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Friday, 24 July 2015

Mary Shelley's Counter-Enlightenment

For those who are unaware of one of the most famous stories in Gothic literature, I would like to introduce you to “the story of Frankenstein… I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you.” You won’t find any of these lines in the original 1818 novel, although the author once famously remarked that she had wanted to write a story that “…would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror -- one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart”. The image of Whale’s “Frankenstein” is just one example of several horror icons that have become more readily identified with their filmic representation than their source material. Colin Clive’s hysterical portrayal of Frankenstein set the “mad scientist” stereotype, which was far removed from Shelley’s original tragic Faustian version, and Boris Karloff’s simple-minded, grunting, lumbering portrayal of The Monster was even further away from the intelligent, blighted and scorned figure of Milton-esque vengeance in the novel. However, the novel has bitten back over the years since Universal did such a great job of immortalizing its own icons.  The 1980s proved to be something of a watershed in this respect and this is where we find the first publication of Maurice Hindle’s edited text. It is this influential edition of the novel, which has subsequently been reprinted in the same format several times now; I am reviewing rather than the original story.

I have published several reflections and reviews of Mary Shelley’s seminal work, so I see little point in going over the plot outline again. Nevertheless, due to the fact that the vast majority of dramatic adaptations barely resemble the original text, perhaps I can offer some useful insight to those who don’t know the story. “Frankenstein” is a Faustian tale about a science undergraduate of Ingolstadt who, having been initially inspired by his childhood reading of alchemy and driven by the sudden death of his mother, pursues a dream to impart human life to lifeless matter. Upon successfully achieving his ambition he is immediately appalled by his creation and abandons it, hoping to live a normal life. However, his sins return to haunt him in the form of the murderous Monster he has created and has since been hardened by a life of rejection and scorn. Frankenstein will battle in an effort to take responsibility for his actions in a tragic adventure that will see him race across countries to the North Pole only to discover a kindred spirit hell-bent and hell-bound to pursue his own over-reaching ambitions. 

Suffice to say you won’t find detailed descriptions of the “science” that is used to create the Monster, which has become an expected staple of most dramatic adaptations of the novel. A bolt of lightning that fells a tree and a reference to infusing “a spark into the lifeless thing” is the only real indication that Victor Frankenstein will use this electricity to bring his arrangement of corpse body parts to life via an alchemical perversion of Luigi Galvani’s theory on “animal electricity”. Likewise, you won’t find a vivid account of how Mary imagined her Monster. A single description is provided by Frankenstein who tells us that all his careful selection of white teeth, lustrous and flowing black hair, and proportioned body parts to make his Monster seem beautiful come to naught when the composite corpse becomes animated.

The scene is representative of the unforeseen consequences of what happens when a person, however well-intentioned, chooses to challenge God. The story’s alternative title, referencing Prometheus who was punished for stealing fire from the Gods of Olympus, and the Monster’s identification with Milton’s Satan of “Paradise Lost” all echo this premise. Mary Shelley, despite becoming the wife to an avowed atheist, and a daughter to two radical social reformers, remained a militant moderate. This is a point Maurice Hindle makes in his detailed introduction to the 1985 Penguin Classic edition.

Mary Shelley was living amongst radical liberals at end of the libertine era and on the eve of the starkly prudish Victorian fashion. These celebrities were the blueprint for the modern rock star. They were upper classes who were practising “free love” in the western world almost a century and a half before it became part of the counterculture of the 1960s. “Frankenstein” should be seen as a counter-enlightenment piece and despite the fact that Shelley was clearly very supportive of Mary’s novel, there is much within it that could be seen as his wife rebelling against his excesses as well as the radical liberalism that surrounded her at home and within her social circle. Mary may have been daughter to the pioneer of the Feminist Movement, but her book is far from a feminist a work. As rebuttals to the claim that it was really written by Percy Shelley have clearly pointed out, the story’s theme is very much a maternal fable and a chastisement for not taking personal responsibility for one’s child. Much is often made of the story reflecting Mary’s own tragic losses and it is difficult not to see these parallels.  

Mary and Dr William Polidori both would go on to write two of the most influential stories in literary history after their famous experiences staying one stormy summer with Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Lord Byron at Byron’s Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. Hindle makes the now often accepted argument that just as Polidori’s vampire antagonist, Lord Ruthven, was clearly modelled on his notorious patient, the exiled poet Lord “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know” Byron so Victor Frankenstein was based on the almost equally notorious poet, Percy Shelley.  Hindle quotes Shelley’s biographer, Thomas Jefferson Hogg in his description of Shelley as perfect example of the poet’s similarity to the figure of Victor Frankenstein:

"[He] then proceeded, with much eagerness and enthusiasm, to show me the various instruments, especially the electrical apparatus; turning round the handle very rapidly, so that the fierce, crackling sparks flew forth; and presently standing upon the stool with glass feet, he begged me to work the machine until he was filled with the fluid, so that his long, wild locks bristled and stood on end. Afterwards he charged a powerful battery of several large jars; laboring with vast energy, and discoursing with increasing vehemence of the marvellous powers of electricity, of thunder and lightning; describing an electrical kite that he had made at home, and projecting another and an enormous one, or rather a combination of many kites, that would draw down from the sky an immense volume of electricity, the whole ammunition of a mighty thunderstorm; and this being directed to some point would there produce the most stupendous results."

One can see how future filmmakers, including James Whale, might have drawn upon these observations to help recreate the scene of the Monster’s creation that is clearly missing from Mary Shelley’s text. 

Hindle justifies the inclusion of not only Polidori’s novella, “The Vampyre: A Tale”, which would provide us with the blueprint for the Dracula character and the most popular image of the vampire, but also Lord Byron’s “A Fragment”. The latter was the source for Polidori’s story and we learn of Byron’s public disgust for anyone believing that “The Vampyre” was his original work. The Penguin Classic also includes all the original text from the original 1818 edition of “Frankenstein” to accompany the 1831 edition, which is the focus of the book. The majority of later editions of “Frankenstein” respected Mary Shelley’s wishes and republished her work in the revised form. However, Hindle’s inclusion of the largest passages in their original format as an appendix serves to make this a complete volume.

Looking at Hindle’s introduction and the book’s three significant appendices, we get something of an appreciation for the imaginative dynamism present during that time and the fears of an individual like Mary Shelley who suffered tremendous emotional trauma through most of her life. The presence of Byron’s obscure literal fragment of a novel, which is far more subtle than the supernatural descriptions he presents in some of his poems – most notably “The Giaour” – and Polidori’s story provides us with some context. Victor Frankenstein is originally inspired by the occult aspirations of pre-enlightenment “sorcerers” and that contamination is then married with the new aspirations of the scientific Enlightenment, the ideas of which Mary Shelley tells us she overheard Byron and her husband discussing in typically excitable reverence.  

One year after Hindle’s edition was published Ken Russell’s “Gothic” was released, which told the story of the Villa Diodati. Two years later two other films set around the events of the Villa and the genesis of “Frankenstein” appeared, “Haunted Summer” and “Rowing with the Wind”. The story of the creation of the “Frankenstein” story and the roots of the aristocratic Dracula vampire had taken on a life of their own. These trappings allow us to see that although “Frankenstein” is an early example of the science fiction novel its roots are firmly in Gothic literature.

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