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Underground Manchester as urban palimpsest in Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein: A Love Story (2019)

Probing the posthuman horizon in a Gothic laboratory
Claire Wrobel


In her 2019 novel Frankissstein: A Love Story, Jeanette Winterson repatriates Mary Shelley’s myth to Britain, and more precisely to Manchester, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. The visionary in this case is an AI-specialist called Victor Stein, who is striving to push back the limits of the human condition in a secret underground laboratory. Subterranean Manchester presents itself as an urban palimpsest in which different historical strata coexist, and whose meaning is defined by a process of cultural accretion involving history, local culture and literature. Winterson contributes a fictional layer by interweaving the urban text that is underground Manchester and her rewriting of Shelley’s myth. Building on Jens Martin Gurr’s suggestion that the notion of the urban palimpsest may be extended to post-industrial cities, the first section seeks to analyse how Winterson represent urban complexity – i.e. the coexistence of layers of urban memory – by mobilizing textual strategies centred on the figure of Victor Stein. The paper then demonstrates how the structure of the novel performs urban complexity, encouraging readers to engage in time travel and hypertextual reading. Finally, the last section shows how the challenge which lies in representing urban complexity is also an opportunity, as the time travel allowed by underground Manchester enables Winterson, like Mary Shelley before her, to contemplate the possibilities opened up by science, probing not just the future of the city, but that of humanity. The constant shifts between the nineteenth century and the present time reflect Winterson’s conviction that Shelley’s novel is a prophecy announcing the advent of the posthuman. Drawing on the collection of essays which Winterson recently published under the title 12 Bytes. How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next (2021), the article examines how the novel’s reflection on the human and its boundaries invites us to question the contemporary polis and its monstrous Others.

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  • 1 This possibility is contemplated for instance by Hans Moravec in Mind Children: The Future of Robot (...)

1In her collection of essays entitled 12 Bytes, Jeanette Winterson notes that the Industrial Revolution, during which Frankenstein (1818) appeared, was the beginning of the Machine Age and that Mary Shelley “saw it [AI – Artificial Intelligence] coming,” in the sense that she “recognised a decisive shift in the fundamental meaning of what it means to be human” (Winterson 2021: 9, 10). Winterson’s rewriting under the title Frankissstein; A Love Story (2019) considers life extension and even immortality. The central experiment in the novel, conducted by a scientist called Victor Stein, consists in reviving the brain of his mentor, British statistician I.J. Good (1916-2009), whose head has been cryopreserved, and uploading his mind onto a carbon structure, thereby bringing him back from the dead in hybrid form.1 This climactic experiment takes place in the underground tunnels which lie beneath Manchester. The motif of the city beneath the city, already present in Winterson’s The Passion (1987) through a brief dive in Venice’s unmappable secret canals, takes centre stage in Frankissstein, which may be regarded as a work of urban fiction.

2Defining urban fiction, as Jens Martin Gurr remarks in his recent Charting Literary Urban Studies, is no easy task: “In a world as urbanised as ours, any novel attempting remotely to capture contemporary experience, one might argue, is bound to be in some sense an ‘urban’ novel” (Gurr 2020: 43). Under that label, he chooses to analyse novels which “do display an engagement with urban complexity, if not necessarily as their major theme” (Gurr 2020: 43). Although Gurr discusses neither Manchester nor Winterson, this paper will argue that Frankissstein may be read as “urban fiction” in the way it engages with the complexity of underground Mancunian space. The complexity at stake here is the co-existence of layers of urban memory from different historical periods within the same space, conjuring up the Industrial Revolution, the Cold War, but also the potentialities of the transhuman future.

3The first part of this essay, picking up on some of the research questions highlighted by Gurr, analyses how Frankissstein “represent[s] urban complexity” and “capture[s] the uniqueness” of Manchester, and more precisely how it “simulate[s] layers of urban memory”, mobilizing textual strategies which centre on the figure of Victor Stein (Gurr 2020: 1). The second section goes on to show that rather than simply comparing underground space to a maze, the text itself performs labyrinthine complexity, enabling readers to experience “the interpenetration of different layers of times and of their simultaneous co-presence in urban space” (Gurr 2020: 59). Ultimately, the representational challenge may prove an opportunity, as the time travel allowed by Mancunian underground space enables Winterson to probe the future – not of the city, but of humanity. As Andreas Huyssen notes, “an urban imaginary in its temporal reach may well put different things in once place: memories of what there was before”, but also “imagined alternatives to what there is” (Huyssen 2003, 7).

4The running thread in the discussion is that of the palimpsest. To the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of a palimpsest as “a parchment or other writing-material written upon twice, the original writing having been erased or rubbed out to make place for the second”, Sarah Dillon adds that the “process of layering – of erasure and superimposition” often only imperfectly erases the first writing, so that its “ghostly trace” can later reappear. While the practice of palimpsesting dates back to the ancient times and was institutionalized from the seventh century onwards, Dillon traces the inauguration of “the substantive concept of the palimpsest” and the “beginning of a consistent process of metaphorization” to an 1845 essay published by Thomas De Quincey in Blackwood’s Magazine (Dillon 2007: 1, 14). Since then, the concept has been used in an impressive variety of disciplines which is by no means limited to literature, so much so that “the palimpsest becomes a figure for interdisciplinarity”, in which what is at stake is “the question of reading in its very broadest sense” (Dillon 2007: 2-3).

5In urban studies, the palimpsest has been used to refer to the coexistence of architectural traces from different historical periods and can “be fruitfully used to discuss configurations of urban spaces and their unfolding in time” (Gurr 2020: 8, Huyssen 2003: 7). Such complex simultaneity offers a specific challenge to literary renditions of the city, constrained as they are by textual linearity. Furthermore, the urban text needs a reader who, like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, is able to perceive several historical periods at the same time. The urban palimpsest is not limited to architectural remains. Local urban culture too has a “cumulative texture” (Suttles 1984: 283). Thus, Gurr suggests that “[i]n addition to the built environment […] the layering of immaterial urban memory can also be conceptualised as a palimpsest: Thus, particular neighbourhoods may be characterised by a dense layering of memories, anecdotes, urban legends triggered” (Gurr 2020: 56, original emphasis)

6If the palimpsest is “an involuted phenomenon where otherwise unrelated texts are involved and entangled, intricately interwoven, interrupting and inhabiting each other” (Dillon 2007: 4; see also 85), then Winterson’s palimpsestic activity in Frankissstein consists in interweaving two unrelated texts – the urban text that is underground Manchester and her rewriting of the literary myth that is Shelley’s Frankenstein –, thereby adding a layer to the cultural representation of Manchester. This study does not concern itself primarily with Frankissstein’s intertextual relation to Shelley’s text, although some developments will show how Winterson draws on hypertextual strategies, such as parody and transposition, which are discussed in Gérard Genette’s Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (1982, 1987 for the English translation). The main focus of this article is on the process by which Winterson entangles the Frankenstein myth with the urban text of underground Manchester, how she addresses the challenge of conveying urban complexity, and how this becomes an opportunity to explore, not the future of Manchester, or of postindustrial cities in general, but the future of the philosophical cité, and the promises and dangers raised by posthumanism within it.

