The eleven months during which Mary Shelley worked on Frankenstein were almost as macabre in real life as was the unfolding of the plot in the teenager’s fevered imagination…
I’ve recently taught a course on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a work which, for all its flaws, continues to grip the popular imagination. What is it about this novel by a teenage girl, written two hundred years ago, which continues to fascinate us?
Is the secret of Frankenstein’s success its grappling with timeless questions about the relationship between scientific knowledge and moral philosophy? Is it still alive because it wrestles with fundamental questions of life and death? Is it larger than life because it grapples with the culture of death?
We could say so much about the influences that were working on Mary Shelley’s young mind as she wrote the book. There is the looming presence of Milton, and, to a lesser degree, Dante. There is, moreover, the shadow of Percy Shelley’s controversial sympathy for Milton’s Satan, a romantic spin on Milton’s epic which adds a darker shade of gloom to the spirit of rebellion haunting the novel’s pages. More beguiling and enigmatic is Percy Shelley’s own looming presence and hints of Mary’s rebellion against it, the novel suggesting the wife’s struggle to emerge from her husband’s shadow—into a light to which he was hostile. There is the influence of Mary’s father, the philosopher William Godwin, whose atheism is questioned by Mary in the questions that the novel asks. There is the confused and confusing influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his idiotic flirtation with the chimeric idea of the Noble Savage.
Most fascinating, perhaps, is Mary’s clear sympathy for the “light” romanticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth, as personified in the noble character of Henry Clerval and as alluded to intertextually throughout the novel, a sympathy that places her at odds with the “dark” romanticism of her husband and his friend, Lord Byron. The romanticism of the light, epitomized by the works of Coleridge and Wordsworth, is rooted in the humility that leads to wonder and ultimately to the contemplation of Beauty as a manifestation of God’s presence in Creation. The romanticism of the dark, on the other hand, is rooted in the Byronic pride that seeks meaning egocentrically and introspectively, as something subjective to the self and therefore ultimately self-obsessive and narcissistic. This being so, it is intriguing that the teenage bride of Percy Shelley should contrast the self-obsessed and Byronically brooding Frankenstein with the selfless and Coleridgean figure of Clerval, the former being the sick and deluded villain and the latter his healthy alter ego.
What does this have to say about the mind of the teenage girl who wrote the novel? What was she experiencing during the eleven months in which the novel was being written? Might the darkness of her life shed light on the battle between the darkness and the light in Frankenstein? Is she perhaps present autobiographically within the novel, her tormented persona daubed across its pages in lurid shades of angst-driven self-expression? Does she haunt its pages like a restless ghost, seeking an elusive peace?
In an endeavor to answer these questions, it would be useful to know a little more about Mary Shelley, both in terms of her life prior to the writing of the novel and the life she was leading during the months she was writing it.
As a child, Mary knew nothing of conventional family values. Her father was a proponent of atheism and an advocate of the dissolution of the institution of marriage, describing marriage as “the worst of all laws”; her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, a proto-feminist who had twice attempted suicide, died eleven days after Mary’s birth from childbirth complications. In 1801, when Mary was only three-years-old, her father remarried. Thereafter, the family in which Mary was raised consisted of her father, her stepmother, a stepbrother and stepsister, and a half-sister, Fanny Imlay, the daughter of her mother by the American author and adventurer, Gilbert Imlay.
In November 1812, Mary, now fifteen years old, met Percy Bysshe Shelley for the first time. He was with Harriet Westbrook, whom he had just married. In July 1814, Percy Shelley deserted his pregnant wife and one-year-old child and fled to the Continent with the sixteen-year-old Mary, who was also pregnant. In November, Harriet Shelley gave birth to her second child; in the following February Mary gave birth, prematurely, to a daughter who died within a few days. Almost a year later, in January 1816, Mary gave birth to a son, William.
In the summer of 1816, Mary and Percy visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. After reading Fantasmagoriana, an anthology of German ghost stories, Byron challenged Mary, Percy, and his personal physician, John William Polidori, each to compose a story of their own. Byron, responding to his own challenge, began to write about the vampire legends he had heard whiletravelingg in the Balkans. He aborted his attempt to bring the fragment to fruition but Polidori, using Byron’s fragment as inspiration, wrote The Vampyre, which, when published in 1819, became the progenitor of the romantic vampire literary genre. Polidori’s modest literary achievement would be eclipsed, however, by Frankenstein, which was Mary’s response to Byron’s challenge.
Mary began writing Frankenstein in June 1816, when she was still only eighteen-years-old, and would not finish it until the following May. The eleven months during which she was working on the novel were almost as macabre in real life as was the unfolding of the plot in the teenager’s fevered imagination. In October 1816, Fanny Imlay, Mary’s half-sister, committed suicide, and in December the drowned body of Harriet Shelley was discovered in the Serpentine, in London’s Hyde Park, some weeks after she had presumably committed suicide. On 30 December, barely days after the discovery of Harriet’s body, Mary and Percy were married. In March 1817, Percy was denied custody of his two children by Harriet. All this happened while Mary was working on Frankenstein and the shadow of these events account, no doubt, for much of the doom-laden and death-darkened atmosphere of the novel. It might almost be said, or at least plausibly suggested, that the ghost of Harriet Shelley haunted the author’s imagination as she worked; if so, it is equally plausible to suggest that the Monster can be seen as a metaphor for the destructive power of the unleashed passion between Mary and Percy. Following the same line of deduction, it could be said that Frankenstein’s guilt-ridden horror of the destruction he had caused is itself a reflection of Mary’s guilt at the consequences of her passionate affair with Shelley. This allegorical reading of the novel would place Mary Shelley in the role of Victor Frankenstein and the Monster in the role of the illicit and destructive relationship between Mary and Percy. Another reading might place Percy Shelley in the role of Frankenstein, his monstrous and self-obsessive ego leading to the death of his innocent wife, Harriet, as Frankenstein’s egocentrism had led to the death of his innocent wife, Elizabeth. If this is so, we might see Mary Shelley, Shelley’s second wife, as the Bride of Frankenstein, a teenage girl, caught in the grip of a monstrous culture of death, screaming in the vortex for some sense and semblance of light and life.
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