Sunday, June 10, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XV: Masculin/Féminin

Apart from his odd taste in subject matter, Horace Walpole was the 18th Century ideal of an author -- a gentleman of leisure who wrote sheerly for his own amusement, and published only in the hope that his work would provide the same for others, or perhaps offer some moral edification. If he got a little money out of it, it would only be a pittance compared to his existing fortune. The idea of somebody writing primarily as a way of earning income was seen as a prostitution of art.

But even at the time Otranto came out, British publishing was changing. Literacy was on the uptick throughout Britain -- and not just for men. Women lagged behind, but by the 1760s middle class women at least needed to be able to read if they wanted to attract decent husbands. With the expansion of the reader base came an increased demand for books, and novels in particular. Many early novelists were still respectable, and their works stressed virtue and morals, but like any booming industry, publishing soon attracted those who wanted to make money.

In the mid 18th Century, "Newgate Calendars" came onto the market. These started as broadsheets containing true crime accounts about malefactors at London's Newgate Prison, but they were popular enough they were eventually printed as chapbooks and compiled into multi-volume anthologies. The Calendars were ostensibly moral works that showed the public that crime doesn't pay, but of course that's not why anyone ever bought them, any more than people today watch Cops to learn about police procedures. Calendar readers wanted sensational crimes, and the publishers weren't above throwing in a fictional story like Sawney Bean, the legendary Scottish cannibal, or exaggerating real ones, like highwayman Dick Turpin, who became a sort of English Jesse James by the time the popular presses got done with him.

The Gothics were the next major step in the commercialization of writing. Around 1790, William Lane established Minerva Press to cash in on the burgeoning demand for Gothic fiction, and quickly became the largest publisher of fiction in Britain. Numerous other publishers jumped on the money train as well, and soon the country was glutted with Gothic novels, many of them nothing more than cheap knockoffs of the most popular works.

As with any genre, the titles fell into easily recognizable patterns -- The Castle of _______, The Mysteries of ________, The Cavern of _______, with the blanks being filled by words like "death" or "darkness", or by some exotic sounding name -- Italian preferred, but French or German were also acceptable, and something Scottish or Irish would do in a pinch. A truly adventurous author might make up a foreigny sounding name beginning with Z or V, like Vathek, Zofloya, or Zastrozzi.

While some authors of the upper classes did try their hand at the Gothic -- M.G. Lewis was a Member of Parliament, and Percy Shelley was the son of a Baronet, for instance -- most of the writers were middle class or lower. Valancourt Books has been reprinting many of the Gothics of this period (some so obscure that their last edition was in the 18th Century), and if you read the introductions you'll find many of the authors were members of the middle class who had fallen on hard times and figured a Gothic novel would be an easy way to earn money. This is especially true for the female Gothic authors, of whom there are more than a few -- indeed, the Gothic may be the first field of Western lit where women approached parity with men. During this period, there were few fallback options for widows and otherwise unmarried women who didn't have relatives to support them. The few acceptable careers for middle class women -- governesses, school teachers, and attendants for wealthy ladies --  were hard to come by without connections or references, and paid little in any case. But now that women were literate, taking a hand at writing was a viable option.

Of course, people writing as a way to pay the bills -- especially women -- offended the literati of the day, and the Gothic was sneered at as low literature. Even today, the best regarded of the Gothic authors (Walpole, Lewis, Beckford, Godwin, Maturin) tend to be from more respectable backgrounds, and apart from Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley, they're all men.

To some extent this is understandable -- men from well-to-do backgrounds would be better educated and able to turn out more polished works. But the fact is, apart from Frankenstein and Beckford's Vathek, none of the Gothic novels of the classic era are particularly great. The ones written by lower class authors are about the level of 1930s science fiction, but they do have the merit of being a reasonable length, whereas the upper class authors were excessively prolix, with two hundred pages of good story supporting five hundred or more pages of prose. Nobody reads Godwin's Caleb Williams or Marturin's Melmoth the Wanderer without skimming.

Of all the Gothic authors between Walpole and Mary Shelley, the two commonly regarded as the most important are Radcliffe and Lewis.

Ann Radcliffe published her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne back in 1789, but she didn't hit the big time until her fourth novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). For the most part, Udolpho was a straightforward Gothic tale about Emily St. Aubert, an orphaned teenage girl who goes to live in the titular Castle of Udolpho with her aunt and her aunt's new husband, the Count Montoni. Lots of mysterious and spooky things happen in the castle, and eventually Emily's aunt dies under suspicious circumstances. At the end of the story, Emily discovers that Count Montoni has been gaslighting her in the hope of driving her mad and getting a hold of her inheritance, and none of the supernatural events in the story were real.

Yes, Ann Radcliffe invented the Scooby Doo ending. Many readers, both at the time and since, have felt that this was a cop-out -- that she was trying to have her cake and eat it too by telling a story that has all the trappings of the supernatural but can't be criticized for being irrational. But since most people who come to the Gothic want the supernatural and don't give a damn about rationality and realism, the twist ultimately deflates the suspense and leaves a bad taste in the reader's mouth.

Matthew Gregory Lewis was having none of that.

Lewis's father was a senior official in the War Office, and Lewis received a first-class education, entering Oxford at the age of 15. While at university, Lewis made several trips to the Continent, the most notable being an extended stay in Germany in which he befriended Goethe and got to read an early draft of Faust. During the stay, Lewis also became acquainted with the Schauerroman (shudder novels), that were the German equivalent of the Gothic, though with the key difference that they were much more closely based upon folklore and balladry than their British cousins. The supernatural in these stories tended towards the outright demonic rather than the merely ghostly Gothics, and the tenor of the stories was more tragic than romantic.

After graduating from Oxford, Lewis's father arranged for him to take a position in the British legation at the Hague. Despite the French Revolution roiling Europe, Lewis found the environs boring, and to fill his time he decided to try his hand at a Gothic novel. He had read Udolpho and enjoyed it, but he'd been disappointed at the ending, so he decided to incorporate elements of the Schauerroman into his story.

