Frankenstein Part 1 – Strange Conception.
We know the myth of how Mary Shelley came to write the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The myth is fairly factual but the underlying biases give a completely false understanding of who Mary Shelley was, why she wrote the first science fiction novel (at least in English), and what was happening in the novel.
The basic myth is that a group of important men and a couple of young women were trapped in a castle in Geneva and bored out of their skulls. The poets came up with a contest to tell ghost stories. Somewhere in those ghost stories a teenage Mary Shelley told the story that was the nucleus of what became her famous novel. A few years later, most likely with the help of Percy Bysshe Shelley the man she would eventually marry after the death of his wife, she published a book that became famous.
Except for the suggestion that Mr. Shelley must have helped her write a big, long book since she couldn’t possibly have written all that by herself the facts above are not in dispute. But let’s add some lightning to the dead flesh.
At the time of these events she was still known as Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin. Her mother, Mary Wollestonecraft, had been renowned as an early feminist thinker and writer of A Vindication of the Right’s of Women. Her father was a philosopher who was one of the founders of Anarchist thought and a novelist in his own right. Both of her parents had supported the concept that women were intrinsically equal to men and ought to receive a full education.
Sadly, her mother had died of complications from childbirth eleven days after the birth of Mary Shelley. While her father had raised her, there had apparently been a great deal of friction in the household – particularly after he remarried when she was four. She and her half-sisters received educations but her step-mother had heavily favoured her own daughters.
At the age of seventeen, she ran away from home with the much older married Percy Bysshe Shelley accompanied by her younger half sister, Claire Clairmont. The two young women wrote diaries that were filled with the political and literary theories that they discussed with the circles they travelled through. In their diaries, each of them discussed their interest in becoming writers like their father.
So, even though Mary Shelley had been young at the time she first conceived the story that became Frankenstein, a Modern Prometheus she had lived a life in which she had been well educated and confident in the concept that women could write books. There’s no solid suggestion that her husband-to-be had to help her complete a story. The observation that the poems of Shelley have no resemblance in themes or style to the writing of Mary makes it highly unlikely that she needed his help to create her own novel.
In light of her history, themes in Frankenstein take on a different significance. It’s not just that a man stole lighting from the heavens (the classical reference to Prometheus stealing fire from the gods) it’s also that the man rejected his basic duties vis a vis bringing a child into the world. One of the first things Baron von Frankenstein did after bring life into the world (in the absence of a woman) was to abandon the creature he had created. He took no responsibility to nurture the creature physically, emotionally, or intellectually; he doesn’t even name his own child. The monster had to parent himself.
As the saying goes, “Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is not the monster. Wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster.”
Baron von Frankenstein had an opportunity to repair the neglect he had inflicting on his poor monster. The monster was lonely and needed a mate. It had long been a duty for fathers to make sure that their children would marry. In the book, Baron von Frankenstein destroyed the female creature who had been the one hope the monster had to end his loneliness. This act led the monster to his unforgiveable act in murdering the wife of Baron von Frankenstein on their wedding night so that the Baron would neither have other children nor the comfort of an end to his own loneliness.
I don’t have to be a Freudian to speculate that some of Mary Shelley’s own feeling may have crept into her writing. It’s notable that Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin had not been given a name other than her mother’s name. It’s notable that much of her education in becoming a writer was done through her own efforts rather than under his guidance. I have to wonder whether she ever felt bitterness that her big relationship was with one of her father’s students who had been married for the first several years they were together.
I’m going to draw attention to some things that Mary Shelley may not have thought about. Mary Shelley’s birth brought death to her mother and then wrote a story about life being brought forth from death. Life from death is both a horror and a wonder that led Baron von Frankenstein to reject his creation. There is evidence within both Mary Shelley’s and Godwin’s memoirs that Godwin had rejected the daughter who had caused his wife’s death.
It is a strange conception for a book about a man who creates life from death written by a woman whose birth brought death to her mother.
John Allenson is a pen name for someone who has a horribly insulting real life name he does not use on social media. He has had a long process in trying to be an author but may actually be making some progress. He’s a gender-queer Jew who lives in Toronto.
This column is a tour through some of the bits and pieces of Queer themed Speculative fiction over the past few millennia.