Manchester Under

Repatriating Frankenstein’s laboratory

7Mary Shelley located Victor Frankenstein’s experiments on the margins of Britain – in the German town of Ingolstadt, where the scientist puts together his Creature, and in the Orkney islands in Scotland, where he undertakes to make a mate for his first creation. Winterson, by contrast, repatriates Shelley’s myth to the heart of Britain, and gives her scientist not one but two laboratories. Indeed, in addition to his daytime laboratory which is privately funded but hosted by the University of Manchester, Victor Stein, a renowned AI expert who specializes in machine learning and human augmentation, also has a secret laboratory where he strives to push back the limits of human mortality:

Things are so scrutinised, monitored, peer-reviewed, collaborated on, so many forms to fill in, grants awarded, progress reports, overseers, evaluators, assessors, audits, plus public interest, not to mention the press. Sometimes things need to be done a little more circumspectly. Behind closed doors. (Winterson 2019: 163)

8The “series of deep tunnels” which constitutes a sort of dark double of the city – “Manchester beneath Manchester” or “the twilight world of the city beneath the city” – offers the secrecy he needs to conduct his non-official experiments (Winterson 2019: 163, 202). Readers are given access to this underground world when Stein takes Ry to his lab. Ry, who is the first-person narrator, is a transgender doctor who supplies him with body parts and becomes his lover.

  • 2 His work can still be seen on the museum’s website:

9By locating Victor Stein’s laboratory in underground Manchester, Winterson is self-consciously contributing to the cultural construction of urban space, alongside local cultural practices and local tales. While urban history tends to focus on what happens above ground – symptomatically, Alan Kidd’s Manchester does not say a word about subterranean space – , local fascination for underground spaces does exist. There is an “Underground Manchester” permanent exhibition in the Manchester Museum of Sciences and Industry, a place which Winterson’s novel alludes to (Winterson 2019: 167). The appearance in 2007 of the first edition of Keith Warrender’s Underground Manchester: Secrets of the City, followed by a second volume entitled Below Manchester in 2009, provided the inspiration for the “Reality Hack – Hidden Manchester” exhibition by photographer Andrew Paul Brooks at the Urbis in 2009.2 There are “‘Underground Manchester’ walks around the City centre,” which take visitors “along canal towpaths” (Warrender 2020: 160). Winterson clearly had such tours in mind when she has Ry remark, after visiting Stein’s secret lab: “[Stein]’s locking the gates just as though we’ve been on one of those tours people love: Subterranean Secret [sic] of the City” (Winterson 2019: 34, 205). When he attempts to go back without Stein, Ry needs the help of a guide, using another entrance and entering subterranean space “like visitors to an underworld we used to know” (Winterson 2019: 339).

10Frankissstein is followed by a “note from the author” in which the latter states: “This story in an invention that sits inside another invention – reality itself. […] The tunnels under Manchester are there – but not quite as I have described them” (Winterson 2019: 345). Here, the author is both claiming the benefit of creative licence and drawing our attention to the fact that reality, too, is to some extent, “invented”. This is especially the case when it comes to underground Mancunian space. In addition, or parallel, to institutional heritage industry, underground spaces are the object of a folklore which is rich in myths, so that even non-fictional practices are shaped by, and give shape to, the urban imaginary. Warrender’s book bears witness to the importance of folklore and urban legends in the local inhabitants’ relation to underground space. The author explains that at the beginning of his investigations, he heard of “a lost city, an unused tube station, mysterious rail systems, old streets and shops, and secret passages” and set out to discover whether the rumours were true (Warrender 2020: 13). Similarly, the Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange (GUTE), which is the network of reinforced concrete built in the 1950s as a bunker to protect national communication links in case of an atomic bomb attack, and which is where Stein’s secret lab is located in the novel, is the object of much speculation (Brook and Dodge 2012). The foray below ground which Frankissstein enables its readers to undertake is not just the fictional equivalent of non-fictional practices. Winterson’s novel actually contributes to the “accretional layers” which make the “meaning of a real place” and are made of “gossip and song, oral history, written history, essays and poems” (Tuan 1991: 692).

11While Warrender’s book includes illustrations which make the coexistence of different time periods visually graspable, such as an 1890 City Engineer’s drawing in which graves from the eighteenth century are to be found alongside Victorian sewers, pipes and mains, Frankissstein relies exclusively on literary devices to convey urban complexity, drawing on the figure of Victor Stein as urban observer (Warrender 2020: 59).

Victor Stein: flâneur, voyeur or lord of the manor?

  • 3 See Ben Moore, “Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project” in Tambling 2016: 59-73.

12The ability to perceive and bring back to life, simultaneously, the different historical periods present in the urban palimpsest is characteristic of the flâneur whom Walter Benjamin describes in the Arcades Project.3 In that respect, Gurr suggests that, rather than the palimpsest, we borrow Benjamin’s notion of “superposition”. The reason is that, to him, “what the notion of the palimpsest leaves out or at least does not fully do justice to, is the role of the observer, the role an observer’s awareness of earlier layers plays for an understanding of a specific site”, especially in post-industrial cities in which older layers may no longer be visible (Gurr 2020: 88). As Gurr explains, “Given a certain frame of mind – and Benjamin clearly characterises this frame of mind as that of the flâneur – this simultaneous co-presence can be perceived and understood by an urban observer. […] Thus, ‘superposition’ refers to both the temporal layering and to the ability to perceive it” (Gurr 2020: 60; original emphasis).