The novel he produced, The Monk (1796), is a Faustian tale about Ambrosio, a Catholic priest who lusts after one of his parishioners, a young woman named Antonia. Ambrosio discovers that a novice serving under him is in fact a woman in disguise. The woman, Matilda, seduces him to keep the secret, and then promises she'll help him get Antonia. In fact, Matilda is a succubus, and she helps Ambrosio by providing him with a magical roofie that allows him to rape Antonia in her sleep. On his first attempt, he's caught by her mother and kills her, but he later kidnaps Antonia and rapes her in a crypt. When Antonia awakens and tries to escape, Ambrosio panics and kills her too. He's eventually arrested by the Inquisition and subject to torture, but Matilda reveals to him that he can escape by selling himself to Satan. He does so, at which point the devil shows up and reveals that Antonia was actually Ambrosio's long lost sister. The devil rescues Ambrosio from the Inquisition, but then throws him over a cliff where he suffers a painful and lingering death.

The Monk was far more violent, satanic and sexually charged than anything Gothic writers had yet produced, to the point that there was an effort to suppress the first edition, and Lewis revised subsequent printings in the hope of making the book more acceptable to the public. It didn't, and despite serving six years in parliament, he was always tainted as "Monk" Lewis.

Nonetheless, The Monk had a major impact on Gothic literature, as did Udolpho. Prior to Radcliffe and Lewis, Otranto had been the model that all Gothic novels were based upon, but now writers had two new ones to copy.

And did they ever. From 1791-95, there were forty-seven Gothic novels published -- a huge amount given the size of the British publishing industry at the time -- but from 1796-1800 that number more than doubled.

Scholars have traditionally divided the later Gothics into the Masculine (Lewisian) and Feminine (Radcliffian) schools, though modern scholarship tends to discount this. Besides the obvious gender stereotyping, there's the additional problem that many "Masculine" Gothics were written by women or have female protagonists, and vice-versa. Indeed, The Italian, Radcliffe's followup to Udolpho, features a sequence with the Inquisition that's clearly inspired by The Monk. Still, while there may not have been a clean schism, there's no doubt that after Udolopho and The Monk the spectrum of the Gothic broadened, with works on the outer edges being purely Radcliffian or Lewisian, and those in between mixing and matching to various degrees. This is the pattern that would continue into the first decade of the 19th Century, after which the genre would genuinely begin fragmenting.

Next Time: The Psychogothic, or Maybe Frankenstein's Monster Was from the Id

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XIV: Goth Before It Was Cool

If you just glance at the Gothic novels of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, it's easy to conclude, as H.P. Lovecraft did in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, that the Gothic was nothing more than an early form of the horror genre. Creepy castles. Secret passageways. Ghostly visions. It's all very Bela Lugosi.

But this is a back projection of our modern sensibilities. Yes, the Gothic set out to terrify, and yes, many of the elements it used can still be found modern horror. But that's not all the Gothic was. Gothic novels also featured quivering young ingenues falling into the hands of men of dubious character. Sometimes the men would turn out to be sexy rogues; other times they'd be pure villains from whom the heroine would need to be rescued by a dashing young hero. There's a reason why in modern publishing "Gothic" tends to be a type of romance novel. Similarly, Gothics often involved some kind of investigation -- for instance, the heroine trying to figure out what her captor's purpose is, or the dashing young hero trying to track down the villain and rescue his lady love. It's thus unsurprising that a later Gothic author like Poe is also a seminal figure in mystery fiction.

Thinking of the Gothic as just an antecedent to horror, then, obscures its true import to literary history. It is an ur-genre from which much of modern fiction descends.

Unlike most other genres, the Gothic has a very clear origin point: Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. This isn't to say the genre came out of nowhere -- it draws heavily upon Shakespeare and Marlowe for its supernatural elements, particularly Doctor Faustus and the Scottish play, while its preoccupation with persecution and revenge comes from Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge dramas -- but the emphasis it places on terror is new, and for that we have to thank Walpole.

Otranto begins on the eve of a wedding between a young nobleman, Conrad, and Princess Isabella. Festivities come to an abrupt end when a giant helmet falls out the sky and crushes Conrad. Conrad's father, Prince Manfred, the Lord of Otranto, is undeterred by this. He really wants Isabella to be part of his family, and if he doesn't have a son to marry her, he'll do it himself. The fact that he already has a wife ... well, that's nothing that can't be solved with a bit of murder.

At the same time, a mysterious young man named Theodore appears at the castle and makes some observations about the helmet that piss Manfred off, and it's off to the dungeon with him. Theodore escapes with the help of Isabella and Matilda (Manfred's daughter). There's much fleeing and fighting and sneaking about in dark corridors, and, oh yes, there's a ghostly giant in the deep bowels of the castle who seems intent on getting loose and killing people. Matilda and Isabella both fall in love with Theodore, but Manfred helpfully resolves the love triangle by accidentally killing his daughter.

In the end we discover that Manfred's family are usurpers, and both Isabella and Theodore are descended (along separate lines) from the rightful Lord of Otranto, Alfonso the Murderous Ghost Giant. Manfred was intent on marrying Isabella because he believed it would legitimize his usurpation and appease Alfonso. Once the truth comes out, Manfred abdicates and retires to a monastery. Isabella and Theodore get married and rule Otranto in blissful incest.

This then is the template on which later Gothics are based. Later authors certainly introduced innovations -- sometimes the villain is an evil priest instead of a nobleman -- but it's hard to find a Gothic that doesn't contain at least one plot-point that Walpole invented. Even Frankenstein, which is otherwise far removed from the Otranto model, has a wedding that ends in tragedy.

When Walpole first published Otranto, he did so under a double pseudonym, presenting it as a translation by "William Marshal, Gent." of a medieval manuscript by "Onuphrio Muralto". The book was an immediate success, and when the second edition came out, Walpole decided to claim authorship for himself.

This was a mistake.

You see, Otranto came out in 1764, at the height of the so-called Enlightenment. Now the term "Enlightenment" is a deliberate contrast to the "Dark Ages". The idea of the Dark Ages goes back to the Renaissance, when the term was used to describe the period after the fall of Rome when knowledge of Classical Greek philosophy dried up in Western Europe. By the 18th Century, though, the term had expanded, and Enlightenment thinkers in particular latched onto it. According to the orthodox Enlightenment worldview, the Catholic Church was the most vile and corrupt organization in all of human history. Logically then, the period when the Church held hegemony over Western Europe must've been a horrible and backwards time. It wasn't enough that people of the Middle Ages were ignorant of Plato -- they had to be miserable savages who lived in fear of supernatural nonsense that the priesthood foisted upon them. Many of the misconceptions we have about the Middle Ages come from this period, like the idea that Medieval folk were forever burning witches at the stake (in fact, witch trials were unheard of for much of the Middle Ages, and they didn't reach a peak until the Reformation), or that every king employed a crackpot alchemist (alchemy didn't appear in Western Europe until the Late Middle Ages, and the most famous alchemists -- Paracelsus, Trithemius, Agrippa, Faustus, and Dee -- are from the Renaissance and later).

