[Article] “He’s always going to be the guy who wrote Sherlock Holmes”

When Authors are Overshadowed by their Creations: A Frankenstein Tale

Mary Shelley Frankenstein Boris Karloff (Words To That Effect Article)When Dr Victor Frankenstein brings his famous creature to life in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), it is not long before he has lost control of his creation. The creature is bigger, faster, and stronger than his creator and so, when the powerful and wronged creature sets out on his path of vengeance, there is very little Dr Frankenstein can do. He is outdone by his own creation and the monster outlives him. In popular culture too, it is certainly the monster who has attained immortality. Although, in a distortion as the story was told and retold across popular media, the monster has taken on the name of his creator. It is now the creature we picture when we hear the word “Frankenstein” (usually a variant of the classic Boris Karloff image). So the young doctor ultimately achieved some level of immortality through his amalgamation with his creation.

There is one more creator in this equation, of course, and that is Mary Shelley. Shelley was an accomplished writer and her output goes far beyond Frankenstein, something that has only been fully acknowledged relatively recently in academia. However, along with a select group of authors, some of whom are looked at below, her name has been almost entirely overshadowed by that of her most famous creation. “Frankenstein” has become one of the most enduring literary creations of all time.

 

Mary Shelley Frankenstein Boris Karloff (Words To That Effect Article)While not an issue for Shelley as such, in that her novel was not a huge success in its time, this is something which has plagued quite a few authors. What happens when your creation becomes so popular it becomes a rampaging monster, far beyond your control, who won’t rest until it has reduced you to nothing in the desolate polar icecaps of the north (or, you know, something less Frankensteinian)?

One way of getting a visual sense of the divergence of an author and his/her character is to use Google Ngram Viewer. While in no way a scientific indicator of popularity, it does give an interesting insight into the relative frequency of two words of phrases. In the case of “Mary Shelley” and “Frankenstein”, the graph is pretty clear:

Mary Shelley & Frankenstein (1818-2008 [latest date available])

Overshadowed by their personal Frankenstein: Conan Doyle, Burroughs, Stoker, Fleming

So what about other examples? There a number of possibilities but certainly among the most globally recognized and enduring of all literary characters must be:

  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Dracula
  • Tarzan
  • James Bond

Sherlock Holmes

In Episode 2 of Words To That Effect (listen here), Prof Darryl Jones notes, regarding Arthur Conan Doyle’s legacy:

He’s always going to be the guy who wrote Sherlock Holmes

And this is certainly the case. Conan Doyle did not consider the Holmes stories to be his best work and he grew to feel chained to a character he could not kill off, despite his best attempts. The public wanted more and, ultimately, writing another Holmes tale was far too lucrative a prospect to ever turn down. In the end, Holmes became a vehicle to raise funds for Conan Doyle’s support of the Spiritualist movement. The public got what it wanted.

Arthur Conan Doyle & Sherlock Holmes (1887-2008)

Tarzan

Edgar Rice Burroughs, perhaps better known today as “the guy who wrote Tarzan“, was faced with a very similar proposition to Conan Doyle, an author he admired. Just like Conan Doyle, he was the author of dozens of novels in multiple genres, but the global success of Tarzan overshadowed his output throughout his life. And, just like Conan Doyle, he never stopped writing Tarzan tales because the money was simply too good.

Edgar Rice Burroughs & Tarzan (1912-2008)

Dracula

Bram Stoker took a preexisting part of popular folklore, the vampire, and shaped it into the definitive interpretation of the mythical creature, creating a whole industry in his wake (read more about Dracula here). Like Shelley, he was well-known in his time (particularly in the world of theatre), but not for the work which would soon eclipse his life and other writing.

Bram Stoker & Dracula (1897-2008)

James Bond

Ian Fleming is somewhat different among this group, in that he almost exclusively wrote Bond novels and was not, like Conan Doyle or Burroughs, a novelist whose most famous series overshadowed what he saw as his other, more accomplished work. In common with all the authors mentioned here, however, his creation James Bond, has long become a part of popular culture outside the control of his original creator.

Ian Fleming & James Bond (1953-2008)

Have I missed anyone crucial? Who would you add to this list?

What about contemporary authors? How likely is it, for example, that the name “Harry Potter” will be known one hundred years from now, but “JK Rowling” known only to the specialists?

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