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‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Nature and the Meaning of Happiness

“Coming to this delightful spot during this divine weather, I feel as happy as a new-fledged bird, and hardly care what twig I fly to, so that I may try my new-found wings.”

‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Nature and the Meaning of Happiness

In the early summer of 1816, weeks before her nineteenth birthday, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) — then still Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin — dreamt up Frankenstein on the shores of Lake Geneva in a creative challenge she and her companions, her stepsister Claire and the twenty-something poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, devised to pass the time. Her book would go on to influence generations of writers and presage pressing questions of science and social responsibility.

Like most Romantic writers, Shelley saw no divide between her literary art for the public and the private prose of her diaries and letters — rather, the latter served as a sandbox for developing and refining the former. In fact, it was during her difficult journey to Switzerland, after her elopement with Percy Shelley, that she first began composing letters of exquisite literary splendor. While her early love letters to the poet exude a teenage girl’s exuberant steam-of-consciousness outpouring, her letters to friends and family from this self-elected exile take on the tone of a literary travelogue, made all the more dramatic by the unusual state of nature at the time. The eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora the previous spring — to this day the largest eruption in recorded history — sent a cloud of volcanic ash around the globe, enveloping the northern hemisphere in a cool sheath of gloom. While the summer of 1816 became the summer of love for the four young people traveling together, the world came to know it as “the year without a summer.”

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

In a particularly beautiful letter to her sister Fanny from the spring of 1816, included in Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (public library), Shelley describes the perilous but almost unbearably breathtaking journey from France to Lake Geneva in Switzerland — the largest and deepest of the Swiss lakes, where she would soon compose Frankenstein. What emerges is a lyrical travelogue of both body and spirit — describing nature’s striking costume changes in exquisite detail, Shelley chronicles her journey toward her destination across microclimates and terrains, not only toward her physical destination but toward a new psychic summit of happiness, harmony, and self-actualization.

More than a century before trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd gave her stunning account of the living mountain, Shelley writes:

The road was serpentine and exceedingly steep, and was overhung on the side by half distinguished precipices, whilst the other was a gulf, filled by the darkness of the driving clouds. The dashing of the invisible mountain streams announced to us that we had quitted the plains of France, as we slowly ascended, amidst a violent storm of wind and rain, to Champagnolles, where we arrived at twelve o’clock, the fourth night after our departure from Paris.

The next morning we proceeded, still ascending among the ravines and valleys of the mountain. The scenery perpetually grows more wonderful and sublime: pine forests of impenetrable thickness, and untrodden, nay, inaccessible expanse spread on every side. Sometimes the dark woods descending, follow the route into the valleys, the distorted trees struggling which knotted roots between the most barren clefts; sometimes the road winds high into the regions of frost, and then the forests become scattered, and the branches of the trees are loaded with snow, and and half of the enormous pines themselves buried in the wavy drifts. The spring, as the inhabitants informed us, was unusually late, and indeed the cold was excessive; as we ascended the mountains, the same clouds which rained on us in the valleys poured forth large flakes of snow thick and fast. The sun occasionally shone through these showers, and illuminated the magnificent ravines of the mountains, whose gigantic pines were some laden with snow, some wreathed round by the lines of scattered and lingering vapour; others darting their dark spires into the sunny sky, brilliantly clear azure.

As the evening advanced, and we ascended higher, the snow, which we had beheld whitening the overhanging rocks, now encroached upon our road, and it snowed fast as we entered the village of Les Rousses, where we were threatened by the apparent necessity of passing the night in a bad inn and dirty beds. For from that place there are two roads to Geneva; one by Nion, in the Swiss territory, where the mountain route is shorter, and comparatively easy at that time of the year, when the road is for several leagues covered with snow of an enormous depth; the other road lay through Gex, and was too circuitous and dangerous to be attempted at so late an hour in the day. Our passport, however, was for Gex, and we were told that we could not change its destination; but all these police laws, so severe in themselves, are to be softened by bribery, and this difficulty was at length overcome. We hired four horses, and ten men to support the carriage, and departed from Les Rousses at six in the evening, when the sun had already far descended, and the snow pelting against the windows of our carriage, assisted the coming darkness to deprive us of the view of the lake of Geneva and the far-distant Alps.

With an eye to “the natural silence of that uninhabited desert,” she adds:

Never was [a] scene more awfully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime.

