Friday, 5 February 2010

I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being


This is the battered copy of the paperback version of Frankenstein I read when I was in my teens. It is a cheap - you could even call it pulp - edition, published by Signet Classics. But I still like that cover. I like it as an illustration and as a piece of simple design, but I also like the fact that the creature is running, not shuffling, and that there is a vulnerability to him. It is not a picture of a monster.

I'm sure I saw the James Whale movie first, but I can't remember when I saw it or when I picked this book up to read - although I would hazard a guess at some time in my mid-teens. What I do remember though was the effect it had on me.

I was astonished to discover that the world-famous character of Frankenstein's monster bore no resemblance whatsoever to the character in the book. He could talk! He could read! He could run! He could even drive a sled drawn by huskies!!!

And he was a sympathetic character, despite his crimes. Victor called him a devil and a fiend, but he was so much more than a mere bogeyman. He looked different too. He was a raven-haired Romantic anti-hero. If there was a lot of Shelley in Frankenstein, there was a fair old dose of Byron in the shunned and exiled creature.

Then there was the setting. I now understood that the novel belonged to the early nineteenth century in the time of Beethoven and Byron. I had assumed all the action took place in some Mittel-European schloss, and was absolutely amazed to find that the action opened aboard a ship in the arctic. It is an incredible opening - a series of letters that do not at first seem to have any connection with what I thought I knew of the action. The first inkling there is of what is to come is at the beginning of Letter 4 when Walton tells of seeing a giant figure on a sled drawn by dogs racing across the ice.

But I was even more surprised to discover that Victor Frankenstein and his creature both visit England and that the attempt to create a mate takes place on Orkney of all places. Frankenstein and his friend Clerval visit London (in a visit lasting months) and then go to Oxford, Matlock in Derbyshire, and the Lake District before going on to Scotland - with the creature watching their every move. Frankenstein's creature visited Britain! I found that idea incredibly exciting. I still do.

And if you needed more convincing that there is something else going on than the simple stitching together of body parts then the events leading up to the creation of the mate should help.

When Frankenstein is in London he says that he was 'principally occupied with the means of obtaining the information necessary for the completion of my promise' (to build a mate) and carries a letter of introduction to an unnamed 'distinguished natural philosopher'. He then says that he 'began to collect the materials necessary for my new creation'.

Since there is no mention of grave-robbing on Orkney, then it would seem to suggest that he was carrying body parts with him for months on end, to Oxford and to Matlock and the Lakes. That is obviously impossible and Mary knew it would be impossible. Clearly she meant something else.

And even if we thought that he had gathered chemicals on his tour and then squirreled body parts away on a sparsely populated island, then the grisly scene where he destroys the mate gives a little more food for thought. . .

The remains of the half-finished creature, whom I had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being.

Frankenstein could simply be saying that he 'almost' felt like he had destroyed the living flesh of a human being because the gruesome remains looked like a dismembered body, but he could also mean that the thing he had created, by whatever means, looked so convincing that he 'almost' felt that it really was human flesh.

In any case, that battered copy of Frankenstein started a lifelong fascination with both Gothic horror, the Romantic era and the Shelley/Byron set.

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