “What would Mother do?”
Mother was grand. But she made them feel a little bit small.
Mother had taken part in revolutions. She had demanded rights for women and working people. She had an audience with the King. She had written books that were banned by the police. Mary did not really know what all that meant, but she felt proud. People talked about Mother still, even though she had been dead since Mary was born, twelve years ago.
Mary was not really as strong and brave as people thought. She was scared of lots of things, like mice, and crowds, and lightning. She worried about the letters her dad received, and the angry voices she overheard in the night. So sometimes she hid in Mother’s library. It wasn’t really a library, not like you’d see in a picture book or a movie. It was just a bunch of prickly wooden crates jammed in a stuffy closet. But what books!
There were tales of dwarves and giants, and a horseman battling a long-armed windmill. There were stories of hermits, and young lovers who kissed just once before dying. Way in the back of the closet, there was a box marked POMMES DE NORMANDIE. It smelled faintly of apples. Those books were musty and old and written in French. And so for a long time, Mary ignored them.
But one night when she was feeling more restless than usual, and the voices downstairs made her skittish, Mary opened that box. She took out The Looking Glass of Actuality, a Two-Faced Tale. Before she knew it, she was engrossed. There was urgent business here, and a teenaged girl was in charge!
Squinting in the wavering candlelight, Mary was transported to a place called Lutecia where a girl was trying to save her country. She was the judge and jury of a contest: whoever made the best machine would get to marry her and save the day. So, one by one, inventors filed into town and stood in line. Everyone held their breath.
The machines were strangely familiar. The first was a tripod for holding pots, but its three legs walked around so stiffly that it sloshed soup on the floor. The second inventor brought a tiny carved wagon. But when the girl hooked it up to a housefly, it flew out the window. The third brought a telescope. But while the girl was squinting in search of moon-men, he stole her pocket book and ran away. A hot air balloon rolled in next, with an orange flame shooting sparks into its billows. Mary thought for sure she’d pick that one. But the man wasn’t very nice. He bragged about his money and made the girl feel ashamed.
The fifth suitor was Mary’s favorite. His name sounded like the North: “Frankén,” conjured up smells of green grass in a sunny village, and “Steїn” rang like a mug of fizzy cider. The machine he brought was wonderful. It was a life-size robot he built by hand out of scraps of metal. Dressed in a funny little suit that covered his battered tin, the robot lifted a flute to rubber lips and played a song. The music made her feel wispy and light. Then he stopped, and started again, and she was lifted into another dreamy state. This master inventor was modest and kind. He promised to love the girl. Together they would build a snug family and show the country how to live, hand-in-hand with their robot man. They would convince the king to help the people and help them all. The musical robot bowed politely and rolled away.
Mary dozed off then while Mother stood vigil, her dark eyes gleaming bright. When morning broke, Mary forgot everything. The little book got lost in the shuffle; eventually it was thrown out.
Until one night years later. A storm howled through the windowpanes. Nobody could sleep, so somebody proposed story-telling. Soon cups of cocoa were in their hands, laughter broke up the storm clouds, and the long night inched toward dawn. Ghosts, vampires, monsters, and goblins swarmed around; it was very exciting.
Then it was Mary’s turn. She fumbled in embarrassment, tongue-tied and blushing. Suddenly a voice whispered to her, “Looking glass.” Mary turned her head sharply. But no one was there. She heard a rustle of petticoats and felt a tangy breeze brush her cheek, then it was gone. And before she knew it, a legend crept out of her imagination, a marvelous tale inspired by the life-size robot and the new world he promised. She retold The Looking Glass using her own words, and the FRANKENSTEIN legend was born.
For years and years, no one thought to read that little book, The Looking Glass of Actuality. And yet Frankénsteїn was waiting there all along.
Although fictional, this story is based on the following facts: Mary Godwin Shelley lived her early years in the shadow of a famous mother, the legendary activist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft died of complications just days after giving birth to little Mary, on September 10, 1797. Recent research has uncovered a book that Mary Wollstonecraft may have brought home to London from her years living in the midst of revolutionary Paris, Le Miroir des événemens actuels (“The Looking Glass of Actuality,” 1790). The similarities between the plot and character names in Le Miroir and Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818) are uncanny, and far too close to be accidental. That is why Le Miroir is now known as “The French Frankenstein.”
Frankenstein is one of the world’s best-loved tales. Since its original edition in 1818, it has been republished constantly in English and been made into more than 30 films. Frankenstein has been translated into more than 20 languages, including Korean, Malay, and Braille, making it a truly planetary hit with centuries-old appeal.