Biography

Frankenstein at 200 – why hasn’t Mary Shelley been given the

Mary chelley

Video Mary chelley

I was fascinated by mary shelley and her most famous novel thanks to her husband. In 2011, I found myself trying to make sense of the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. it was a complicated task. Percy was mostly a creature of her own cultural moment, and nothing dates like a zeitgeist. Yet Mary’s Frankenstein springs from the same heady cultural and political nexus as her husband’s verse, and her novel continues to fascinate us. two hundred years after its publication in January 1818, it still speaks directly to us as a myth about contemporary life. It has inspired film adaptations of every genre, from the comedy Caper Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the quasi-rock opera The Rocky Horror Picture Show and sci-fi classics like Blade Runner. Then there’s the seemingly endless schlock and kitsch in comics and cosplay (where fans dress up as their favorite fictional characters). has become the go-to journalistic shorthand for technological interventions in human biology or medical science: dr. Frankenstein and his creature make their way into the mainstream of modern life. they reappear in our fantasies and nightmares more consistently than most fictional or historical characters. Now we can look forward to a host of new Frankensteins, as everyone’s favorite scar-faced shuffling giant and his creator are remade for a new age.

mary has been investigated a lot, too often in terms of whether she was good or bad for percy. But she hadn’t been placed at the center of her own story since Miranda Seymour’s magisterial biography in 2000. I wanted to discover a Mary Shelley for our time: to find the girl behind the book, and piece together what writing must have been like. . Her story is as archetypal as Mary’s two most famous characters: her life and her relationships with men couldn’t be more relevant to our #metoo era. Mary was only 18 years old when she had the idea for Frankenstein; 19 when she finished writing the book. How could a teenager come up with not one but two enduring archetypes: the scientist obsessed with blue sky research and unable to see that it has ethical and social consequences, and the quasi-human who creates?

It’s an astonishing achievement, and even more so when we remember that, as a child, Mary did not receive the same upbringing as many of her fellow romance writers. Unlike Percy, she had neither Eton nor Oxford, but she took lessons in the classroom in her house and spent six dismal months at Miss Pettman’s Ladies’ School in Ramsgate, learning by leafing through the books in Percy’s library. her father. Her parents were two of the most notorious radicals of her day: her mother, who died of complications 11 days after her birth, was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of a women’s rights claim; Her father was the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin. he may have been a defender of anarchism, but he kept many contemporary conventions at home. Once Mary eloped with Percy at the age of 16, for example, the former apostle of free love cut off her daughter until she was respectably married.

so how the hell did mary create her precocious masterpiece? one answer given by readers and critics over the years is that she didn’t. In her first appearance, anonymous reviewers surmised that this novel of ideas was written by someone close to Godwin, but not that the author might be her daughter. Percy, as son-in-law, was credited in her place. Even in recent years, Percy’s corrections, visible in Frankenstein’s notebooks in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, have been taken as evidence that he must, at the very least, have co-authored the novel. in fact, when I examined the notebooks myself, I realized that percy made far less than any line editor working in publishing today.

A second skeptical response to Mary’s astonishing achievement and belittles her in a more astute way, suggesting that the archetypes of Frankenstein and his creature are not, in fact, original. These skeptics cite the classic myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who creates a lover for himself, or the demi-human figure of Caliban in the Tempest. both were part of the cultural canon of the early 19th century and, growing up in a literary household, Mary will have known them.

but their own creations differ from both, and it is these different qualities that speak to us so vividly today. Pygmalion, at least in Ovid’s metamorphoses, does not set out to create a human being, he simply falls in love with one of his own creations. the goddess aphrodite is so moved by this that she brings the sculpture to life. George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion retells this parable about artistic vanity. His story about Henry Higgins, the linguist who makes a young lady out of a street flower vendor but does so for his own benefit, not hers, remains familiar today in Lerner and Loewe’s version of the musical My Fair Lady. /p>

A statue also becomes a woman in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, when the figure of King Leontes’ weeping wife comes to life. every sixteenth-century grammar school boy received a dash of classical education; The young Shakespeare may have come across the Pygmalion myth in his Stratford-upon-Avon classroom. thus the tempest echoes another classic myth in which the minotaur, like caliban, an island dweller, is the hideous offspring of a human mother and supernatural father and dominates his island until a hero who arrives submits it.