13When Ry follows Stein to his underground laboratory, the scientist plays the part of the urban observer, who has the ability to perceive different layers of the past. Ry occupies an intermediate position and constitutes an embedded figure of the reader, through whom Stein’s vision is communicated. The scientist’s lab is located in a bunker which harks back to a crucial historical period for Manchester, i.e. the Cold War and the accompanying IT revolution of the 1950s-1960s. Stein explains:

The tunnels and bunkers […] were built in the 1950s with money from NATO. […] The labyrinth housed a secure communications network designed to survive an atomic-bomb blast capable of flattening the city. Down below there are generators, fuel tanks, food supplies, dormitories, even a local pub. (Winterson 2019: 164)

14Tellingly, the underground “tour” does not follow chronological order, so that Winterson’s text performs the non-linear working of palimpsestic urban memory. Thus, the above passage is immediately followed by one in which, as Stein and Ry walk along underground canals which were used for the transportation of goods in the nineteenth century, the scientist explains that “it was Marx’s time in Manchester, and his friendship with Engels, who owned a factory here, that gave Marx the material he needed for the Communist Manifesto” (Winterson 2019: 165). The legacy of the Industrial Revolution is indissociable from its social aspects, and underground Mancunian space is also haunted by the exploited labour force, conjured up by Victor Stein:

Do you know that in Manchester, in the nineteenth century, there were 15,000 windowless basement dwellings without water or sewerage – and those men, women and children worked twelve-hour days spinning the wealth of the world’s richest city – and were going home to disease, hunger, cold and a life expectancy of thirty years? (Winterson 2019: 164)

15To some extent, Ry and Stein’s respective positions may also be analysed by drawing on de Certeau’s distinction between the walker and the voyeur. Walkers find themselves in the midst of the city’s complexity – “mobile and endless labyrinths far below” (de Certeau 1988: 92) –, an apt description of Ry and the reader who without Stein would not be able to find their way in underground urban space, and more importantly, to read it. While walkers “follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it”, the “voyeur-god”, by contrast, commands a view from above which transforms the city into “a text that lies before one’s eyes” (de Certeau 1988: 92-3). Although Stein is walking in the depths of the underground labyrinth, his knowledge of the city’s past and his ability to perceive the different historical layers give him a metaphorical view from above, which “makes the complexity of the city readable” (de Certeau 1988: 92). However, even Stein acknowledges the fact that underground Mancunian space, because it is unmappable, cannot become a “transparent text”: “No one can [explore the whole thing down here]. There are dead-ends and blockages, turnings that lead nowhere. Bunkers, passageways, routes under the whole of Manchester” (Winterson 2019: 267).

  • 4 On Manchester, the Victorian city and literature, see Tambling 2016, 1-2.

16Stein’s figure is central to the novel’s dealing with urban complexity since his position as urban observer makes it possible to unearth the multiple historical layers which constitute underground space. It is also through Stein that Winterson contributes her own fictional layer to the Mancunian palimpsest, which consists in her rewriting of the Frankenstein myth. Winterson’s chosen intertext is not “condition of England” novels such as, for instance, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848),4 but Shelley’s myth, which advanced the Gothic by introducing science in it. This generic hybridity is embodied in Stein, who is both Gothic villain and hubristic scientist. It also shapes the treatment of the underground space which is so closely associated with him.

The Sci-Fi / Gothic mix

17Winterson uses the conventions of the Gothic canon when she describes Ry’s descent to underground Manchester. The entrance to the Gothic world is made by a “rusty but sturdy gate […] in a blackened brick wall” (Winterson 2019: 166). The power relations which underlie the Gothic underworld are also present in Winterson’s novel. When Ry follows Stein to his lab, he finds himself in the position of the heroine at the mercy of the Gothic villain in underground labyrinths which are “spaces of inversion”, beyond the reach of the law (Botting 1993: 251). In the Gothic labyrinth, the villain’s will is sovereign and his power absolute. It therefore comes as no surprise that Stein should assert that his laboratory is “[his] world […] A poor thing but [his] own” (Winterson 2019: 167). His control over his modest kingdom is confirmed at the end of the novel when, in order to conduct his experiment alone, he locks up Ry and other characters in the bunker’s 1950s pub after having activated the flood barrier, thereby turning the place into “a concrete tomb filling with water” (Winterson 2019: 330). As the descent begins, intertextual references to the Victorian Gothic – R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) as well as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) – come up: “Is he Jekyll? Is he Hyde? Only Count Dracula lives forever” (Winterson 2019: 163). The tour reveals its share of ghastly surprises, such as the tarantula-like hands which respond to electric current, “a number of broad-legged, furry spiders” of whose body structure Stein wants to make a 3D model, or Abel and Cain, the two robots who are slicing a mouse’s brain so as to map it (Winterson 2019: 171). Like Shelley, Winterson has a mad scientist figure conduct futuristic experiments in a Gothic setting.

18Cultural landmarks give rise to palimpsests in which an artefact may have a dual status as both a hypertext and a hypotext which inspires “a new generation of transformations” (Wigelsworth 2016: 3). In Winterson’s text, filmic adaptations of Shelley’s tale have such a dual status. In particular, James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), which has played a significant part in defining the visual language of the myth, is both a hypertext based on Shelley’s novel and a hypotext rewritten in Winterson’s. Already in Whale’s film, Frankenstein’s “Gothic lab-tower” was a hybrid displaying both “archaic” and “futuristic” features (Menegaldo 2013: 174, my translation). Menegaldo remarks that “[the] staging of the scientific apparatus contributes to establishing the myth and to fixing at the same time the figure of the mad scientist surrounded by his instruments, which will become a cliché in horror cinema from the 1930s onwards” (Menegaldo: 180, my translation). In Winterson’s novel, the apparatus includes “[v]alves, wires, vacuum tubes. Rows of steel, miles of cables. Dials and needles” (Winterson 2019: 167). The importance of electricity in Shelley’s hypotext, on which the influence of Galvanism is well-documented, is translated into visual language in Whale’s film, where “[the] devices (generators, capacitators, accumulators, electric arcs, cosmic diffuser) make sprays of light burst onto the screen and saturate the soundtrack with unusual crackling” (Menegaldo 179, my translation, original emphasis). Winterson rewrites both the visual and sound effects of Whale’s film in her description of Stein’s secret lab:

The electric supply was erratic that morning – bursts of jagged white illumination from the swinging lengths of strip lighting, then the insect-buzz of current fault and the on-off-on-off of now you see it, now you don’t as we were split second in darkness, split second in cavern-light that seemed to watch us, not light us. (Winterson 2019: 264)

