Richard Rothwell’s Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Dear friends and readers,
I interrupt what has become our regularly scheduled programming recently (conference reports, women artist blogs, Austen films and pictorialism) to be ironically a propos to the dire election results of last Tuesday. A new book of short stories, Eternal Frankenstein, testifies to how Mary Shelley’s transformatively original fable seems never to go away, endlessly susceptible of immediate application. A friend wrote it’s “an anthology of short stories that, for lack of a better term, all riff off of the original Frankenstein. Many of the stories are very good and the last is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s life by her ghost, hence her own pov. Many seem to be written by academics.”
I say ironically because I read it with a group of adults in a class called 19th century Women of Letters where the burden of our song included the truth that most of the great books by women of the 19th century and certainly those who practised successfully (for the first time perhaps in history) sufficiently remunerative professional writing to support themselves are on the one hand, forgotten, not recognized, not in print, or the other, ignored as not mattering. Until today still there are people who insist (John Lauritsen, to be precise) that Mary Shelley wrote none of Frankenstein, and that her diaries recording the inspiration, writing, publication and revised edition are all lies (Lauritsen also insists Percy Bysshe was homosexual). Many readers today do not realize Shelley wrote superlatively fine books and essays for 30 years after Frankenstein.
Let me first mention the relevance. In 1848, the year of revolutions across Europe (reformist, not reactionary) and of the Communist Manifesto, Elizabeth Gaskell published Mary Barton, the first English novel with a Communist working class man (actually a chartist) as its protagonist. Describing John Barton whom she wanted to name the novel after, she writes at one point:
And so on into the problems and mysteries of life, until, bewildered and lost, unhappy and suffering, the only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class, and keen sympathy with the other. But what availed his sympathy. No education had given him wisdom; and without wisdom, even love, with all its effects, too often works but harm. He acted to the best of his judgment, but it was a widely-erring judgment. The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil. The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet Without the inner means for peace and happiness? John Barton became a Chartist, a Communist, all that is commonly called wild and visionary.
The middle class in the US made it against the law to teach a slave to read. Gaskell actually conceives of her tale as a realistic elaboration in the person of John Barton of what Shelley’s monster can stand for. The creature as the outcast slave, as the oppressed, as the victim of society. Vulnerable, loving wanting love and when ignored and treated as hideous, beaten, taking his violent revenge. That was not James Whale’s view in 1931 who took the monster to be the mob. I have seen cartoons of Donald Trump as a Frankenstein monster (many readers do not realize that there are two characters, one a Dr Frankenstein who created the second, a nameless creature sewn out of parts of corpses) where he stalks the world and is followed by madden peasants with pitchforks.
In an absolutely primal way Frankenstein and his creature converse are wholly unreal — to find an equivalent allegorical resonance you have to return to poetry, Blake, Milton, the Greek drama, probably also the dramas of Byron and Shelley too.
We had a wonderful time in my class reading and discussing Frankenstein primarily but also Mary’s life and excerpts from a few of her later works and a poem by her on her lasting grief over Shelley’s death, how she never stopped missing him as a companion.
I must forget thy dark eyes’ love-fraught gaze,
Thy voice, that fill’d me with emotion bland,
Thy vows, which lost me in this ‘wild’ring maze,
The thrilling pressure of thy genrle hand;
And, dearer yet, that interchange of thought,
That drew us nearer still to one another,
Till in two hearts one sole idea wrought,
And neither hoped nor fear’d but for the other.
I must forget to deck myself with flowers:
Are not those wither’d which I gave to thee]
I must forget to count the day-bright hours,
Their sun is set – thou com’st no more to me!
I must forget thy love! – Then let me close
My tearful eyes upon unwelcome day,
And let my tortured thoughts seek that repose
Which corpses find within the tomb alway.
Oh! for the fate of her who, changed to leaves,
No more can weep, nor any longer moan;
Or the lorn Queen, who, chilling as she grieves,
Finds her warm beating heart grow cairn in stone.
Oh! for a draught of that Lethean wave,
Mortal alike to joy and to regret! –
It may not be! not even that would save!
