Botanical Frankenstein
In Eastern lands they talk in flow'rs
And they tell in a garland their loves and cares;
 
Each blossom that blooms in their garden bowr's,
On its leaves a mystic language bears.
 
The rose is a sign of joy and love,
Young blushing love in its earliest dawn,
 
And the mildness that suits the gentle dove,
From the myrtle's snowy flow'rs is drawn.
 
Innocence gleams in the lily's bell,
Pure as the heart in its native heaven.
 
Fame's bright star and glory's swell
By the glossy leaf of the bay are given.
 
The silent, soft and humble heart,
In the violet's hidden sweetness breathes,
 
And the tender soul that cannot part,
In a twine of evergreen fondly wreathes.
 
The cypress that daily shades the grave,
Is sorrow that moans her bitter lot,
 
And faith that a thousand ills can brave,
Speaks in thy blue leaves "forget-me-not".
 
Then gather a wreath from the garden bowers,
And tell the wish of thy heart in flowers.
 
James Gates Percival
The Language of Flowers
I really love examining books. I'm not an English scholar or anything like that, but I do enjoy figuring the different themes and ideas in a novel, and trying my best to appreciate them.
 
And when you design a book, particularly the page layout, it's really easy to get next to the work itself, and feel close to it.
 
This year, on Mary Shelley's birthday, I decided to read her Frankenstein for the first time. And a second, and a third, and to get as near to it as I could by working an interesting design for it. I hoped other folks might enjoy reading it for the first time, like I did, and especially so close to Halloween.
I began by reading the excellent Norton Critical Edition of Frankenstein, along with all the great essays included in that volume. I remember as I read, I would happen on some thought or other about the book, and would then be weirdly disappointed when it would be even partly validated by one of the essays, as though I was the first person to ever have some specific thought about this 200 year old book. I had a good laugh when I realized how goofy that was.
 
I love context, so I read up on Mary Shelley's life, listened to some music of the era and tried to educate myself a bit about Romanticism. This was an awesome part of the project for me, absorbing lots of great art and doing my best to see things the way they might've seen them. The world is so different now, I'm not sure how possible that really is. But I remember walking through the park and turning away from traffic, finding a small patch of some grass or other, and imagining that folks in Shelley's era might see a tiny patch of grass just like that, and it wasn't actually all that long ago.
 
Around this time, I started to imagine that the Creature in the book wasn't ugly at all. I got really wrapped up in the idea that the Creature was actually beautiful, like an angel, and that the only reason people react poorly to him has something to do with his manner, not his look. Like we can subconsciously identify when life came from something divine—and when that's not where a life came from, we don't want it anywhere near us. Or like we don't know what's wrong here, we can't put our finger on it, but we know we don't like it.
 
And I got all excited thinking this was right, because after all, the Creature was made to be perfect. The doctor was working with him all this time, wouldn't he have known he was ugly before he came to life? And then he comes to life, and nothing different except he's alive now, but suddenly he's grotesque and awful? So surely this means it's something about the life that's wrong.
 
This interpretation was plainly wrong though, based on the elder DeLacey's reaction to him; and when I realized it, I ditched that thought. But I loved just having that thought and examining it, all the way up to discarding it completely. I ditched other ideas too, like the idea that the Creature and the Doctor are the same person, stuff like that. I still wonder if the Creature is lying about the DeLacey's backstory though.
 
I watched a ton of Frankenstein movies around this time too, even though they rarely relate to the book all that much. I just wanted to surround myself with the whole idea as best I could. I remember when the Branagh version first came out, I loved it—and I was really excited to see it again. But having read the book, it really didn't suit me near as much, and I especially didn't like the way the movie adjusted Elizabeth's story at the end.
 
I did see Frankenstein: The True Story for the first time though, and I think this was my favorite of the ones I saw. Which is funny because it strays from the book much, much more; but in this case it feels like interpretation. Would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a cool take on the story.
I went through two general design concepts before landing on the right one. First, I wanted to take general subjects from each chapter and basically just represent them in a direct way within the dropcaps. For example, in the chapter where the Doctor is reading a lot of occult materials, I'd have used a pentagram or similar for the cap. But this wasn't exactly a super fun way to go about it, and honestly it wasn't enough of a constraint on the design.
 
Then I imagined the Creature sort of like a bouquet. Assembled from all sorts of different flowers in order to be beautiful. I started researching flower symbolism and completed a full set of caps linking a flower to a theme within each chapter. This was a cool idea too, because it's not distracting at all to the reader.
 