19In postmodern fashion, and often on a parodic mode, the text is strewn with intertextual and transmedia references. For instance, Ry – who, as noted above, supplies Stein with body parts – is careful to specify that he is not a “grave robber” and distinguishes himself from the assistant who was introduced in the opening scene of the 1931 film:

Do you think I go to the churchyard at night with a crowbar and a sack? You think I spade away the heaped mound of earth, prise open the coffin lid, lift her out from her last resting place, clothes damp with decay, and carry her off for dissection? (Winterson 2019: 86, original emphasis)

20Similarly, when Ry remarks that Stein is “interested in bringing back the dead”, the latter answers: “You make it sound like a Hammer horror movie” (Winterson 2019: 186). Winterson’s text also offers a parody of the figure of the mad scientist when it appears that a journalist – Polly D., who works for Vanity Fair – has trespassed inside the bunker: “Victor dropped a bank of Bakelite switches like the electricity stack in a Frankenstein movie. […] [He] threw open the door in full theatrical style. He should be wearing a white coat” (Winterson 2019: 274). When Polly D. says she wants to write the story of his reviving a head, Victor’s answer shows his awareness of, and distance with, the widely shared cultural expectations surrounding the character of the mad scientist: “Of course you would. We all would. The lunatic scientist in the white coat. The secret tunnels. The vitrified head returning to life” (Winterson 2019: 275). However, these expectations will not be fulfilled, as the experiment takes place behind closed doors.

21Like Frankenstein, Winterson’s novel combines the Gothic with science fiction. Indeed, subterranean space makes it possible to travel both to the past and to the future. Thus, when trapped in the 1950s pub, Ry remarks: “We’re in a time warp”, and Polly D. asks: “Who knew that the future would look like 1959?” (Winterson 2019: 309) The palimpsestic coexistence of different times is not just a theme or a metaphor in the novel but, as the next section shows, is actually performed by the novel in its very structure.

Winterson’s Time Machine

Gates to the past and to the future

22Gurr suggests that when literature attempts to represent urban complexity, “the text [in the more interesting cases] will also assume labyrinthine qualities itself or will have the experiential potential of allowing readers to experience the disorientation suggested by the notion of the labyrinth” rather than “suggesting complexity by means of metaphors or similes such as the often clichéd urban ‘maze’ or ‘labyrinth’” (Gurr 2020: 35). If urban complexity is defined, in Manchester’s case, as the simultaneous presence of different historical times, not just past but also future, then it may be argued that in Frankissstein, the text performs the labyrinthine complexity of the underground city through its non-linear form, its multiple cross-references, and the hypertextual reading it encourages.

23As Ry follows Stein down the tunnels, they are faced with numerous doors. Because different time periods coexist, there is no knowing onto which historical period each door will open, which corresponds, on a metatextual level, to the experience of reading Frankissstein. Indeed, in addition to Ry’s tale, which is set in contemporary times and culminates with Victor Stein’s experiment, there are two other main narrative strands, also written in the first person: Mary Shelley’s life, starting with her stay on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816 and on through her husband’s death in 1822, and a narrative starting in 1818, told from the point of view of a Mr. Wakefield, who is writing from the Bedlam asylum, where a patient called Frankenstein has been admitted. Because the novel alternates between the three narrations, one never knows whether one will find oneself tracing the steps of Mary Shelley across Europe, entering early nineteenth-century Bedlam or following the set of contemporary characters. In addition to the three narrative strands already mentioned, one also comes across passages written in the third person, relating for instance I.J. Good’s early years starting in Hampstead in 1928 (Winterson 2019: 268-273). It may also take readers some time to identify whose voice they hear when a new narrator takes over, as in the Bedlam narrative. Sometimes, the epigraphs may provide clues. Thus, the sections which are part of Mary Shelley’s narrative are headed by quotations written in the early nineteenth century, for instance an 1818 review from The Edinburgh Magazine or a quotation from Lord Byron (Winterson 2019: 53, 125). However, paratextual information is often missing, so that neither the author nor the date can guide readers wandering in the textual labyrinth. In fact, the role of quotations, rather than guide readers, is to prompt hypertextual reading.

From palimpsest to hyperlink

  • 5 See also Shelley 2003: 9 and Winterson 2019: 21; Shelley 2003: 58-59 and Winterson 2019: 21-22; She (...)

24Frankissstein is a palimpsest if we use the term in the loose sense it has acquired to describe intertextual relationships. As Winterson retraces the circumstances of the creation of Frankenstein and highlights possible sources of inspiration, it is not surprising that the language of Shelley’s novel should feature in her novel. Thus, Captain Walton’s words – “There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand” – appear with a minor punctuation variation in Frankissstein (Shelley 2003: 22; Winterson 2019: 19, original emphasis).5 Frankissstein is also a palimpsest in the sense that the hypotext is still visible in the hypertext, for instance when Winterson stages Shelley reading from her story to Lord Byron:

It was nearly noon when I arrived at the top of the ascent. I looked on the valley beneath; vast mists were rising from the rivers which ran through it and curling in thick wreaths around the opposite mountains, whose summits were hid in uniform clouds, while rain poured from the dark sky. Presently a breeze dissipated the cloud and I descended upon the glacier. The surface is very uneven, rising like the waves of a troubled sea. / At the distance of a league rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in the recess of a rock gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds […]. (Winterson 2019: 140-1, original emphasis)

25The following is Shelley’s version, in which the italics indicate the parts which have been either rewritten or omitted by Winterson:

It was nearly noon when I arrived at the top of the ascent. For some time I sat upon the rock that overlooks the sea of ice. A mist covered both that and the surrounding mountains. Presently a breeze dissipated the cloud, and I descended upon the glacier. The surface is very uneven, rising like the waves of a troubled sea, descending low, and interspersed by rifts that sink deep. The field of ice is almost a league in width, but I spent nearly two hours in crossing it. The opposite mountain is a bare perpendicular rock. From the side where I now stood Montanvert was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty. I remained in a recess of the rock, gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aërial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. (Shelley 2003: 101, emphasis added)

  • 6 At times, Winterson also offers condensed versions of Shelley’s text. Compare Winterson 2019: 127 a (...)

26It is as if Winterson were quoting from memory, allowing herself to rewrite Shelley’s text while leaving the original visible through her text.6

  • 7 Other rewritten key scenes and motifs include the vision of the Creature climbing mountains (Winter (...)
  • 8 In addition to Lord Byron, almost all the historical characters present at the Villa Diodati have a (...)