Love, hope, and thee, I never can forget!
What was acceptable for a woman to write? Gothics. Ghost stories. They were allowed into this semi-fantasy genre. The industrial novels of the era. Their children were in those factories; women made up an enormous part of the factory labor force very quickly. Domestic realism and romance. Frankenstein is an explosively unusual multi-faceted gothic. The gothic is an instrument by which you can explore our existence and its meaning fundamentally, ask fundamental questions the premises of a realistic novel doesn’t allow. This leads me into the most subversive theme or perception and complex of emotion in the book. It hovers at the edges more than in the center, it’s there, in the allusions — to Adam and God (though Milton), to the Prometheus myth. At several points in the narrative Victor Frankenstein cries out against vague forces of world and wishes he had never been born; the monster cries out to Victor, why did you make me? Did I ask for life? in all its hideousness? Let us look at epigraph. It comes from Paradise Lost. Adam speaking to God who says to him he deserves the punishment he is getting. There is a similar line spoken by Satan. The Promethean figure has ever been interpreted as ultimate rebel against God. The book is deeply melancholy endlessly questioning.
Mary Shelley’s poet-husband, Percy Bysshe wrote a play called Prometheus Unbound in which he takes the Aeschylus situation and shows Prometheus as someone who triumphs over all tyrants, all tyranny including that of any and all Gods. Concept of liberation is central. It is not central for Mary Shelley; rather there is a dark despair more reminiscent of Byron’s closet drama called Cain: in Byron’s play Cain revolts against the heavy toil God has imposed on him and his mother, father and brother; in a fit of passion against Abel who he sees as kissing the rod and in disgust at a blood-sacrifice Abel makes to God, Cain murders Abel and becomes an exile and wanderer. Much like Frankenstein, the creature, Caleb and Falkland. The audacity of Byron’s poem aroused terrific indignation. Mary much influenced by Byron: her novel called The Last Man based on a vision of the universe in Byron’s poem called Darkness. Reads like what the earth would be like after a nuclear holocaust.
Mary Shelley’s book has again and again been identified as not only questioning the complacencies of Christianity: the world is good, and if it’s not you get your reward afterwards – why wait?. That, like her father’s book, it certainly does.
Frankenstein also an attack on whatever Deity it is that is in charge with Victor playing the part of the Deity and his Creature the part of man. There are many references to the Greek and modern usages of the Promethean myth of rebellion; read Blake, and you see that, as other critics have written, Mary Shelley uses the gothic to make a statement about the nature of life which is
exultant in its rejection of the norms of a mercenary foolish society which are trivial, soul-destroying and absurd; despairing in its search for some new source of fulfillment which will not twist human nature into depravities it has not known before (such as we find in deSade — another writer from this era). You can go through this novel finding allusions which recall story of Adam and Eve and Prometheus myth, except that when you do you find Frankenstein is Prometheus. It was Frankenstein who attempted to bring to man the power to stop death and dying, to bring back the dead. You find allusions to Paradise Lost from epitaph on, to end, p 209: when he says he is a Satan after he has read it. So creature is Satan and Adam.
Book’s first critic is Shelley: society is responsible for what the creature becomes, but equally what happens emerges from nature itself, human; we learn to overcome nature a bit by empathizing with what we have never empathized before. Christian readers continued to be horrified when they couldn’t themselves turn it into religious warning and punishment message
There are so many interpretations and ways to approach this novel we could spend a whole semester on it far more easily than people do on Pride and Prejudice or even Eliot’s Middlemarch. Given my course, I concentrated on it as a female gothic.
it is about birthing: Frankenstein, a man who cannot give birth to children, does it through science – which in the period as far as the body goes meant dissecting corpses – and upon the birth of this creature is revulsed. The language tells us the source of this nightmare: Mary knew from quite a young age that her mother had died of the childbirth. She often visited her mother’s grave – people did that. It’s a nightmare of parturition. The child comes up and demands protection, love, absolute devotion. When the creature comes to tell his story – I don’t know how far you got, we get this extraordinary account of how a new born baby might slowly gain perception of the world it is part of. In the era there are others that do this: Dinah Craik’s Olive: this gives us a neonate coming to consciousness. The central character is disabled – the monster is so ugly he is like a disabled person. Motif found in woman’s novels of this era is disability seen sympathetically and from the point of view of the caretaker (burden, responsibility). The one novel easy to find is John Halifax, Gentleman who corresponds to mainstream Victorian novels .Olive does not.
