‘The untamed self of the unconscious’: Sixth Formers Visit Oxford to Learn About Frankenstein and Dracula

Ever since they were published in the nineteenth century, the stories of Frankenstein and Dracula have gripped the public imagination. While most of us become aware of the fictional creations through the numerous films, this year’s crop of A-level English literature students are lucky enough to be reading the original novels by Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.

Mary Shelley's original manuscript

In Hilary term, as part of the University of Oxford’s outreach work, a group of sixth-form students from Hemel Hempstead School were invited to the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford to hear a talk about the two novels from Dr Sandie Byrne, Associate Professor in English Literature and Creative Writing. Not only that, they were lucky enough to see Mary Shelley's original manuscript (pictured above), her journal, her portrait and a first edition of Dracula.

So what lies behind the enduring appeal of the books?

‘I think it's all sorts of things,’ says Dr Byrne, who points out that a lot of people are surprised at how different the books are from the films. ‘Dracula is such a powerful concept – someone who lives forever by drinking blood.  It comes out of folk stories so it obviously has cultural capital, a powerful hold on the imagination.’

Frankenstein, she notes, also involves beating death – it’s ‘about a man who, through arrogance and ambition, seeks to usurp the power of nature or the womb and succeeds, but there’s a terrible price to pay.’

From Greek mythology to galvanism

What makes Frankenstein and Dracula particularly good set texts for sixth formers is that they both emerged from a rich cultural context, says Dr Byrne.

Frankenstein, for example, can lead to a discussion about Romanticism, and the Romantics’ views of nature and their interest on science – Mary Shelley attended lectures on galvanism (named after Galvani, who showed how the legs of a dead frog could be made to twitch by the application of electrical current).

The reference to Greek mythology in Frankenstein’s subtitle, ‘The Modern Prometheus’ can lead students in one direction, while the use of a quotation from Paradise Lost in the novel’s epigraph can lead them in another, Dr Byrne adds. Knowing about Mary Shelley’s own life could lead them to find out more about her husband Percy Shelley and her philosopher father William Godwin.

Similarly, Dracula makes use of late nineteenth century understanding of transmitted disease, as well as the idea of ‘reverse colonisation’, namely the fear of the Victorians that people from the countries they had colonised would in return colonise the British.

The attitude to science in both books is also revealing, says Dr Byrne, pointing out that much of the ‘science’ in Frankenstein is actually alchemy. And in Dracula, she explains: ‘Although Van Helsing is brought in to shine the light of Enlightenment and scientific knowledge on the darkness of superstition, he has to resort to the same conceptual world as that from which Count Dracula comes in order to defeat him; he uses the tools of Catholic religion.’

Both novels, she adds, ‘represent doubling and mirroring in ways that might tap in to fears of retrograde evolution, the “ape within”, and the untamed self of the unconscious. We might see Frankenstein’s Creature in this way, but he is a blank page, an innocent, who learns how to be angry and vengeful from his treatment by others.’

Oxford is for everyone

For the Hemel Hempstead students, it was a full day. After seeing the original manuscripts first-hand and hearing Dr Byrne’s expert talk, they went on to visit the memorial to Percy Shelley at University College and the History of Science Museum. ‘Oxford is not an enclosed, cloistered world,’ says Dr Byrne.

The University  encourages applications from all kinds of students, and its various departments, libraries, museums, colleges and gardens ‘all make a huge effort to invite people in to share ‘wonderful buildings, grounds, and artefacts and scholarship that we are fortunate enough to enjoy.’

More information on the Department's short courses and programmes in English Literature can be found on our website.

Published 1 April 2019