Tuesday, 2 February 2010

My own spirit let loose from the grave

There has been a lot of speculation about how much influence Shelley had on Frankenstein. He certainly proof-read it, and he wrote an introduction to the first edition that lead some people to believe that he wrote the whole thing.

Mary and Shelley shared journals and discussed each other's work, and yet there does not seem to be any speculation that Mary influenced his work. Whatever the truth of his involvement it is unlikely that Shelley would have written anything do readable in the modern sense. It also seems very much a woman's book.

The least successful section of the book is the story within the story of Safie, the rather preposterous Arabian refugee whose story the creature learns while eavesdropping at the cottage of the equally unlikely French refugees, the De Lacey family. The only purpose of it seems to be polemical - to tell us about the iniquities suffered by woman at the hands of men (and Turkish men in particular) and of the harsh life afforded to outsiders. Safie is educated by the De Lacey's and the creature is educated along with her, learning to speak and to read.

Justine, the Frankenstein's servant, is wrongly accused of William's murder, convicted and hanged. Elizabeth is also murdered by the monster - on her wedding night (as punishment for Victor having destroyed the creature). Mary does not seem to like the ineffectual and saintly Elizabeth and seems to enjoy throttling this ideal woman. And yet, for all the radicalism of her beliefs - she was the daughter of William Godwin and proto-feminist Mary Wollstencraft - and their rock & roll lifestyle, Mary seems to harbour a desire for domestic bliss she was never likely to have with someone like Shelley.

Although the protagonists are male, it is partly there maleness that is under attack. Victor is determined to pursue his Mary had plenty of experience with selfish, arrogant, driven men, with her father, Shelley and Byron after all. Many people who met Shelley - Keats among them - did not like him and found him overbearing and grating. He seems to be often described as being on the verge of nervous exhaustion or hysteria (much as Victor is in the book), although the rather more macho Lord Byron seems to have enjoyed his company well enough.

There is a lot of Shelley in both Victor and the creature. Shelley was more than a little obsessed by the idea of demonic pursuit, of the supernatural double or doppelganger, and with a few changes Frankenstein could almost be read as a kind of Jeckyl and Hyde situation with Victor and the creature being two parts of the same character.

The whole of the novel is a series of stories within stories. Victor's story is told to Robert Walton, the captain of a ship trapped in the frozen seas of the far north. The creature's story is told to Victor on a glacier and then passed on to Walton via Victor. Safie's story is passed on by the creature to Victor and then to Walton. All these tales are then passed on by letter to Walton's sister. If the creature did not turn up at the end of the book, then it would be possible to believe that Victor was simply insane and had committed all the crimes attributed to the monster. After all he was known to all the victims: his best friend, his baby brother, his wife.

The Ancient Mariner was Shelley's favourite poem by Coleridge. The imagery of frozen wastes at the beginning and end of the book owes a lot to the poem and Mary quotes lines in Chapter 5 of the novel that seem to have struck a particular chord with her husband:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear an dread,
And having once turned round walks on,

And turns no more his head;

Because he knows, a frightful fiend

Doth lose behind him tread.

There is also - as with the death of William - a macabre echo in the fact that the creature takes Victor from Walton's ship with the promise that he will erect a funeral pyre (though where he was going to get the wood from is not clear) and both creator and creature will be consumes in its flames.

Four years after the first publication of Frankenstein, Shelley's drowned (and horribly mauled) body will be burned on a funeral pyre on the shore of the Gulf of Spezia.

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