This is distinctly a woman’s gothic and for once not about rape: but the experience of the aftermath of birth, for child and mother, it’s a hideous thing the experience, and early experience is tremblingly in need. The book was written before Mary had given birth five times, and all but one of her children died. It’s prophetic: her first two were alive at the time, Clara and little William. Byron accused the couple of not being careful enough of their children: Mary knew this but didn’t know how to live defying Shelley. We read and discussed Margaret Atwood’s poem, “Speeches for Dr Frankenstein.”
We also went over it as a male gothic and (again) attack on science. he structure of gothic books seen as male gothic are male with wanderer –: atemporal, do not just move forward in time. Pursuit and pursuer as a doppelganger. Often the gothic has some interface which moves us from reality, world of apparent reason into dream romance world. Can be a mirror we walk through, a manuscript, a diary. Design of Frankenstein:
The story opens on the icy edges of the earth, near the North Pole. We have impossible fantastic voyages through mountains, into a crazed laboratory-scene deep in the Orkneys, in furthest Scotland; it takes us back to the ice for the rousing conclusion. It is all letters or first-person narratives — only the epistolary mode could carry such a reverie off and keep you believing. Parts:
1. 4 Letters: We open with Walton to his sister — . He is introducer. Slow moving into madness. She is exploring the body while attacking science. The book has Victor returning to alchemy which is also suggestive. The stealing of bodies. She then makes an analogoy with the quest for north west passage.
2. Chs 1-8; II, Chs 1-2: Walton is supposedly telling us what Frankenstein said word for word. Frankenstein a deep-musing memoir, a flashback. Whole book is a flashback in the center of which we find another flashback Okay first we get Frankenstein’s story up to the time just after Justine’s death. Volume II opens up with Frankenstein home, death of Justine, disillusionment and despair of Elizabeth
3. Vol II, Chapters 3-8: At the center of the novel, we have the creature’s tale. Tell of gentle family. How slowly he learns. Lovely beautiful piece about coming to consciousness of a child. Note though that material resembles story of Count Malvesi and Lucretia. Seems strained romance from far away Europe about oppression of ancien régime
4. Vol II, Ch 9; III, Chs 1-7: Then we return to Frankenstein: he becomes driven figure; creature stalks him, he tries to make another. in this sequence shows we are inside total dream world of gothic: nightmares predominate no one tells a tale in the words of someone else and then recites letters in it. Is it probable in the least bit a man (Walton) could retell the story of Frankenstein to his sister in the words of Frankenstein; then the creature to Frankenstein; then letter writers too. Doesn’t matter. Our sceptical tendencies turned off.
5. Walton, in continuation, more journal-letters. He watches Dr Frankenstein die, the creature grieve over him and then escape into an infinity of ice and a conflagration of fire. Finally back to Walton again: he cannot withstand mutiny and is returning to England. It would seem back to impersonal, world of rationality: except we cannot return, we have seen too much; and one final scene and appearance of creature.
I had just gone to a lecture on Frankenstein Revisited by Bernard Welt, a film and literary scholar (scroll all the way down) at the Smithsonian. I told of that, and that there appear to be a plethora of biographies on Mary Shelley, but when you look into it, most of them, very like the recent Romantic Outlaws, basically end with Shelley’s death, leaving a 30 year rich life where she wrote more novels, at least two as gripping as Frankenstein, and some say her The Last Man is better than Frankenstein, countless biographies, travel writing, 2 plays, essays and lived an interesting life. A rare one to do this and tell some hard truths about Mary Shelley’s life with Shelley is by Mary Seymour. For example, not that I want to be sensational: but the half-sister who traveled with the unmarried pair to Italy, Clare Claremont became Shelley’s mistress for much of the pair’s life together, had at least one child by him, Allegra was probably his not Byron’s two miscarriages, and he impregnated two other women during that time. Mary was determined to cover all this up and almost succeeded. Lots of writers, especially those who are pro-Shelley tell it quite differently. Percy influenced Frankenstein oh yes but she wrote it. The same person who wrote Matilda (about an incestuous love between father and daughter so real Godwin stopped her from publishing it in his lifetime) and The Last Man wrote Frankenstein. Her independent and at times unconventional existence was one she kept out of view: she was in love at times, had a close relationships with a woman who lived her life as a man, and her intense relationship with her radical father, Godwin are all of great interest.