27Winterson incorporates a number of key scenes from Shelley’s Frankenstein into her novel, while creating interferences between the historical and the fictional. Thus, Mary Shelley’s statement that she saw “[a] tree hit by lighting” (Winterson 2019: 21) echoes the crucial scene in which young Victor Frankenstein sees a tree struck and destroyed by lightning (Shelley 2003: 42). The scene also has a comic counterpart when Ron Lord, the unsavoury owner of a company which produces sex-bots and stands as an avatar of Lord Byron, describes the vision which led him to launch his business during a “big electric storm” in the presence of “the moon, big as Bitcoin” (Winterson 2019: 236-7). The moon is indeed constantly associated with the Creature in Shelley’s novel.7 The story of how Mary Shelley came to produce Frankenstein – in the summer of 1816 when a ghost-story contest was organised to while away the time as rain kept pouring down – has acquired a mythical status in literary history on a par with that of Shelley’s tale, and is also transposed in a comic way when Ry, who has been locked up in the underground 1950s pub with other characters, asks “Anyone know any ghost stories?” but only gets “ [b]lank looks” (Winterson 2019: 309).8

28Writers responding to the challenge of urban complexity and simultaneity may resort to textual strategies which disrupt the linearity of the text, such as “inviting readers to go on reading elsewhere in the book, via recurring phrases in a text which connect different passages in a form of hyperlink avant la lettre” (Gurr 2020: 41; original emphasis). Here, “passage” must be understood in the ambiguous sense it has in Benjamin’s Passagen or in the French word – both an arcade and a passage of a text (Gurr 2020: 57). The “device of recurring phrases […] suggesting non-linear connections between different parts” is used by Winterson to upset both historical and textual linearity (Gurr 2020: 57). Phrases, quotations and even longer passages reverberate across the novel, which thus constitutes its own subterranean network. The words from a Shakespearean sonnet (“What is your substance, whereof are you made, / That millions of strange shadows on you tend?”, to be found in Sonnet 53) appear repeatedly in Mary Shelley’s narrative (Winterson 2019: 14, 30, 61, 245, 341; original emphasis). Identical textual elements resurface in different narratives, thereby connecting different times and different ontological levels. Thus, the sentence “Any butcher will sell you one” – in reference to the heart – is spoken both by Mary Shelley and Ry (Winterson 2019: 337, 343). The text sometimes seems to have its own subterranean tunnels, as when Ry, who is following Stein down a passage, introduces a reference to Bedlam in his narrative: “Why do the lights here swing from side to side like a madman’s manacles? Is this our private Bedlam, hidden, secret, unlawful, harbouring what we should not know?” (Winterson 2019: 265-6) It is as if the text had secret doors which enable readers to move from one narrative to another, one time to another, one space to another. To take one last example, the phrase “wild, nocturnal eyes” and close variations are used to describe different characters – Victor Stein, the man who introduces himself to Mary Shelley at the end of the novel, and the “feral cat” that visits her after her husband’s death (Winterson 2019: 106, 163, 326, 344).

29Winterson thus offers a text which, like the Mancunian tunnel network, has multiple entry points and defies mapping. Such textual experimentation reflects Winterson’s conviction that the past is a tunnel to the future, and that we need the latter to understand the former.

Posthuman Polis

Frankenstein’s Creature and Artificial Intelligence

30Since the Industrial Revolution, Manchester has been associated with experimentation – not only technical, but also economic and social. Indeed, by 1844 it was “an icon of industrial, economic and political change, attracting visitors and commentators from around the world for its indications of a possible future” (Sumner 2016: 126). When Engels and Marx visited in 1842, the city was a hothouse of capitalism where the effects of the factory system could be witnessed first-hand and homo capitalisticus studied in its various shapes. Janet Wolff opens her piece on “Manchester, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” with a number of quotations to the effect that Benjamin would not have erred had he studied Manchester rather than Paris as the emblem of urban modernity (Wolff 2013: 69). The new frontier which Winterson addresses in underground Manchester however is not modernity but posthumanism.

31As evidenced by the time machine described in the previous section, Winterson believes that the context in which Frankenstein was written is particularly resonant with our time. In the collection of essays entitled 12 Bytes, she traces her vision of the future, in which AI will not be a tool but a life-form, to the steam-powered loom (Winterson 2021: 34). This is the reason why Britain, and Manchester in particular, is where it all began. Frankenstein is a “message in a bottle” and as “a fiction closer to prophecy”, since “200 years later, we too are beginning to create intelligent systems that will both merge with, and work alongside, their human companions” (Winterson 2021: 9-10, 126). Winterson’s approach to Frankenstein aligns with what literary criticism has identified in the Gothic tradition more generally. Indeed, it has been noted that “[o]ne of the most prominent areas of liminality explored by various forms of the Gothic is the question of the human and its Others: the monster, the stranger, the alien and, most recently, the posthuman in its various figurations” (Heise-von der Lippe 2019: 182). Such comments are particularly apt for Frankenstein and its “explorations of the intersections of embodiment and technology” (Heise-von der Lippe 2019: 182).

32For Winterson, humans’ relation to technology is on the verge of undergoing a significant change – whether one calls it the Singularity or the advent of Artificial General Intelligence [AGI]. The novel alludes to the Singularity, defined as “the moment when AI changes the way we live, forever” or else the “point in time […] where technological advance becomes both irreversible and species-changing as we merge with AI” (Winterson 2019: 35; Winterson 2021: 122). The phrase “technological singularity” was popularized in a 1983 article published in Omni magazine by mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge. It predicted that, in a context of accelerating technological progress, the human world would be so much transformed by superhumanly intelligent machines that humans would no longer be able to understand it. In Johnston’s words, “[t]he ‘singularity’ thus designated the passage from our human-constructed and therefore mostly knowable world into an unknowably new and alien one” (Johnston 2011: 11). Inventor and AI futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose book The Singularity Is Near (2005) Winterson mentions reading at the beginning of 12 Bytes, believes superhumanly intelligent machines should become a reality within the next couple of decades. Artificial General Intelligence, or “superintelligence”, refers to a “multitasking, thinking entity that will eventually become autonomous” (Winterson 2021: 104).

  • 9 The term “posthuman” really gained traction in the second half of the 1990s, with, for instance, N. (...)