“Mont Blanc after sunset from the Secheron” by Thomas Henry Graham (1793–1881), New York Public Library

Upon finally arriving at Lake Geneva — the waters of which she would laud as “blue as the heavens which it reflects,” adding to the chromatic canon of literature’s most beautiful celebrations of blue — Shelley finds a wholly different manifestation of nature:

We arrived… to the warm sunshine and to the humming of sun-loving insects. From the windows of our hotel we see the lovely lake, blue as the heavens which it reflects, and sparkling with golden beams. The opposite shore is sloping and covered with vines, which however do not so early in the season add to the beauty of the prospect. Gentlemen’s seats are scattered over these banks, behind which rise the various ridges of black mountains, and towering far above, in the midst of its snowy Alps, the majestic Mont Blanc, the highest and queen of all. Such is the view reflected by the lake; it is a bright summer scene without any of that sacred solitude and deep seclusion that delighted us at Lucerne.

Against this backdrop of ecstatic serenity, Shelley arrives at a state of contentment that calls to mind Walt Whitman’s most direct articulation of happiness. She writes:

Twilight here is of short duration, but we at present enjoy the benefit of an increasing moon, and seldom return until ten o’clock, when, as we approach the shore, we are saluted by the delightful scent of flowers and new mown grass, the chirp of the grasshoppers, and the song of the evening birds… Coming to this delightful spot during this divine weather, I feel as happy as a new-fledged bird, and hardly care what twig I fly to, so that I may try my new-found wings.

A year later, now married to Percy and working on completing her manuscript of Frankenstein, she would adapt her letters and the joint travel journal the couple kept into a slim book titled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (public library), modeled on the popular Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark by her mother — the pioneering feminist and political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died of childbed fever after giving birth to her.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)” by William Blake

Shelley published her travelogue under her new husband’s name, hoping that his nascent prominence as a poet would lend it more credibility than exposing the author as a woman. (Three months later, she would publish Frankenstein anonymously.)

Complement with Vita Sackville-West’s beautiful letter to Virginia Woolf about rock climbing and the meaning of life and an arresting account of climbing Mount Vesuvius during an eruption by Shelley’s contemporary Hans Christian Andersen, then revisit Shelley on creativity.

BP

‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Creativity

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”

‘Frankenstein’ Author Mary Shelley on Creativity

“Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well,” Oliver Sacks wrote in outlining the three essential elements of creativity, adding: “This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own.” The richer one’s reservoir of these influences and sources, the more interesting their synthesis into something new would be — something Rilke articulated beautifully a century before Sacks when he contemplated inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity. Albert Einstein intuited this when he described the workings of his own mind as “combinatory play.”

Long before Sacks, Einstein, and Rilke, another genius addressed this abiding question of what it means and what it takes to create: Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851), writing in the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (public library) — her trailblazing literary masterpiece that not only furnished a timeless lens on questions of science and social responsibility, but embodied the combinatorial nature of creativity as Shelley transmuted ideas she had absorbed at the science lectures she frequently attended into a visionary work of art.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Echoing her contemporary Ada Lovelace’s insight that invention is a matter of discovering and combining, Shelley writes:

Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before… Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

Complement with physicist David Bohm on how creativity works and Patti Smith on listening to the creative impulse, then revisit Rilke on the necessary loneliness of incubation.

BP

200 Years of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece as a Lens on Today’s Most Pressing Questions of Science, Ethics, and Human Creativity

“The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”

200 Years of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece as a Lens on Today’s Most Pressing Questions of Science, Ethics, and Human Creativity

A teenage girl grieving the death of her infant daughter is sitting on the almost unbearably beautiful shore of a Swiss mountain lake. Her own mother, a pioneering feminist and political philosopher, has died of complications from childbirth exactly a month after bringing her into the world. Her philosopher father has cut her off for eloping to Europe with her lover — a struggling poet, whom she would marry six months later, after the suicide of his estranged first wife.

Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) is just shy of her nineteenth birthday. She and her lover — Percy Bysshe Shelley — are spending the summer with Percy’s best friend, the poet Lord Byron, whose wife has just left him and taken custody of their infant daughter, Ada Lovelace. One June evening, Lord Byron proposes that the downtrodden party amuse themselves by each coming up with a ghost story. What Mary dreams up would go on to become one of the world’s most visionary works of literature, strewn with abiding philosophical questions about creativity and responsibility, the limits and liabilities of science, and the moral dimensions of technological progress.