Mary was the daughter of the notorious Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin and her father placed the book for her. It was not easy: times were hard, this was after a depression set in after Napoleon unseated and armies disbanded, the next year was the Peterborough massacre, Godwin took it to John Murray, who debated but turned it down, finally an old firm he knew about who dealt in cheap books and it was published cheaply, only 500 copies. But her dedication was to her father, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, also by this time known (Queen Mab), wrote a powerful preface, and soon the familiar story began to circulate: this one acceptable: one very hard summer, cold, miserable earthquake on the other side of the globe, rainy, she, Shelley, Lord Byron (famous) is valet, Polidori and Shelley were reading ghost stories late in a villa on a lake. They proposed a competition, each would write something about a ghost. Why do we know this story? Because it helped sales. Did it happen? Something like it probably did. Godwin wrote an anonymous wild scream of praise. At first it was attacked: Tory Edinburgh critic described it as “blasphemous,” “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdities.” but Walter Scott (the great unknown) wrote a fair appreciation – puzzled saying the author had written an unnerving fantastic tale in precise clear English. ‘An extraordinary tale, in which the author seems to disclose to us uncommon powers of poetic imagination . . . [it is a work which genuinely] excites new reflections and untried sources of emotion’. But there was a price to pay when Shelley died; our present text is the 1831 text – incest is censored out, the impieties muted or softened.
She went on to write five more longish novels and the one novella, Matilda. She became a regular writer of biographies, short stories and tales, literary criticism, did an edition of Shelley’s poems that was influential. She was not able to bring it out fully until her father-in-law died. Her father-in-law was her tyrant you might say: he was very rich and could have made her life easy, but resented her deeply. Alas, her son was his heir, and he was slowly driven to dribble out money for a good school, for clothes, for university. She did fall in love or at least began to; at one point she was involved with woman. I had forgotten the one lesbian relationship Mary probably involved herself in when she returned to England: Mary Dodds, a transvestite was written about in a piquant biography by Betty T. Bennett. Mary’s last 30 years were engaged in a self-effacing cover-up and distortion of her life and Shelley which has done her far worse harm (her reputation, what’s read of her today, how she’s seen) than she managed to do with Shelley whose works and reputation escaped her reframing hand. People remembered he was radical. They did not know he had been a sexual predator after women and died apparently quite fat — utterly self-indulgent too in all areas.
She traveled back to Italy and Germany and wrote about it. Though she never ever would say this when one considers how faithless Shelley was to her and how wretched her life with him, she could have been better off had the situation of women been better, her reputation not so ruined as to drive her to lie, and to try to hide her life.
I’ve more than one friend who has said to me The Last Man is better than Frankenstein: I started it this summer but had to leave off, and am hoping to read it in with a group online this coming spring. I’ve mentioned how there are people who insist Percy wrote Frankenstein: he had a hand in it, was influential but when you read his poetry you say how distanced he is. He wrote a play called Prometheus Unbound in which he takes the Aeschylus situation and shows Prometheus as someone who triumphs over all tyrants, all tyranny including that of any and all Gods. Concept of liberation is central for Shelley himself. She wrote excellent short biographies of Renaissance and other literary period figures. Her criticism defends the idea that the author is central to a work: his or her core spirit has to animate it.
I regretted leaving Mary and her creature. Percy did write about the book society is responsible for what the creature becomes, but equally what happens emerges from nature itself, human; we learn to overcome nature a bit by empathizing with what we have never empathized before. Christian readers continued to be horrified when they couldn’t themselves turn it into religious warning and punishment message.