33Winterson is not so much interested in singularity in the sense of the advent of a posthuman illegible world as in the transhuman possibilities opened up by AI on the way to a posthuman horizon. She refers to Julian Huxley’s 1957 essay entitled “Transhumanism”, in which the author affirmed his belief that humanity could, and should, “transcend itself” by various means which may include “smart implants, genetic modification, prosthetic enhancement, even the chance to live forever as a brain emulation” (Winterson 2021: 132, 104). Transhumanism thus refers to “the augmentation and enhancement of our biological bodies using biotech” (Winterson 2021: 243-244). It is based on the idea that the current form of the human species is only an early stage, and on the aspiration to transition to the posthuman:9

According to transhumanists, a ‘transhuman’ is a transitional human who aims at becoming posthuman and takes appropriate steps (e.g., technological enhancement) toward that end – whereas a ‘posthuman’, the ideal for and goal of transhumanists, is a being so radically different in physical, cognitive and emotional capacities from normal or current humans as to be no longer unambiguously human. (Porter 2017: 238)

34In keeping with the definitions provided above, Winterson sees the “transhuman” as a step to the “posthuman”, “when we are no longer augmented humans, but intelligences running on a number of alternative substrates, of which a biological body might be one” (Winterson 2021: 132). Posthumanism is thus the “follow-up” to transhumanism (Winterson 2021: 137). For Winterson, who reads Frankenstein as a “harbinger of transhumanism” and “a meditation on the body – but not the body humans are born in and die in”, Shelley’s monster is “[a] transhuman creature, swifter and stronger than biological humans, a being able to withstand cold and hunger”, and whose “capacity to learn would now be understood as cognitive enhancement” (Winterson 2021: 129, 126). In Frankissstein, Ry himself states that “Frankenstein was a vision of how life might be created – the first non-human intelligence” (Winterson 2019: 27). If there is a counterpart to Shelley’s Creature in Frankissstein, it may actually be Ry, who repeatedly presents himself as a hybrid: “I am liminal, cusping, in between, merging, undecided, transitional, experimental” (Winterson 2019: 29; see also 89, 155). Indeed, Ry was born Mary, underwent hormonal treatment and breast removal but has not undergone surgery in the lower part of his body, which is why “[d]oubleness is nearer to the truth for [him]” (Winterson 2019: 119). Ry’s hybridity connects him to Mary Shelley’s Creature, both of them “monstrous” in the etymological sense of the term since they represent “the in between, the mixed, the ambivalent” (Braidotti 2011: 77).

35The move from transgender to transhuman is made explicit by Ry, who is “part of a small group of transgender medical professionals”, some of whom are “transhuman enthusiasts too”: “That isn’t surprising; we feel or have felt that we’re in the wrong body. We can understand the feeling that any-body is the wrong body” (Winterson 2019: 104). While Mary Shelley’s text imagined a motherless birth, Frankissstein presents a transgender character who is “future-early” in that he was able to “self-design”, which is the final stage in the evolution Stein presents at the beginning of the novel. Indeed, during his lecture on AI, the scientist displays a graphic showing several stages, from “evolution-based” life to “partially self-designing” – which corresponds to our current situation – to “fully self-designing” – which is our future, “where the physical limits of our bodies will be irrelevant” (Winterson 2019: 73). Therefore, Ry, who “chose to intervene in [his] own evolution”, embodies time travel and is “a harbinger of the future” (Winterson 2019: 154).

36Winterson’s vision of the future is not a posthuman nightmare in which machines have taken over and humans are incapable of understanding the world they live in. Rather, she appears as a transhuman enthusiast who sees in hybridization processes and in the resulting society an opportunity to renegotiate who has droit de cité. Like Shelley’s novel, in which the Creature is rejected not only by its creator but by other human beings, Frankissstein raises the question of how humans are going to coexist with other life-forms and of the status that will be granted them. This in turn raises the issue of how people who are regarded as monstrous by others are currently treated. This line of questioning ties in with Lefebvre’s thoughts on the urban as “a social reality made up of relations which are to be conceived of, constructed or reconstructed by thought” (Lefebvre 2009: 47). Who will be part of the polis or cité?

The City and Philosophy: Beyond the Dystopian Binary

  • 10 References are to the French text. Unless otherwise stated, the translations come from the English (...)

37The word “city” is derived from the Latin word civitas, which referred first to citizenship, then to the citizens who form a political unit, and later to a “city”, as a substitute for urbs (Foulquié 1992: 93). Its Greek equivalent is the word polis, which one finds in “metropolis”. As Lefebvre reminds us in The Right to the City, “[t]he logos of the Greek city cannot be separated from the philosophical logos”, with which it has an “internal link” (Lefebvre 2009: 28-29).10 As illustrated by Plato’s Critias, “[s]ince its beginnings, classical philosophy, which has had as social base and theoretical foundation the city, thought the city, and endeavours to determine the image of the ideal city” (Lefebvre 2009: 127). Fittingly, Lefebvre suggests that to find a representation of the ideal city today, one should turn to science fiction (Lefebvre 2009: 109). This utopian streak is of course undermined by the fact that the agora is the symbol of a democracy that excluded women, slaves, and foreigners: “From its beginnings Greek philosophy linked itself to greatness, and also the miseries and limitations of the Greek city — slavery and the subordination of the individual to the Polis (Lefebvre 2009: 127; original emphasis).

38Lefebvre articulates a “right to the city”, which is both “a cry and a demand”. As non-participants are “excluded from the city, at the gates of the urban”, urban life needs to “recover and strengthen its capacities of integration and participation of the city” (Lefebvre 2009: 92, 94; original emphasis). He describes an urban palimpsest in which past, present and future coexist:

[T]he urban remains in a state of dispersed and alienated actuality, as kernel and virtuality. What the eyes and analysis perceive on the ground can at best pass for the shadow of a future object in the light of a rising sun. It is impossible to envisage the reconstitution of the old city, only the construction of a new one on new foundations, on another scale and in other conditions, in another society. […] [F]or what concerns the city the object of science is not given. The past, the present, the possible cannot be separated. What is being studied is a virtual object, which thought studies, which calls for new approaches. (Lefebvre 2009: 96-97; original emphasis)

39Although Lefebvre of course did not have transhumanism in mind, his call to deploy imagination on the quest for “a new humanism, a new praxis, another man, that of urban society” and his statement that[u]rban life has yet to begin” certainly resonates with Winterson’s preoccupations (Lefebvre 2009: 98). In her way, too, Winterson addresses the “right to the city” as a right to a “transformed, renewed urban life” (Lefebvre 2009: 108; my translation). As David Harvey notes in the field of critical urban studies: “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city”. He goes as far as to suggest that “[t]he freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, […] one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights” (Harvey 2008, quoted in Gurr 2020: 111). In Harvey’s article, the challenge lies in taking the right to write the city, and therefore the urban, away from finance capital. Both Lefebvre and de Certeau invite us to think of ways in which the city can remain an open text. Building on those possibilities, Winterson introduces gender in the discussion and suggests that the polis of the future will offer opportunities to write gender relations differently, precisely because humans will have to coexist with other types of intelligence.