Clearly, neither of them is a precursor to Mary’s ambitious young doctor who wants to create the perfect human being, but can’t. Indeed, Frankenstein is one of the great flop novels, taking its place somewhere between Cervantes’ incoherent 17th-century masterpiece Don Quixote (which Mary read while working on her novel) and Hemingway’s 1952 novel, The old man and the sea. . In both books, however, failure is seen compassionately, in the context of human dignity and ideals. Frankenstein, on the other hand, portrays it as the destructive result of overreach. Mary’s portrayal of failure as the dark heart of arrogance is couched in terms so strong they seem almost religious. indeed, this idealistic young daughter of a former dissident minister believed that right and wrong were fact, not just opinion.

However, Frankenstein’s passionate call for justice is poignant, not preachy. Mary never had a chance to be a prude. Even as she was writing what became her first novel, years of harsh censorship of the private life of a woman who would today be referred to as “slut-shaming” had begun. She had been ostracized by family and friends for running away with Percy, a married man, and was the subject of derisive speculation by male acquaintances. The couple married after Percy’s first wife, Harriet, took her own life, but they were considered so disreputable that, in an unprecedented decision, they were denied custody of Percy’s children from his first marriage. . In future years, Mary would hear a sermon preached against her, she would find that her husband was viewed as a fair target by other women, and her in-laws would campaign to take away her surviving child. p>

Still, as sincere and engaging as she is, her moral stance isn’t what makes Frankenstein feel so contemporary. nor his early 19th century technology. Mary envisioned first a combination of mathematics and alchemy, and then electricity in her 1832 revised edition, animating the patchwork corpse of him. neither really resonates in today’s era of biochemical advances and genetic engineering. The laboratory electrocution scene first imagined in James Ballena’s classic 1931 Frankenstein film now looks fabulously kitsch.

but in the novel, the myth drives the technology and not the other way around. Frankenstein shows us that aspiration and progress are indistinguishable from arrogance, until something goes wrong, when we suddenly see all too clearly what was reasonable effort and what was overreach. When she wrote her classic, Mary was aware that the man she had married was an emotional and philosophical transgressor. Despite all of her family’s wealth, Percy was often in debt. And his timing was staggeringly bad: Even during his first pregnancy, he had pressured 17-year-old Mary into sleeping with his best friend in search of free love, while his own long-standing romantic relationship with Mary’s stepsister it had begun at the time of the couple’s elopement. furthermore, for a soi-disant writer, very little of his work had been published; mary spent a lot of time copying it to send to publishers.

but frankenstein is not a memoir. the question he asks, “how far is too far?”, is at the very heart of modernity. The romantics, including Maria, were “inclined” to progress. The great historian Eric Hobsbawm called the period from the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 to the outbreak of the First World War “the long 19th century.” Published early in this classic era of modernity, Maria’s novel still helps us define its terms today. Short for the way we experience ourselves within a world of increasing man-made complexity, “modernity” is both positive and negative, signaling the hope for progress as well as our fear of change. Frankenstein identifies the mismatch between the human experience and what we are expected to be as technology and science advance.

In addition to being emotionally expressive, Frankenstein drew on contemporary intellectual debate. In 1816, when Mary began writing it, the study of natural phenomena was not yet a proper profession; the term “scientific” had not yet been invented. amateur speculation could be cutting edge. those who were professionals gave public fashion lectures, which encouraged more amateur participation. When Mary was a teenager, these speakers included her father’s friend, the chemist and inventor Sir Humphry Davy; Italian physicist and philosopher Dr. Luigi Galvani and his nephew Giovanni Aldini, each of whom demonstrated how to pass an electrical current through the nerves of a corpse.

her time seems so fitting for mary’s novel that i was briefly tempted by a third answer to the riddle of how frankenstein came to be: a very young woman simply, without much art, channeled everything that was going on in her social and cultural milieu . in her book. Of course, this reduces cultural history to the conventional wisdom that “everyone has a book in them,” and ignores the labor and technique that goes into producing a publishable, let alone excellent, work. however, it is fascinating how often female writers engage in this reaction. Think of the wide reception of that towering 20th-century writer, Sylvia Plath, no less a transformative poet than her husband Ted Hughes, as simply an expression of her sentiments. Indeed, think today of the American poet Sharon Olds, forced for years to question whether the material in her Pulitzer Prize-winning work is autobiographical so as not to be similarly dismissed. The question is not how Mary Frankenstein wrote, but why is it so hard to believe that she did it? After all, she herself left behind a portrait of the kind of thinking that she enjoyed about her: the bouncy, almost intuitive intellect that she gives to her Frankenstein’s doctor of hers. just the kind of “aha!” who can suddenly and brilliantly synthesize a series of seemingly unrelated ideas, just like mary’s story does.

