HOW did a teenage unmarried mother come to create one of literature’s most famous monsters?

Award-winning poet, editor and translator Fiona Sampson lifted the lid on the precocious and unconventional Mary Godwin, who ran away with Percy Shelley at the age of 16 and wrote the novel Frankenstein two years later after attending a house party at the home of Lord Byron. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sampson’s biography In Search of Mary Shelley examines the woman behind the book and at Charleston last weekend she and Kathryn Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic, discussed the gruesome scientific background behind the creation of Frankenstein – in an age when body snatching was a lucrative trade.

Grisly details of selling off body parts in the interests of science may not sound like tranquil Sunday afternoon entertainment, but Harkup managed both to entertain and raise some laughs.

Sampson’s obvious admiration for the headstrong Shelley, who became a successful writer in an age when women were usually denied the chance to make a living, put the story in context. They discussed Shelley’s monster with cultural historian Christopher Frayling who brought together the link between science and literature.

It’s a link as relevant today as it was when Mary Shelley took up Lord Byron’s challenge to “write a ghost story” – which, as Fiona Sampson points out, proved to be one of the most productive creative writing exercises ever.