40In Frankissstein, those views are presented by Victor Stein, who states, for instance: “[W]e also create various kinds of artificial intelligence, from robots to supercomputers, and we learn to live with newly created life forms” (Winterson 2019: 114). In the future, “intelligent machines and non-embodied AI are as much part of everyday life as humans are” so that things which are being developed now, such as “the Internet of Things, blockchains, genome, 3D printing, VR, smart homes, smart fabric, smart implants, driverless cars, voice-activated AI assistants” will “work together” as “co-operating systems” (Winterson 2021: 33). Jeanette Winterson’s take on Artificial Intelligence is optimistic, even “messianic” (Corr 2021). Far from representing a threat, the coexistence with other life-forms is presented as a utopian horizon:

When we have to share the planet with different life-forms, embodied and not, life-forms that are more intelligent than we are, but unmotivated by the greed and land-grab, the status-seeking and the violence that characterises Homo sapiens, perhaps we will learn what sharing means. (Winterson 2021: 100)

41In her view, AI, in addition to solving a whole set of urgent problems, has the potential to help humans move beyond the gender binary, a point made by Donna Haraway in her 1984 Cyborg Manifesto. Those views are, once more, enunciated by Victor Stein in Frankissstein at various points: “The world I imagine, that world that AI will make possible, will not be a world of labels – and that includes binaries like male and female, black and white, rich and poor” (Winterson 2019: 79; see also 73 and 171). The “dystopian binary” will thus be a memory of “our carbon-based past” (Winterson 2019: 72).

42As Rosi Braidotti remarks, “[n]ot all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that. Some of us are not even considered fully human now” (Braidotti 2013: 1). These questions resonate on the streets of Manchester, where a memorial has been erected to the memory of Alan Turing. The scientist was forced to take hormonal treatment in 1952 because of his homosexuality (or “gross indecency”, as the law put it at the time) and committed suicide two years later. In Frankissstein, Victor explains that I.J. Good’s departure to America was prompted by the fact that he was “disgusted at the way Turing was treated” (Winterson 2019: 200). Ry too is confronted to violence for not conforming to the binary system of gender and its compulsory heterosexuality. After being raped by a drunk man for being who he is, he remarks: “This isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last” (Winterson 2019: 244).

43Whereas Frankenstein is often read as a cautionary tale warning against unheeded scientific progress, Victor Stein’s discourse on AI in Frankissstein and Winterson’s views as expressed in 12 Bytes are not so bleak. Winterson insists on the fact that technology, as a tool, is neutral, and that “[i]t is humans humans need to worry about”, as evidenced by the fact that “[i]t is humans who have turned the dream – the reality – of global connectivity into a 24/7 for-profit surveillance state” (Winterson 2021: 230; original emphasis). The caution she draws from Frankenstein is not about the threat of technology per se, but about the necessity of ensuring that it is not just male-driven and that women are no longer underrepresented: “When it comes to AI and AGI, just like Victor Frankenstein, men are the creators. We’ve read that story. It’s not in the best interests of the future” (Winterson 2021: 223).

44Manchester, “where it all began”, may not be the city that will hail Winterson’s messianic vision of AGI (Winterson 2019: 274). As Victor Stein explains, the British “don’t have the resources for the next stage”, there is actually no “artificial superintelligence lurking in the vaults” of underground Manchester and “[t]he breakthrough – when it comes – will be in America or China” (Winterson 2019: 274). By locating experiments oriented towards post-humanity in the city formerly known as “Cottonopolis”, Winterson questions its relationship to scientific history and asks whether its ability to influence the future is now a thing of the past. Rather than showing the city as a landmark on the way to a form of new Enlightenment, the novel actually ends on Manchester being plunged in the dark. As Victor Stein had warned, his attempt to revive a human brain, scan its contents and upload it onto a carbon structure has caused a total blackout, which is all the more ironic in light of the importance of electricity in the Frankenstein myth, sending Manchester back to pre-IT, dark ages in which “[m]illions of gigabytes of data [are] wiped” in a “city-wide IT meltdown” (Winterson 2019, 338). The novel ends on a deserted, almost post-apocalyptic Manchester, with a single character wandering in vacant streets. There is no way of knowing whether the experiment has succeeded or where Victor Stein has fled. When Ry and Polly enter the tunnels again, the bunker is still there, but the lab has disappeared and the novel ends on an anti-climax tinted with a sense of loss.


  • 11 Bentley discusses Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee (1993), Will Self’s How the Dead Live (2000) an (...)

45To some extent, Frankissstein displays affinities with contemporary British novels which emphasize “the city as a palimpsest of histories and narratives evoked in the psyche of the observer – the postmodern flâneur or flâneuse who attempts to disentangle its multiplicity of texts” (Bentley 2014: 176).11 However, Winterson’s text stands out because, first, it does not discuss London but Manchester – thereby confirming Gurr’s hypothesis that postindustrial cities too, and not just cosmopolitan capitals, can be read as palimpsests – and, secondly, because it does not fully embrace psychogeography, avoiding the universalizing statements that Peter Ackroyd makes in London Under (2011) about underground spaces as the object of timeless superstition. The role and treatment of subterranean spaces in Frankissstein is deeply rooted in the city’s topography and history, which make it possible to explore the relationship between space, artistic tradition and capitalistic economy.

46If we accept the hypothesis formulated by Hélène Machinal – on the basis of Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s suggestion that myths bring “an imaginary solution to a real contradiction”– that the cultural function of monsters is to “represent in the shape of symbolic representations the tensions inherent to the transition between an old order and a new one”, then it makes sense that Mary Shelley’s myth should resurface in Winterson’s novel at a time which she perceives as the dawn of AGI (Lecercle 1998: 10; Machinal 2016: §3; my translations). She opens 12 Bytes with the statement that she “wanted to think about the start of the Machine Age – the Industrial Revolution, and its impact on humans” (Winterson 2021: 4). To her, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was composed at a time in which both the past and the future were visible: “The villa on Lake Geneva was like a magic mirror – look one way and there was the past; look again, and the future was travelling towards them” (Winterson 2021: 124). By setting up a laboratory in which futuristic experiments are conducted in underground spaces whose various layers make it possible to travel to the past, Winterson offers her own version of Shelley’s “magic mirror”.