(This isn't to say the Middle Ages were a great time, but they weren't particularly worse than any other period. For the average person throughout history, life was always hell. If you had to choose whether to be reincarnated as a random person in ancient Sparta, medieval England, or colonial Jamaica, you'd be screwed no matter what, but you'd be slightly less screwed in England.)

So when Otranto first appeared and everyone thought it was an actual work of the Middle Ages, it fit right into the Enlightenment worldview. People could read it and snicker at how ignorant those poor, benighted folk had been back then. But when Walpole took credit for it, that changed. This was a modern man writing about superstitious nonsense. And Walpole wasn't some random guy, either. His father, Robert, had been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, and Horace himself sat in the House of Lords. The fact that he wrote something like Otranto was an affront to Enlightenment orthodoxy.

This partly explains why Otranto's immediate impact was minimal. In the fifteen years following its publication, only a dozen imitations appeared. The pace picked up in the 1780s when around forty Gothic novels came out, most of them in the latter half of the decade, but the real explosion didn't hit until the 1790s. By that time, the Enlightenment was getting to be old and creaky, and the increasing extremism of the French Revolution was causing many Brits to question the underlying assumptions of the movement.

But there was a generational factor in play, as well. While Walpole's early imitators were of a similar generation to him, the authors of the Gothic boom were much younger -- many were in fact born after Otranto came out, like Ann Radcliffe (1764), Francis Lathom (1774) and M.G. Lewis (1775). Undoubtedly many of them read Otranto at an impressionable young age and wanted to read more Stuff Like That, and when they couldn't find any Stuff Like That, they started writing their own.

And it's to these writers that we'll turn next time.

NEXT WEEK: Masculin/Féminin.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Bada-bing Bada-boom, Motherf---er!

There's a running gag on the Filmsack podcast that for any movie they watch, whether its The Matrix, Mean Girls or Lassie Come Home, the IMDb trivia page will claim that Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were considered for the lead role. It's certainly true that IMDb trivia pages tend to list any actor who was ever even remotely mentioned in connection with a film, and many of them are ridiculously out of place. But even so, the trivia pages aren't necessarily wrong. Sometimes movies change drastically during development, and actors considered during initial development end up being incompatible with the final product.

Case in point -- did you know that Die Hard was originally envisioned as a Frank Sinatra movie?

As hard as that is to believe, it's true.

In 1966, thriller writer Roderick Thorp published a novel with the highly imaginative title The Detective. The story follows Joe Leland, an ex-cop turned private investigator who discovers that he mistakenly sent the wrong man to the electric chair years before, and has to fight a massive coverup to bring the truth to light.

At the time the book came out, 20th Century Fox was at its nadir, having nearly gone bankrupt due to the disastrous cost overruns on Cleopatra, a movie so expensive it lost money despite being the biggest hit of the year. They managed to recover thanks to the success of The Sound of Music, only to faceplant a couple years later with another over-produced flop, Doctor Dolittle. What kept the studio going during the period were cheaply produced films that could turn a reliable profit, and sometimes broke out to become major successes. Thrillers were a big part of this, so when The Detective came out, Fox snapped up the rights and put it into production for a '68 release.

Fox slotted Frank Sinatra, one of the few bankable stars it still had under contract, into the lead role. Sinatra had just played a similar character in the 1967 thriller Tony Rome, and he was scheduled to do a sequel, The Lady in Cement, as soon as The Detective wrapped. Of the three, The Detective was the biggest hit, squeaking into the Top 20 for the year, right behind The Thomas Crown Affair.

Flash forward to 1979, when Thorp published a sequel entitled Nothing Lasts Forever. Set a couple decades after the first novel, it features a much older Joe Leland. Having never fully recovered from the trauma of the first novel, he's grown into a broken old man -- a problem that's been exacerbated by the death of his wife. Now on the verge of retirement and with nothing to hold him in New York, he wants to move out to LA where his daughter lives her own children. To that end, he decides to fly out to Los Angeles at Christmastime for a trial run.

When he gets there, he takes a cab to her office where she's in the middle of a Christmas party, and I think you can guess what happens next.

Because of The Detective, Fox had first dibs on the sequel, and they took it without hesitation. They hoped Sinatra would come back as Leland, but by this point he had largely retired from acting. His last major role had been the disastrous Western Dirty Dingus Magee in 1970, which is exactly as dire as the title suggests. He did make a brief return to the screen in 1980 with the self-produced First Deadly Sin, but when Fox came calling with Nothing Lasts Forever, he had no interest. The story went into Development Hell for the next half decade. (Ironically The First Deadly Sin was both Frank Sinatra's last big screen appearance, and Bruce Willis' first.)

As Nothing Lasts Forever percolated through the development  process, the first thing to change was, unsurprisingly, Leland's age. Without Sinatra for the lead, what was the point of making the hero a sexagenarian? This was the '80s. Americans wanted young, tough-talking heroes. So Leland became a grizzled 30-something cop still in his prime. And without any continuity with The Detective, there was no point in keeping the name "Leland," so Joe became John McClain. Other names changed as well, sometimes for no apparent reason (Anton Gruber became Hans), and others to keep the story up to date (in the book the company was Klaxon Oil, but by the time movie was made, Japanese mega-corps were the big thing, so it became Nakatomi).

Surprisingly little else changed about the story, though. The plot of the finished film follows the book beat for beat, with one major exception that we'll get to in a bit. This is good, because the book is actually a bit tedious in its action sequences. There's lots of, "Leland ran up to the thirtieth floor and killed a bad guy, then he ran down to the twenty-fifth, and climbed out on a ledge to the twenty-fourth, then he hid on top of an elevator going to the twentieth, where he escaped into a heating duct and ..." If you haven't seen the movie recently, the logistics of where Leland is and where the bad guys are gets confusing after a while.

But the big things are all there -- the hero getting his feet torn up by broken glass, bungee jumping with a fire-hose, and all the makeshift methods used to kill baddies. If it seems hard to imagine this in a Frank Sinatra movie, it's best to remember that film making styles changed significantly between 1979, when the book came out, and 1988 when the film hit theaters. If it had been made with Sinatra around 1980/81, it would've been closer in tone to Dirty Harry and The Towering Inferno -- still violent, but without the copious amounts of blood.