I liked the link to nature, especially in the context of Romanticism, and the more grim aspects of the story rub against lush plants really well.
 
This was a funny thing though, because there is an absurdly huge amount of flower symbols out there, differing by culture. It started to feel like I could pretty much find a flower to represent almost anything I wanted, and that sorta killed that idea dead. Because it wouldn't really mean much.
 
Then I happened on a poem by James Gates Percival.
In Eastern lands they talk in flow'rs
And they tell in a garland their loves and cares;

Each blossom that blooms in their garden bowr's,
On its leaves a mystic language bears.

The rose is a sign of joy and love,
Young blushing love in its earliest dawn,

And the mildness that suits the gentle dove,
From the myrtle's snowy flow'rs is drawn.

Innocence gleams in the lily's bell,
Pure as the heart in its native heaven.

Fame's bright star and glory's swell
By the glossy leaf of the bay are given.

The silent, soft and humble heart,
In the violet's hidden sweetness breathes,

And the tender soul that cannot part,
In a twine of evergreen fondly wreathes.

The cypress that daily shades the grave,
Is sorrow that moans her bitter lot,

And faith that a thousand ills can brave,
Speaks in thy blue leaves "forget-me-not".

Then gather a wreath from the garden bowers,
And tell the wish of thy heart in flowers.
I was really struck by this because so many of the flowers and plants he describes suit the book perfectly. I really had no need for any flowers besides the ones he listed here, and I could use them to represent characters or relationships within the book. This poem became the seed for the entire design, and I've used it to further frame the work.
The Flowers
The rose is a sign of joy and love,
Young blushing love in its earliest dawn,
 
I used the rose to represent non-romantic love, specifically close childhood friendship, and I placed this flower wherever Clerval figured heavily.
And the mildness that suits the gentle dove,
From the myrtle's snowy flow'rs is drawn.
 
I used the myrtle to represent the DeLaceys at their cottage, because their life felt so idyllic.
Innocence gleams in the lily's bell,
Pure as the heart in its native heaven.
 
I used the lily to tie different threads in Justine's story together.
Fame's bright star and glory's swell
By the glossy leaf of the bay are given.
 
I used the bay leaf for early parts of the Doctor's story. I also used it for Walton.
The silent, soft and humble heart,
In the violet's hidden sweetness breathes,
 
I used the violet for the way the DeLacey's backstory humbled them.
And the tender soul that cannot part,
In a twine of evergreen fondly wreathes.
 
I used a pine cone for the Creature's early story, to represent his desire for connection.
The cypress that daily shades the grave,
Is sorrow that moans her bitter lot,
 
But by the story's end, I used the Cypress' cone for both the Creature and the Doctor.
And faith that a thousand ills can brave,
Speaks in thy blue leaves "forget-me-not".
 
I used the Forget-Me-Not for romantic love.
The Caps
I chose Georgia as the base, because it's the nearest to period-appropriate and is available on many devices without the need for font embedding.
The Pages
I really loved this book, and could easily go on and on about it. It's one of those works that you can rework in your mind to mean a million different things, and I figure that's why it's a classic. The story itself is great, but it also just gives your mind a fun sandbox to play in.
 
I hope that people will enjoy giving it a read. I'll be re-reading it myself.
 
For the curious, I've published my Evernote notebook for the project. It's got around 200 notes and web clippings I gathered over the course of the project. It's not remotely organized, but some folks might find it fun to flip through.
If you know anyone that might like to read Frankenstein for the first time, please don't hesitate to shoot them a link—or if you read it and you want to talk to me about it, you can find me @phillipgessert on Twitter.
Awhile he grasps at Science, with the strong,
Fierce spirit of ambition, when his car
O'er fortune's field of blood is borne along,
Drawn by the wildly rushing steeds of war,
And hurrying on in quest of Fame's bright star,
That shines through smoke and dust and wounds and gore;
Justice and mercy cannot raise a bar
Across the torrent of his wrath, its roar
Drives virtue, love and peace affrighted from its shore.
 
James Gates Percival
From Prometheus, A Poem
You can download the book for free from my website, gessertbooks.com.
Botanical Frankenstein
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Botanical Frankenstein

This year, on Mary Shelley’s birthday, I decided to read her Frankenstein for the first time. And a second, and a third, and to get as near to it Read More
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Published:

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