Mary Shelley

The year is 1816. Decades stand between her and the first working incandescent light bulb. It would be more than a century before the Milky Way is revealed as not the whole of the universe but one of innumerable galaxies in it. Photography is yet to be invented; the atom yet to be split; Neptune, penicillin, and DNA yet to be discovered; relativity theory and quantum mechanics yet to be conceived of. The very word scientist is yet to be coined (for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville).

Against this backdrop and its narrow parameters of knowledge barely imaginable to today’s vista of scientific understanding, Mary Shelley unleashed her imagination on Lord Byron’s challenge and began gestating what would be published eighteen months later, on the first day of 1818, as Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Its message is as cautionary as it is irrepressibly optimistic. “The labours of men of genius,” this woman of genius writes, “however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

Two hundred years later, Arizona State University launched The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project — a cross-disciplinary, multimedia endeavor to engage the people of today with the timeless issues of science, technology, and creative responsibility posed by Shelley’s searching intellect and imagination. As part of the celebration, MIT Press published Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds (public library) — Shelley’s original 1818 manuscript, line-edited by the world’s leading expert on the text and accompanied by annotations and essays by prominent contemporary thinkers across science, technology, philosophy, ethics, feminism, and speculative fiction. What emerges is the most thrilling science-lensed reading of a literary classic since Lord Byron’s Don Juan annotated by Isaac Asimov.

Editors David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, who consider Shelley’s masterwork “a book that can encourage us to be both thoughtful and hopeful” and describe their edition as one intended “to enhance our collective understandings and to invent — intentionally — a world in which we all want to live and, indeed, a world in which we all can thrive,” write in the preface:

No work of literature has done more to shape the way humans imagine science and its moral consequences than Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s remarkably enduring tale of creation and responsibility… In writing Frankenstein, Mary produced both in the creature and in its creator tropes that continue to resonate deeply with contemporary audiences. Moreover, these tropes and the imaginations they engender actually influence the way we confront emerging science and technology, conceptualize the process of scientific research, imagine the motivations and ethical struggles of scientists, and weigh the benefits of scientific research against its anticipated and unforeseen pitfalls.

It is almost impossible to imagine what the world, the everyday world, was like two centuries ago — a difference so profound it seeps into language itself. With this in mind, the editors offer a thoughtful note on their choice of referring to Doctor Frankenstein’s creation as “the creature” (rather than daemon, which Shelley herself uses, or monster, as posthumous criticism often does). In consonance with bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s insight into how naming confers dignity upon life, they write:

It is worth pointing out that the way we now use the word creature ignores a richer etymology. Today, we refer to birds and bees as creatures. Living things are creatures by virtue of their living-ness. When we call something a creature today, we rarely think in terms of something that has been created, and thus we erase the idea of a creator behind the creature. We have likewise lost the social connotation of the term creature, for creatures are made not just biologically (or magically) but also socially.

This nexus of the scientific and the social at the heart of Shelley’s novel comes alive in a lovely companion to the annotated edition: Reanimation! — a seven-part series of animated conversations with scientists by science communication powerhouse Massive, exploring the prescient questions embedded in Shelley’s novel — questions touching on the nature of consciousness, the evolution and definition of life, the ethics of genetic engineering, the future of the human body and artificial intelligence.

In the first film — which calls to mind Freeman Dyson’s assertion that “a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet” — BBC science communicator Britt Wray and ecologist and biologist Ben Novak echo poet Denise Levertov’s lament about our tendency to see ourselves as separate from nature through the lens of genetic engineering and synthetic biology:

I’m really hoping that synthetic biology as a whole can drive a different appreciation — a different definition and relationship — of what we see to be nature. For years, we have peddled this notion that humans are separate entities from nature — there’s the arrogance that humans are somehow divinely above nature and we’re the caretakers of the world and we can do whatever we want with it. But there really hasn’t been a universal realization that we are nature.