However, if it had been made before the Reagan Era, the producers likely would've retained the book's ending. This is the one significant change, other than the hero's age, between novel and film, and it speaks volumes about how American culture changed under Ronald Reagan. Skip out now if you have any interest in reading the book.


Still here?


So, one of the big conceits of Die Hard is that Hans Gruber and his goons aren't really terrorists. They may've been in the past, but by the time the movie takes place, they just want to cash out by robbing the Nakatomi Corporation's vaults of millions of dollars in bearer-bonds. Even terrorists were turning into yuppies, the movie said. In a way, this is an interesting twist, especially in light of the endless terrorist-villains who filled action movies from the late '80s on.

But that's not how it goes in the novel. The terrorists in the book have a genuine political motivation, and it's a doozy -- the company where Leland's daughter works has been illegally selling arms to and laundering money for a South American dictator who is strongly implied to be Augusto Pinochet. The attack on the company has two purposes: first to find proof of the company's complicity in Pinochet's crimes, and second to liberate millions of dollars in cash that the company has on hand for their next deal -- the terrorists want to send it to freedom fighters in Chile.

Worse still, Leland discovers his daughter is a major player in the company's dirty dealings. When the terrorists kill her near the end of the book, Leland is emotionally devastated, but he also recognizes that in her own way she was more evil than the terrorists. This leads to a scene where Leland gets a hold of the money from the vault and throws it out a window, causing cash to snow onto downtown LA on Christmas morning.

There's no way this ending would've swung it in the go-go Reagan '80s. With the US supporting military dictatorships and death-squads in Latin America, a major studio would  never have made a movie suggesting we were taking the wrong side. Likewise, the notion that American corporations were a cancer upon the world was a no-go in an era when people came away from Wall Street unironically quoting Gordon Gekko -- "Greed is good!" Audiences would've found McClain tossing money into the wind laughable.

And so the final film ends up being neutered, with the hero turned into a protector of corporate profits. You can understand why the movie had to be that way given the time it was made, and you can even acknowledge that it probably wouldn't've been a hit if McClain's wife had turned out to be a bad guy and there was no happy ending, but damn, the original ending would've been so much better.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XIII: What the Hell is a Genre, Anyway?

If you ask somebody to define a genre, chances are they'll list a bunch of criteria they consider to be the essential elements of it. For instance, you'd probably describe the Western as stories set on the American frontier during the 19th Century, and indeed that would encompass the vast majority of stories we think of as Westerns, from High Noon to Deadwood. But it wouldn't encompass all of them. Take The Wild Bunch, a film widely recognized as one of the greatest Westerns of all time --- and yet, it's set in Mexico in 1913. Roy Rogers, one of the most iconic Western heroes, flew around in airplanes and had his own Jeep in the movies. And that's not even touching on City Slickers (set in the 1990s), Quigley Down Under (set in Australia), or Osterns (Soviet films about the Russian subjugation of Siberia and Central Asia). It is in fact impossible to create an all-encompassing definition of the Western -- or indeed any genre -- without resorting to special pleading.

That's because people misunderstand what a genre is. The word comes from the same Latin root as genus and genealogy -- terms that denote origins and family relationships. A genre isn't a grouping based upon some rigid definition; it's a way of looking at the way works relate to each other, and classing them into families based upon that.

One way to think of it is as a conversation. When Karel Capek's play Rossum's Universal Robots appeared in the US, it spurred a number of science fiction authors to write knock-offs about robotic revolts, fitting the basic plot to whatever their political bugaboo was. But Isaac Asimov hated these stories, seeing them as Luddite in their orientation, so he wrote his own stories in which robots are programmed with the Three Laws which prevent revolts. Jack Williamson looked at what Asimov was doing, though, and felt the stories were overlooking something very basic, so he responded with a story of his own called "With Folded Hands," about robots who are programmed to keep humans from getting hurt. They take this commandment so literally that they won't let humans do anything might even theoretically result in injuries -- which includes any physical activity beyond breathing. Other writers took up the cause, coming up with their own variations -- D.F. Jones wrote Colossus about a computer that enslaves humanity to fulfill its mission of preventing war; Phillip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to question whether humans have the right to enslave their creations; James Cameron wrote Terminator, which shows that any artificial intelligence humans create will be an extension of our own shortcomings; even Asimov returned to the subject by having his robots posit a Zeroth Law, which places the good of humanity above that of any individual.

Some might look at that and conclude simply that science fiction includes stories about robots. Others might advance a slightly more complex argument that science fiction looks at the implications of technology such as robots. But both approaches miss the important point -- science fiction is the discussion that these authors are having through their work.

Likewise the Western is a discussion of imperialism along an anarchic, colonial frontier. Early entries in the genre were works of pure jingoism, but after World War II the discussion became more complex, and authors and filmmakers began to question the morality of the frontier. The Wild Bunch fits into the discussion by looking at what happened to the men who lived on the frontier after the frontier disappeared. City Slickers delves into modern nostalgia for the moral simplicity of early Westerns. Quigley Down Under and the Osterns recapitulate the tropes of the genre onto other colonial frontiers to compare Australia and Tsarist Russia to American imperialism.

This way of looking at genres has some important implications that are worth going over.

Genres Are Not Static

People often talk about genres as though they're fixed and immutable categories -- Frankenstein contains elements that are found in science fiction, therefore Frankenstein is a science fiction novel despite being written a century before Hugo Gernsback coined the the term. The assumption is that science fiction has always existed, and we're just putting works into the box where they belong.

But that's not the case as all. While the term "genre" predates Darwin by a good stretch, the fact that it's related to "genus" and "genealogy" and "genetic" should bring to mind evolutionary theory. When you look at things that are related over time, they are never constant. Variations creep in. Influences get blended in new ways. Eventually, they diverge into different branches, or merge together to create something new.

Frankenstein is an ancestor of science fiction, but it is not science fiction in the same way that an archaeopteryx is not a bird. If you approach Frankenstein as a science fiction text, you'll come away confused and frustrated because you're viewing it through the wrong lens. You have to look at it in the context of the Gothic genre to understand what Mary Shelley was going for.