everything we know about his writing process, and we know a lot about it, from his diary and letters, tells us that it was consciously literary, painstakingly crafted. even the famous trigger of him was literary. After spending an afternoon in June 1816 reading ghost stories together, Lord Byron organized a writing contest for a group of his guests at Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. As Mary recalled: “‘Each of us shall write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron… I busied myself with thinking of a story, a story to rival those that had excited us about this task.” Meanwhile, the men in the room, Percy and Byron or Byron’s doctor, John William Polidori, were talking seriously about “the principles of life.” It seems to have occurred to no one that Maria, who had already given birth twice and lost her first child at 12 days, probably knew more about those “principles” than anyone else present.

But everything the teen mom didn’t feel entitled to bring up in Byron’s living room feeds into her novel. Mary completed much of Frankenstein while she was living in Bath, at a time when Percy was often away. It was a stormy year in which both her half-sister Ella Fanny and Harriet Shelley committed suicide, her stepsister’s daughter with Byron was born, Mary married and became pregnant for the third time. It’s no surprise that the novel is so full of insight and human understanding: maternal anxieties about creating a perfect human being; fears of ugliness, heartbreak and rejection; an analysis of what it is like to be motherless and alone in the world.

These are universal themes and, in August 1818, the book “seems to be universally read”, as his writer friend Thomas Love Peacock reported to Mary and Percy. but Maria was not enjoying this success. She had already followed Percy into political exile in Europe, and within a year she would suffer the death of her two children. Dragged from one pillar to the next by the charismatic and unreliable man she was betrothed to, even as he became increasingly unfaithful to her, until Percy’s death in 1822, she would resemble nothing more than a “wife delivered”.

it is impossible to tell the story of her life without being constantly aware of the fact that mary was a writer. Widowed just before her 25th birthday, she discovered that most of her friends would have nothing to do with someone they saw as a cross between a poet’s simple lover and the party pooper who hindered her style. She returned to London and spent the next two decades securing an allowance for her surviving son that her mother-in-law lent her. Sir Timothy Shelley’s eldest son was illegitimate, but he never accepted Mary, who had lived and had two children with Percy before marrying him, into the Shelley family.

Still, a dogged survivor and consummate professional, Mary supported herself and helped her son through Harrow and Oxford, with his writing, most of which had to be done anonymously. her files are full of her failed attempts to pitch her to publishers. it’s hard to imagine a male author who has experienced similar critical and popular success being so consistently rejected. But Mary was unfortunate not to have started her writing life under a male pen name. Notorious in literary circles for her relationship with Percy, she never enjoyed the liberties of her slightly younger contemporaries, the Brontës and George Eliot. After Frankenstein, she was not merely read as a writer, but always judged as a woman.

In a revealing journal entry from October 21, 1838, when she was 41, Mary tried to reconcile the sentiment that “to be something great and good was the precept given me” with her inability to write radical philosophy in “the good cause”. ”. “My total lack of friends, my horror of pushing, and my inability to move forward unless I am guided, appreciated, and supported—all of this has brought me down.” Forced to feel inferior by the double standards imposed on her, but ashamed that she can’t achieve all that a man could achieve without those disadvantages: Ella Mary and Ella feel utterly contemporary. we find her today in debates over the women’s fiction award, in magazine articles comparing the fortunes of male and female writers, in the horrors of the casting couch.

Frankenstein shows us how failure and arrogance are two sides of the same coin. Maria’s Life reveals the tremendous arrogance it took for this teenager to give birth to two of the most enduring and influential myths of our time.

  • Posted 18th January, Fiona Sampson’s In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein (profile, £18.99) is a bookstore watchdog to follow. to order a copy for £13.99 visit guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. free uk p&p over £10, online orders only. it is also serialized on radio 4’s book of the week from January 15 to 19.

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