Perhaps the central animating question of Shelley’s novel is what she termed “the nature of the principle of life” — that curious island of being amid the vast cosmic ocean of nonbeing. This is what theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker and exoplanetary scientist and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf consider in the second film, exploring the nature and definition of life on Earth and beyond, and what we mean by intelligence when we speak of intelligent life:

We’ve really thought about life as being a binary phenomenon — something is alive or it’s not… In the context of origins of life, that’s really critical, because you want to talk about the transition between nonliving things and living things… [But] life in general is actually a process that occurs across multiple scales, and you can talk about a cell in my body being alive or you can talk about me being alive and you can also… go up in scale and maybe think about societies as being alive. That’s one of the things that’s really interesting about life… it has this kind of hierarchical structure where you have many layers of organization.

[…]

We might be able to understand more universal properties of life based on organizational principles — [not] just focusing on the things life is made of, but how it is organized. That’s [why] reductionism has been hard in biology — because we always try to separate out these scales and treat them separately. But [in reality] you have ordered processes and dynamics across multiple scales — that really is the intrinsic indicative process of life.

In the third film, philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers and comparative neuroscientist Danbee Kim examine the nature of consciousness — a philosophical inquiry that occupied Plato, entered the realm of science through William James’s pioneering writings, and has been the subject of another lovely animation by Massive:

Trying to go directly from the cells to behavior is not going to be possible. Why? Because there are actually several levels of organization in between them. If you start with the cell, then the next level of organization would be a circuit. And how does the nervous system as an organ interact with other organs in the body? And then, after that, is the organism and all the movements produced by an organism.

But that still isn’t behavior, because behavior is something that arises when you have goals for your movements and the only way for you to really pick or even decide a goal is not in a vacuum — it has to be within your environment: What other creatures, what other organisms, do you have to coordinate with in order to exist in your immediate local physical space?

[…]

It’s this interplay between brains, bodies, and the world that, in the end, allows us to develop these goals… and the development of those goals is what I would call cognition.

In the fourth film, molecular biologist Kate Krueger and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar consider the common human impulse for transformation, which undergirds both our most primitive Stone Age tools and our most advanced gene editing technologies:

Once we see the development of culture and social interactions, we actually see for the first time our species being able to step outside of and above biological evolution.

[…]

It’s very rare that humans like to sit still and do nothing and maintain stasis. While we love what we know and we do want to maintain it, I think all of us would love to make the world a more interesting place and a more useful place, and be able to do more things and climb higher and move faster. This is also part of our nature — the desire to create and to grow and to change.

In the fifth film, engineer and ethicist Braden Allenby and biomedical engineer Conor Walsh contemplate the widening gap between our technological capabilities and our wisdom, and consider how the abiding philosophical question of what it means to be human is changing in the era of CRISPR and wearable robotics:

When you start to get a much more rapid change in technology, particularly technology that affects the human… you begin to get human as a process. The idea of human that we have is already changing much more rapidly than we know, but the process of human has simply accelerated. It continues, and we remain human.

In the sixth film, historian and philosopher of science Margaret Wertheim, neuroscientist and AI researcher Daniel Baer, and engineer and ethicist Branden Allenby reflect on our perpetually evolving definition of and ethical parameters around what constitutes intelligence and what makes an intelligence “artificial”:

I suspect that we are not going to think we see a conscious machine even when they are running the planet… We have an extraordinary ability as humans — as soon as we offload something to machines that has to do with our cognition, we call it simple and it’s obviously not part of intelligence. [For example], the first people who were called computers were in fact very highly trained mathematicians, many of them women, who did systemic mathematical solutions for very complex equations for things like ballistics… and they were regarded as extremely intelligent. That lasted until TI came up with the first calculator and then, suddenly, we decided that mathematical calculations weren’t part of being intelligent. So my suspicion is that we already have machines that, to at least first degree, are AI.

In the seventh and final film, BBC science communicator Britt Wray, theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker, and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar examine what may be the overarching philosophical concern of Shelley’s masterwork — the God complex with which we wield our tools and regard their creations, and the interplay between fear and curiosity indelible to all innovation and to every leap of science:

What makes Homo sapiens special and different is their ability to innovate on the fly, come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things, [and] learn from the mistake of others and communicate rapidly… to build upon the mistakes of the past.

Complement Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds with philosopher Joanna Bourke’s synthesis of three centuries of ideas about what it means to be human and Maya Angelou’s arresting message to humanity in the golden age of twentieth-century scientific breakthrough, then visit Massive for more animated conversations with leading scientists about some of the most exciting frontiers of science and the most morally complex questions of our time.