Every Book Is a Thing Unto Itself

When discussing genre history, it's tempting to say things like, "Shockwave Rider is proto-cyberpunk," or "Voltaire's Micromegas is ur-science fiction," but such descriptions are back-projecting modern sensibilities where they didn't exist, and it slights the authors by making it sound like they only got halfway there --if only John Brunner had tried a little harder, he could've created cyberpunk 1975. But Brunner wasn't trying to write cyberpunk. He was trying to write Shockwave Rider, and he succeeded. You can't judge the book against a metric that didn't exist.

Which brings us to the corollary:

Genres Are Retrospective

Genres are created by authors responding to the themes of earlier works. The impetus of genre development is always on the more recent figure. Talking about how Frankenstein presaged The Island of Doctor Moreau, or was a forerunner of robotic revolt stories obscures this. Frankenstein didn't do anything in this relationship besides exist. It was H.G. Wells and Karel Capek who took ideas from Mary Shelley and built on them, just as she in turn took ideas from Ann Radcliffe and William Godwin and repurposed them to her own ends.

Genres Are Social Constructs

Some people think "social construct" means "made up and meaningless," but that's not the case at all. Money, after all, is a social construct--strips of paper and little bits of metal have no intrinsic value; we can only use them as a medium of exchange because society has agreed to treat them as valuable. And yet nobody would claim that money is meaningless.The act of collective belief imbues those strips of paper with value.

So too do genres have meaning insofar as readers and writers give them meaning. When books are segregated into different sections of a bookstore, and people make reading selections based upon those categorizations, the categories have a real impact. But they have no objective reality. No book is science fiction, or fantasy, or mystery. That is something we project on it based upon arbitrary criteria.

That Sweet Little Old Lady by Randall Garrett and Firestarter by Stephen King are both novels about people with psychic powers being hunted by government agents who want to harness said powers for the good of the country. Garrett's story is considered science fiction -- it was serialized in Astounding and nominated for a Hugo Award -- while King's is classed as a horror novel.

What's the difference betweem the two?

Not much, really. Neither book really considers the larger implications of psychic powers, and neither offers more than a hand-wavey explanation for how psionics work. Garrett tells his story in a more farcical style, with the government agents as heroes who have to deal with a batty old woman, whereas King's is a dark and cynical thriller inspired by the MK Ultra conspiracy, but no one has ever argued that tone is a defining feature of science fiction. Garrett set his story in the then-future of the 1970s, while Firestarter takes place in the then-present of the 1980s, but plenty of contemporary stories are considered science fiction.

No, the difference is perception. Randall Garrett was a science fiction writer. The story was published in a science fiction magazine. It won science fiction awards. The people who read it were science fiction fans, and it was part of a long dialogue within the genre about psychics. Stephen King, however, is considered a horror writer, and that's how readers approach his work, even when he brings in ideas from science fiction. Firestarter was shelved in the horror section, and only SF fans who also liked horror read it. As such, its influence has been on the horror genre, not science fiction.

Genres Are Culturally Contingent

The mystery genre emerged out the Gothic during the 19th Century, and during the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, there was no clear distinction between mysteries and supernatural fiction. Authors of one often dabbled in the other, and you can find many early mysteries that freely mix in elements of horror and fantasy. By the early 20th Century, Occult Detectives were nearly as popular as their more mundane counterparts, with long-running series feature fellows like Flaxman Low (by E. and H. Heron), John Silence (by Algernon Blackwood) and Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (by William Hope Hodgson).

But then in the 1920s, a number of fans and writers started pushing the concept of Fair Play mysteries -- the idea that an astute reader should be able to figure out whodunit by the time the detective does. They came up with a number of rule-sets, most notably Father Knox's Decalogue, which prohibited the inclusion of hackneyed plot devices like secret passages, Yellow Peril villains, and, yes, the supernatural. Mysteries writers who didn't heed these precepts soon found cool reaction, and those who still wanted to write about occult detectives migrated to fantasy and horror magazines.

In its pure form, the Fair Play school didn't last much past World War II, by which time hard-boiled and procedural mysteries were coming to dominate the genre, but the general concept of Fair Play remained, and the supernatural has never reentered the mystery genre.

At least not in the English speaking world.

In Japan, however, it's different. The Fair Play ideal had its impact there, but it didn't create a decisive schism between occult and mundane mysteries. Instead the two are seen as a conjoined genre, like science fiction and fantasy. Even a writer like Yukito Ayatsuji, who's a founding member of the Shin Honkaku (Neo-Orthodox) movement, which seeks to return to the Fair Play tradition, has written supernatural mysteries like Another. Many of the books and movies we term J-Horror in the West are considered a form of mystery in Japan.

Koji Suzuki's The Ring is a prime example, and you can see this in even the Hollywood adaptation. Here's a story of a reporter who looks into the mysterious death of their niece. After hearing a rumor about a videotape that causes you to die seven days after watching it, the reporter locates a remote cabin where their niece stayed a week before her death. There the reporter discovers the videotape and watches it, after which they receive a creepy phone call from a girl who whispers, "Seven days." The reporter decides to investigate the strange images on the videotape, and eventually discovers the murder of a girl on the spot where the cabin was built.

In form, this is a pure mystery that happens to have supernatural elements, and Japanese readers recognize it as such. But for American audiences, the inclusion of a ghost and a magical video cassette automatically disqualifies the work as a mystery.

The fact that genres can develop insularly is going to be important when we look at the history of science fiction, because the British, American and French traditions developed along different lines for much of their history, with only sporadic cross-fertilization.

Genre Fans Are Not Experts on Genre History

Very few people have had the luck to follow a genre from its inception, and nobody ever sits down and says, "Okay, I want to be a science fiction fan, so I'm going to start with everything Jules Verne wrote, then move on to H.G. Wells, then work through every magazine Hugo Gernsback ever edited, before doing the same with Astounding, Galaxy and Worlds of If." No, most people come to genres haphazardly.

A teenager who wants to get into science fiction today will likely start with John Scalzi or James S.A. Corey, then maybe jump back to Ender's Game, then forward to The Martian, then they'll dive into The Foundation series for a couple months before picking up Ancillary Justice because the cover art is similar Scalzi and Card novels. They'll be able to tell that some of these books are older than others because of how dated the technology is, but unless they make a habit of reading copyright pages, they probably aren't going to have a good sense of when Foundation was written in relation to Starship Troopers.