47Cities have often provided the setting for both utopian and dystopian visions. The possibility to travel through time and project dystopias in subterranean space is explored by E.M. Forster in “The Machine Stops” (1909). Underground London space offers “dystopian cityscapes” in both The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898), by H.G. Wells, which is explicitly referred to in Frankissstein (Mellet 2018: §1; Winterson 2019: 274). Winterson’s text is thus set within a long-standing tradition of exploring future possibilities and/or alternative worlds from below. The tension between utopia and dystopia underlies Frankissstein as much as it does 12 Bytes. Victor Stein’s unquestioning enthusiasm for posthumanism, while it is presented at length, is thus also undercut by the way Winterson “situate[es] these emerging forms of self-making in a lineage of the monstrous” (McAvan 2021). Winterson writes that AGI, if it ever happens, has the potential to be a “sci-fi dystopia” (Winterson 2021: 199). Frankissstein, by raising questions about who belongs to the polis, addresses a recurrent issue of speculative fiction, which is that of the social organization – and type of city – that will prevail. As Winterson cautions: “It is more than possible that the dystopian future – if we choose it – will use technological advances to create mini-fiefdoms of many kinds, free from governmental oversight and control. The dystopian future will be a privatised future” (Winterson 2021, 240). While Victor Stein claims that AI will enable humans to heal their divisions, a crucial question which underlies 12 Bytes is that of who will be able to benefit from enhancement and life extension. AI could be a factor of unification but also division. This sense of potential and ambivalence, of “both promise and danger” (McAvan 2021), which is embodied in Ry, characterizes our time as Winterson sees it:

  • 12 Winterson is of course freely quoting from the opening of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), by Charles D (...)

The technology we need to change the world for the better is the technology that is in place right now.
It’s the best of times and the worst of times.12
Dystopia or Utopia. (Winterson 2021: 259)

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Ackroyd, Peter. London Under. London: Chatto & Windus, 2011.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1999.

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Botting, Fred. “Power in the Darkness: Heterotopias, Literature and Gothic Labyrinths.” Genre 26, 1993: 253-282.

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia Press, [2nd ed.] 2011.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity, 2013.

Brook, Richard and Martin Dodge. “Manchester’s Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange.” Articles for the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society 108, 2012: 20-55.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life [1980]. Trans. Steven Rendall. U of California Press, 1988.

Després, Elaine and Hélène Machinal. Post-humains: Frontières, évolutions, hybridités. Rennes: PUR, 2014.

Dillon, Sarah. The Palimpsest. Literature, Criticism, Theory. London: Continuum, 2007.

Foulquié, Paul. Dictionnaire de la langue philosophique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992.

Gurr, Jens Martin. Charting Literary Urban Studies: Texts as Models of and For the City. Routledge, 2020.

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Heise-von der Lippe, Anya. “Techno-terrors and the Emergence of Cyber-Gothic.” In The Gothic and Theory. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle and Robert Miles. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2019. 182-200.

Huyssen, Andreas. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

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Kidd, Alan. Manchester. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, [3rd ed.] 2002.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. Frankenstein, Mythe et philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998.

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Lefebvre, Henri. Writings on Cities. Trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

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Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Penguin Classics, [1818] 2003.

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1 This possibility is contemplated for instance by Hans Moravec in Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (1990).

2 His work can still be seen on the museum’s website:

3 See Ben Moore, “Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project” in Tambling 2016: 59-73.

4 On Manchester, the Victorian city and literature, see Tambling 2016, 1-2.

5 See also Shelley 2003: 9 and Winterson 2019: 21; Shelley 2003: 58-59 and Winterson 2019: 21-22; Shelley 2003: 52-3, 55 and Winterson 2019: 192-3.

6 At times, Winterson also offers condensed versions of Shelley’s text. Compare Winterson 2019: 127 and Shelley 2003: 147-149; Shelley 2003: 25-28 and Winterson 2019: 180-1.

7 Other rewritten key scenes and motifs include the vision of the Creature climbing mountains (Winterson 2019: 4; Shelley 2003: 77-78) and the motif of death by fire (Winterson 2019: 288, 305; Shelley 2003: 225).

8 In addition to Lord Byron, almost all the historical characters present at the Villa Diodati have a fictional counterpart in Ry’s narrative. Ry himself was born Mary. His mother, like Mary Wollstonecraft, died in childbirth. Claire Clairmont finds a counterpart in a character named Claire, a beautiful religious enthusiast. Polidori is reincarnated as Polly D., the above-mentioned journalist. Only Percy Bysshe Shelley does not have a twenty-first century equivalent.

9 The term “posthuman” really gained traction in the second half of the 1990s, with, for instance, N. Katherine Hayles’s 1999 book How We Became Posthuman (Deprés et Machinal 2014: 15).

10 References are to the French text. Unless otherwise stated, the translations come from the English edition.

11 Bentley discusses Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee (1993), Will Self’s How the Dead Live (2000) and The Book of Dave (2006), as well as Iain Sinclair’s Downriver (1991).

12 Winterson is of course freely quoting from the opening of A Tale of Two Cities (1859), by Charles Dickens.

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Electronic reference

Claire Wrobel, Underground Manchester as urban palimpsest in Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein: A Love Story (2019)Angles [Online], 15 | 2022, Online since 15 November 2022, connection on 31 May 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Claire Wrobel

Senior Lecturer at the University of Panthéon-Assas (Paris II) and member of VALE (Voix Anglophones, Littérature et Esthétique – Sorbonne Université). Contact:
Claire Wrobel is the author of Roman noir, réforme et surveillance en Angleterre (1764-1842): Gothique et panoptique (Classiques Garnier, 2022). She has written chapters and articles on authors from the Gothic canon (Ann Radcliffe, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker) as well as on contemporary rewritings of the Gothic tradition, for instance by Rachel Cusk ( She has recently published an article entitled “Negotiating Dataveillance in the Near Future:

Margaret Atwood’s Dystopias” in Commonwealth Essays and Studies (43.2, 2021( and edited a special issue of the Revue d'Études Benthamiennes on “Panopticism: Literary and Critical Approaches”(

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