BP

The Lady and Her Monsters: Real-Life Frankensteins and How Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece Came to Life

The experiments and reanimations of Mary Shelley, Luigi Galvani, and Giovanni Aldini.

Mary Godwin was born during an electrical storm. As her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, sealed herself in the bedroom for the birth of her second child, the booming sound of thunder and thrilling flashes of light pierced the darkness, her labor intensifying through the night.

Less than ten years earlier, the Italian physician Luigi Galvani had sniffed the air on a similar occasion in Bologna, waiting on the thunder and lightning to create his own form of life. Eighteenth-century Italy was the center of anatomical study, from theatrical dissection to beautiful wax models of the human body. The raw meat of humanity had been poked and prodded, but scientists still questioned what exactly made the spark of life. Galvani considered it might just be that: a spark, a bit of lightning. For his stormy experiment, he had stripped and eviscerated several sets of frogs, leaving only their excitable legs intact. He planned on using the storm to conduct one of the first experiments of electric reanimation, then recorded his results:

[Whenever] in correspondence of the four thunders, contractions not small occurred in all muscles of the limbs, and as a consequence, not small hops and movements of the limbs. These occurred just at the moment of the lightning.

Mary Godwin — later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein — may also have been born at the moment of lightning, but her mother’s life ended nearly a week later from birthing complications. Young Mary was born into an age of Galvanism, when experiments in electricity had just begun to interest the scientists of the Royal Society. In The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece (public library), Roseanne Montillo brilliantly joins the live wires of Mary Shelley’s life and work with those of cutting-edge dissections and electrical experiments.

Mary Shelley, c. 1840, by Richard Rothwell
Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

When she was young, Mary and the Godwins family lived on Skinner Street near a prison, and Mary’s father, William Godwin, would write to condemned prisoners. Execution day would fill the street with onlookers, as hundreds attempted to enter the prison courtyard to witness a public hanging. Instead of attending these gruesome events, however, Godwin would stay at home and invite his friends over for an intellectual salon, where they discussed the work of poetslike Samuel Taylor Coleridge and scientists like Humphry Davy, who had just begun his own experiments in electricity.

Davy would conclude from his experiments that science had the power to conquer nature. Light could be created from darkness, and the mind itself could be altered with gases such as nitrous oxide. In an 1802 lecture titled “Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures in Chemistry,” Davy determined that the art of chemistry was:

an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it bestowed upon [Davy] powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power.

If electricity and chemistry held the mysteries of life itself, then surely Galvanism could have the power to reanimate the dead.

‘A Galvanized Corpse,’ a political cartoon from 1836 by Henry R. Robinson
Image courtesy Library of Contress

That same year, 1802, Giovanni Aldini, Luigi Galvani’s nephew and protégée, traveled to London from Bologna, bringing with him the desire to experiment on an animal far larger than a frog. The Murder Act of 1752 had added dissection to its list of grisly punishments, to be performed at the Royal College of Surgeons hours after a hanging, as “a peculiar mark of infamy” for the criminal. Aldini proposed an experiment far more curious: the reanimation of a dead body through the use of Galvanism, the application of electric current.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

Aldini had planned to restart the heart of George Foster, a man condemned to die for the murder of his wife and child. Dissection was a gruesome prospect for condemned criminals, who feared being removed from gallows mid-strangulation and waking up on an operating table. For Foster, there would be a morbid attempt at a second chance at life — but what kind of life?

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

After Foster was declared dead and cut down from the hangman’s noose, Galvani attached electrodes to his limbs, face, and ears, and then powered up his battery, which made a terrible sizzling noise like hot bacon on a grill. To the astonishment of everyone present, Foster’s jaw began to move and his eyes opened. When Aldini moved the current to the face, Foster’s head shook back and forth and the features began to form a horrible grimace.

The reanimation was temporary and involuntary — an act of reflexes no different from his uncle’s twitching frog legs. Foster’s heart did not restart and the experiment was deemed a failure by Aldini, who blamed his battery:

No doubt, with a stronger apparatus we might have observed muscular actions much longer.

The galvanic experiments of Giovanni Aldini, published in his book Essai théoretique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, 1804

The Lady and Her Monsters reveals the real-life Frankensteins that populated Mary Shelley’s world at a time when the realities of science and fiction were not yet the fantasy world of science fiction.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

BP

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