More importantly, when they turn back to the past, they're only going to be reading the high points of the genre -- they're going to skip tons and tons of dreck, most of which is long out of print. But dreck has a place in genre history. Many great books have been written because somebody read something and thought, "That was a cool idea, but damn the execution was horrible."

Now I want to stress, this is not an attempt at gate-keeping. Quite the contrary, in fact -- self-professed "True Fans" often have the worst grasp of genre history. They're steeped in fanlore, which they accept uncritically because they heard it from a favorite author, or it flatters their ego. Look at Star Trek fans who claim TOS featured the first interracial kiss on American television. This tale has been roundly debunked by numerous researchers, but Trekkies keep repeating it because they love the idea that they're part of this ground-breaking progressive fandom. Likewise, sexist and racist attitudes of the past can distort how history comes down to fans -- there were plenty of female mystery authors in the 19th Century, but they've largely been erased in favor of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. You can see something similar with science fiction and the erasure of women like Zenna Henderson.

This doesn't mean you have to sit down and wade through back issues of Astounding before you can understand science fiction. I certainly haven't. Thankfully other people have done that for us. You can pick up books on genre history that will contextualize the developments and major works of any genre. That's what I'm going to be relying upon as I discuss Frankenstein's place in genre history over the next few weeks.

To get started, we need to look at its roots in the Gothic genre.

NEXT WEEK: Goth Before It Was Cool

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XII: Assembling the Monster -- Frankenstein as Autobiography

Over the last two hundred years, there have been numerous interpretations of Frankenstein. Most have focused on moral issues raised by the story -- man usurping the role of god; a male usurping the role of woman; a scientist conducting experiments without considering the ethical ramifications; the obligations of a creator to his creation; the dichotomy between revenge and justice; etc. Given how much effort Mary and her son put into sanitizing her life, it's no surprise that the biographical elements should have been given short shrift, but the truth is, the story's real meaning is directly tied to Mary's life.

As Hannibal Lecter once said, "First principles, Clarice... Of each particular thing, ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?"

What is Frankenstein about at its most basic level?

It is the story of a father who abandons his child.

If you've read the previous entries in this series, you know that this was a subject taken directly from Mary's life. Her half-sister Fanny had been abandoned by her father, pushing their mother to attempt suicide twice. Their step-siblings, Claire and Charles, had likewise been abandoned by their fathers. While in Geneva, Mary found out that Claire was pregnant, and there was real doubt as to whether the father would take responsibility. Mary's own lover had abandoned his wife and two children to be with her, and even refused to be present for the birth of his son. And then, when Mary got pregnant herself, that same lover began an affair with Claire. While Mary had little sympathy for Harriet Shelley, it must have occurred to her that a man who would abandon a his wife and children could easily do the same to a mere lover.

And it's not simply that the theme of irresponsible fatherhood reflects Mary's life. There are direct biographical parallels between Victor and Percy. Victor's peculiar intellectual background -- first becoming interested in the occult and alchemy, then switching to science -- mirrors Percy, who in his youth was enamored with Gothic novels and later became a devotee of science, conducting numerous experiments with explosives and electricity. There's no doubt that if Percy had come upon a method to reanimate the dead, he would've been in a graveyard digging up bodies that night.

And then there are the names of Victor and his cousin/sister Elizabeth. It happens that the first book Percy ever published was a collaboration with his sister Elizabeth under the pseudonyms Victor and Cazire. Percy's relationship was extremely close to all his sisters, and Elizabeth most of all. They didn't progress to the extremes of Byron's relationship with his sister, but Percy's parents had a very real fear that he might steal away with his sisters and convert them into a coven of atheist radicals. So when we see in Frankenstein Victor's deep relationship with his adopted sister Elizabeth, there's little doubt where Mary's getting her ideas.

But the naming issue goes beyond the Victor/Percy connection. For decades, pedants have loved to correct people who call the monster "Frankenstein" by pointing out that Frankenstein was the creator not the creature. In fact, the creature has no name in the book. Victor always refers to it as "wretch" or "monster" or "creature". And yet, isn't the creature for all intents and purposes Victor's son? Doesn't he have a claim to the family name?

This is a question that would've been familiar to Mary. Her sister Fanny existed in a similarly nebulous state. Was she an Imlay, after the father who abandoned her; or a Wollstonecraft, after the mother who died when she was a child; or a Godwin, after the man who raised her? None of those? All of them? Even her given name wasn't entirely her own, having been appropriated by her mother from a dead friend. Likewise, Mary's other sister, Claire, wasn't much different. Although she did definitely have a surname name, it was a fiction created by her mother to hide the fact that her children were bastards.

And then there's Mary's own first child, who was born two months premature and died less than two weeks later. Mary and Percy realized from the getgo that the child wouldn't live and didn't name her; Mary's diary refers to her as simply "my baby" or "the child"[1]. Two weeks after the baby died, Mary dreamed that "my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day." The similarity of this to the premise of Frankenstein suggests that the dream stayed with Mary for a long time.

So then, we have four children who, to varying degrees, had been denied names, three of whom had been abandoned by their fathers, and the fourth who had been born while Mary was afraid her own lover -- a man who had once used the pseudonym "Victor" -- might abandon her. The biographical connection on this front is indisputable. Victor Frankenstein is the embodiment of an irresponsible father whose child comes back to take revenge upon him.

But there's more to it than that. Consider the death of Justine, the maid who gets blamed for the creature's first murder and is executed. Victor knows she's innocent, but he does nothing to get her free.

The name Justine may itself be a reference to a Marquis de Sade novel of the same name. Justine is the tale of a young ingenue who gets left at a monastery full of lustful monks who proceed to use her as a sexual plaything. She eventually gets away and becomes a maid for a wealthy gentleman, but the gentleman falsely accuses her of thieving and she's sentenced to death. She escapes again and eventually meets up with her long lost sister, who's made a good life for herself -- the irony being that Justine had always struggled to be virtuous and was only punished for it, but her sister had embraced vice and been rewarded. Justine goes to live with her sister, but is morose and withdrawn, and eventually dies after being struck by lightning.

There are enough parallels here to suspect some influence on Mary, and although she makes no mention of the novel in her diary, it's not exactly something a young lady would admit to reading. It is known that Byron had a copy of the book, so she might've borrowed it from him or at least heard a summary.