I know there’s a pleasure in terror, and the aesthetic sublime; the novel lets us move into unspoken and still mostly unmentionable ideas (of grief I’ll mention) which as Scott says were not so much has broached much less discoursed so meaningfully before. Her Frankenstein, Matilda and Last Man are books written by one person under the impetus of strong passionate commitment — endless repeats of something obstructive are hard to resist. Again, over on an academic romantics list Laurens and a couple of others chiming in have persisted to the point that Shelley scholars concede maybe Percy wrote this or what part of that or certainly wrote more than the preface. Laurens goes to the absurd lengths of saying Mary’s diaries are made up and Shelley a frantic closet homosexual (meanwhile two wives, perpetually pregnant and probably a maidservant in Italy by him).
Not so. The paradigm of paranoid pursuit and chase, the intense paranoia, the alienation of the central figure is found in Mary Shelley’s Mathilde — and no one has ever attributed that to her husband. It shows the influence of her mother’s Wrongs of Women. Both Matilde and Frankenstein are deeply influenced by Godwin’s Caleb Williams: obsession, paranoia, deep rebellion against rock-bottom ideas of a hierarchical deeply injust society and human nature fuel all three in a closely similar pattern.
Lastly on the movie tradition, we read an essay by Paul O’Flinn where he began by suggesting there is no such thing as Frankenstein, there are only Frankensteins, as the text is ceaselessly rewritten, reproduced, refilmed and redesigned. The fact that many people call the monster Frankenstein and thus confuse the pair betrays the extent of that restructuring. At the time Mary’s book answered contemporary tensions and issues. It’s a direct response to the machine breaking and industrial conditions at the time. When a group of people peacefully assembled in 1819 in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, where Gaskell lived and where her two industrial tales are set, to demonstrate for representation in Parliament (chartism), calvary charged into the 60,000 to 80,000 people and many were killed. A defining moment of the age; Shelley wrote one of his more readable memorable poems on it, The Mask of Anarchy, whose concluding stanza you’ve probably heard snatches of because Orwell quoted it Shelley urged the people to
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Slake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few.
The earliest framing, Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein, 1823 – a very orthodox view: Frankenstein took God’s place, he presumed and he was punished. Crude and popular. We have had Mrs Gaskell who says that John Barton is a realistic representation of Frankenstein – she too writing as if the creature and his creator are one and the same. Mary hated the Tory despotism; she is also interested in the new science of the age. This is not daft modern leftism. This political way of reading Frankenstein surfaces repeatedly, but against it are the movies.
O’Flinn felt that the 1931 film has been central; James Whale then led to the 1957 film which revived the craze of films. The 1931 movie strips the original book of its philosophical underpinnings and presents an anti-mob fable. Central is the abnormal brain given this monster – so it’s an attack on disability too. Media companies are actively interested in maintaining the status quo – to my mind the incessant commercials have a deeply reactionary subtext. The movie reversed just what Mary wanted: she did not want the creature to be seen as brutal but as brutalized, as deeply hurt. All the highjinks and supernatural grotesqueries drew in an audience, made a great deal of money and spawned an industry of Frankenstein type films. I did bring in Martin Tropp’s qualifications in his study of many Frankenstein films in Barbara Lupack’s excellent anthology, 19th century women at the Movies.
Why people like this kind of thing? I have seen the 1931 film as well as The Bride of Frankenstein. I may well have seen the 1957 one, I’ve read about it. O’Flinn says an altered ideology is now at work: now the doctor is the villain; he’s a Baron and meglomaniac. Now a new set of fears are embodied in the film: of nuclear holocaust, of technology itself. Now the isolated outcast whatever you think about him is replaced by someone with control over weapons. I can add to O’Flinn a lot of the imagery was taken over by Peter Sellers for How I learned to Stop worrying and love the bomb: especially that which is associated with Nazism, and crazy dictators, especially Dr Strangelove himself, said to be partly modelled on Kissenger. Donald Trump invited or visited Kissenger among his day’s activities today.