If so, then it points to a second parallel between Mary's life and her novel. Harriet Shelley had been a girl of sixteen when she got swept up by Percy, and although she wasn't subjected to the depravities of de Sade, that's mainly due to Percy's depravity having some limit. If Percy had had his way, he and his pal Hogg would've been living in a constant orgy with Harriet, Mary and Claire, but when Harriet and Mary balked at the suggestion, he settled for simply rotating through his bedroom companions.

And yet in the end, Harriet couldn't take being repeatedly used by a man who abandoned her for a couple of teenage girls. And after she killed herself, Percy and the Godwins slandered her, accusing her of prostitution and unfaithfulness, just as the Justines of de Sade's novel and Frankenstein were both slandered and threatened with death, with the Justine of Frankenstein eventually being executed.

There is one more parallel between the events of Frankenstein and Mary's life. Late in the novel, Victor is framed for the murder of his friend Clerval and thrown in jail. Victor's father, Alphonse, learning of this, races to his son's side, and suddenly the very magistrate who had ordered Victor thrown in jail turns up with exculpatory evidence. A number of commentators have noticed inconsistencies with this section of the book -- the timelines don't add up and the exculpatory evidence isn't credible. Some have gone so far as to argue that Victor actually did murder Clerval, but even if you don't go that far, Mary certainly inteded us to read events as Alphonse bribing an official to get his son out of jail.

This is the sort of perversion of justice that had long interested William Godwin, and it's clearly inspired by his novel Caleb Williams. But is that all? Consider that while Mary was writing this, Percy had raced off to Wales to cover up Fanny's suicide, which likely did involve greasing a few palms. And Godwin went along with this because, principles be damned, he was more worried about keeping his family's reputation intact than seeing the truth come out--this being the same man who, two decades earlier, had published a tell-all biography of his own wife in the belief that the truth should never be obscured.

Compare this to what Victor says of his own family:
I am by birth a Genevese; and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. My ancestors had been for many years counsellors and syndics; and my father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation. He was respected by all who knew him for his integrity and indefatigable attention to public business.
If we do read Alphonse as bribing his son's way to freedom -- perhaps even believing that the charges are true -- then his repudiation of principle is every bit as profound as Godwin's.

And remember, Frankenstein is dedicated to Godwin, specifically referring to him as the "Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c." calling out the two works in which he put forth his political principles most strongly. This has always seemed somewhat odd, for while Mary still loved and respected her father, their relationship had been strained for years, and she'd spurned Fanny out of the belief that she supported him over her. While they did start a reconciliation after the deaths of Harriet and Fanny, these were deep wounds to heal. It would hardly be surprising if there were a tinge of passive-aggressiveness to the dedication, and the book is intended as a veiled barb at the mutability of Godwin's principles.

When viewed through a biographical lens, then, Frankenstein becomes not merely a gothic novel, or a work of proto-science fiction, but a scream from an angry young woman going through an extremely dark and stressful period of her life.

But all the same, most readers take Frankenstein at face value without diving into the context of its composition, and it is that surface reading that has been influential on literary history. So for the next part of this series, we're going to step back and view Frankenstein in the larger context of the gothic, horror and science fiction genre.

Of course to do that, we first have to figure out, what the hell is a genre?

NEXT TIME: Defining Terms

[1] Later, when Mary and Percy were making sure they had all the legal formalities for their marriage taken care of, they had their children officially christened, and chose "Clara Allegra" as the name of their first daughter. But they were simply reusing "Clara," the name they'd already chosen for their second daughter, with "Allegra," the name Byron wanted to give Claire's daughter. In any event, the christening took place two months after Frankenstein was published. ^

Monday, March 19, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part XI: The Desecration of Harriet Shelley

When Percy ran off to the Continent with Mary and Claire, he left behind a pregnant wife and a daughter who was not yet one year old. Though he lived the next two years as though he were married to Mary, even going so far as to present her as Mrs. Shelley in Geneva, the fact is he never divorced Harriet and only made a formal separation when she forced the issue by siccing lawyers on him. At first she had access to Percy's bank accounts, but they eventually reached an arrangement wherein Percy provided her with an allowance.

Percy's attitude towards her was arrogant and cold. He denied--indeed, he was seemingly blind to the fact--that he'd done anything wrong.
I am united to another; you are no longer my wife. Perhaps I have done you injury, but surely most innocently & unintentionally in having commenced any connection with you. --That injury whatever be its amount was not to be avoided. If ever in any degree there was sympathy in our feelings & opinions wherefore deprive ourselves in future of the satisfaction which may result, by this contemptible cavil--these unworthy bickerings.
In this same letter he declared that he would not even visit her for the birth of their child.

The influence of Godwin's philosophy is clear. Percy did not accept the concept of a committed relationship, nor the idea that a relationship should be accompanied by any responsibility. Expecting him to provide any emotional support for the mother of his children was an unjust imposition upon his freedom. If he were alive today, he would undoubtedly be a Men's Rights Advocate and an active Pick-up Artist.

Preferring not to live as a single mother, Harriet had moved back with her father soon after Percy abandoned her, and she remained with him for the next two years. But in September 1816, around the time rumors out of Geneva would've been making their way through London, Harriet moved out and took an apartment under the assumed name of Mrs. Smith.

She did this for much the same reason Claire's mother had adopted the name "Clairmont" -- at this point Harriet was pregnant with her third child. She likely moved out of her father's place to keep the pregnancy hidden, and she spent most of the next two months holed up by herself in her apartment. She would've wanted to present herself as a married woman to her landlady and neighbors, but she couldn't very well go by "Mrs. Shelley" with all the wild stories going around, so she adopted that hoariest of all aliases, Mrs. Smith.

Then in November she left her apartment and never returned. Her family was alarmed by her disappearance and had local waterways dragged for bodies, but nothing turned up until a month later when her body was found floating in the Serpentine River. Though the inquest declared her simply "drowned," she almost certainly had killed herself.

What happened to her in the intervening month? Percy, in the most despicable moment in a life full of despicable moments, suggested that Harriet had taken up prostitution. Claire reported a rumor that she'd moved into a mews--a stable that had been renovated into an apartment. Neither of those seem likely. The other possibility is that she'd drowned herself in November by weighting her body down, and only floated to the surface after a month. Her body doesn't seem to have been terribly decomposed, the coroner having no trouble identifying her, but in a year of extreme cold, decay may've been slow.

Harriet's suicide put Percy and Mary in a difficult situation. Although it did mean that they were no longer engaged in adultery, rumors that they'd driven a woman to suicide would've been even worse. So they launched a campaign to smear Harriet's reputation. The Godwins put out a rumor that Harriet had been having an affair with an officer in the British Army, but he'd been abruptly transferred to India and couldn't very well take another man's wife along. Abandoned and pregnant, Harriet had thrown herself in the river.

However, there is absolutely no evidence that such a man ever existed. More likely, the child belonged to Percy. After his grandfather's death in 1815, Percy needed to jump through a number of legal hoops to secure his share of the inheritance, and some of those required the presentation of his children at various legal proceedings. Contacting Harriet directly was more expedient than going through intermediaries, so on several occasions he visited her at her father's house. Claire, who accompanied him on some of these trips, reported that Percy and Harriet got along amicably and even hugged goodbye.

Once Claire left for her seaside getaway, and with Mary pregnant with William, Percy may have returned to Harriet as a sexual outlet. It's notable that his last meeting with Harriet occurred a few days before he set out for Geneva, which would align quite well with her pregnancy becoming visible in September.

In the aftermath of Harriet's suicide, Percy decided he wanted custody of their children. While he may have, for once in his life, felt a duty to someone other than himself, it must be noted that Charles and Ianthe were entitled to some share of their grandfather's wealth. But Harriet's father, not without justification, wanted Percy nowhere near those children, and he filed suit to stop him from taking custody.

To bolster their case, Mary and Percy decided to throw their principles to the wind and get married. It did no good, though. Percy's antics were known to all London by now, and his public avowals of atheism and political radicalism didn't help his case. But while Percy's chances of getting custody were non-existent, he decided to wage a scorched earth campaign against Harriet's family, attacking them for low character and economic inferiority. But it's notable that in all this Percy never formally accused Harriet of unfaithfulness, another point against the rumors the Godwins spread about her.

In any event, the outcome of all this was that the court took the children away from both Percy and Harriet's family and sent them to live with foster parents. Charles died, in a scene eerily reminiscent of Frankenstein, at the age of eleven after being struck by lightning. Ianthe, however, lived to the respectable age of sixty-two. Because of the sexist nature of British inheritance laws, she never became a baronetess, but she did marry into the wealthy Esdaile family. Out of all of Percy's children, she was the only one to not only reach adulthood, but to have children of her own. Her half-siblings through Mary all died before the age of three, except for Percy Florence, the youngest, who lived to be seventy but sired no progeny.

Their father met a tragic end in a boating accident off the coast of Italy in 1822. After that Mary moved back to England with her son, where she lived on an allowance from Sir Timothy. Timothy had one stipulation, though -- she could neither write a biography of Percy, nor help in the writing of one. She got around this somewhat by providing anonymous notes for Percy's collected works, and through the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, but by and large she respected Sir Timothy's wish, even after he died.

A few of Percy's friends published memoirs, most notably Hogg and Edward Trelawny, but any biographer who wanted access to the Shelley family records, including Percy's letters, had to go through Percy Florence and his wife, both of whom were devoted to sanitizing Percy's life in order to make themselves appear more respectable. Harriet was a particular target for them, and they weren't above outright lying, such as claiming that Percy and Harriet had agreed to a separation before he'd run off with Mary.

The most egregious biography to emerge from this arrangement was Edward Dowden's The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a work so mendacious that Mark Twain felt compelled to write a lengthy essay highlighting the ways in which Dowden twisted facts to dump upon Harriet. The whole essay is worth reading, being one of Twain's most incisive and vicious polemics, but it's worth highlighting a passage to give an idea of how unscrupulous the Shelleys and their agents were towards Harriet. Twain points to a passage in which Dowden portrays Harriet as a grasping, materialistic woman for asking Percy to buy them a carriage they can't afford. He then notes:
Shelley's happiness in his home had been wounded and bruised almost to death, first, because Harriet had persuaded him to set up a carriage. I cannot discover that any evidence is offered that she asked him to set up a carriage. Still, if she did, was it a heavy offense? Was it unique? Other young wives had committed it before, others have committed it since. Shelley had dearly loved her in those London days; possibly he set up the carriage gladly to please her; affectionate young husbands do such things. When Shelley ran away with another girl, by-and-by, this girl persuaded him to pour the price of many carriages and many horses down the bottomless well of her father's debts, but this impartial judge finds no fault with that. Once she appeals to Shelley to raise money—necessarily by borrowing, there was no other way—to pay her father's debts with at a time when Shelley was in danger of being arrested and imprisoned for his own debts; yet the good judge finds no fault with her even for this.

First and last, Shelley emptied into that rapacious mendicant's lap a sum which cost him—for he borrowed it at ruinous rates—from eighty to one hundred thousand dollars. But it was Mary Godwin's papa, the supplications were often sent through Mary, the good judge is Mary's strenuous friend, so Mary gets no censures. On the Continent Mary rode in her private carriage, built, as Shelley boasts, “by one of the best makers in Bond Street,” yet the good judge makes not even a passing comment on this iniquity. Let us throw out Count No. 1 against Harriet Shelley as being far-fetched, and frivolous.
Twain goes on in this vein for quite a while, pointing out numerous instances in which Dowden trashes Harriet for behaving exactly as you'd expect a woman to behave towards a lying, cheating husband. And all done with the approval of the Shelley family, who wanted their own reputation to be spotless -- a process which Mary and her father had started when they first circulated rumors about Harriet's unfaithfulness.

This then is the context in which Frankenstein must be considered -- for although Mary started the book in June 1816, she didn't complete it until a year later, meaning that all the events I've described, except the later smears against Harriet, had come to pass before Mary finished writing. And as we'll see next time, these events are woven into the story.

NEXT TIME: Assembling the Monster -- Frankenstein as Autobiography

Monday, March 5, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part X: "This World is all too wide to thee"

While Mary and Claire were gallivanting around Europe with a couple of sexy rich poets, their (half/step) sister Fanny was still living at home their parents. Her position in the Godwin household had always been somewhat tenuous, but now, with her only blood relative gone, it turned fraught. She tried to act as a mediator between her father and sisters, but she did so without Godwin's permission, which caused him to see her as ungrateful and disobedient, while Mary and Claire, assuming she was working on his orders, viewed her as a lickspittle, earning her enmity on both sides. Add to this Jane's typical overbearing attitude, and Fanny's life turned into a living hell.

And if that weren't bad enough, there was the issue of money. Even with two fewer mouths to feed, and despite occasional infusions of cash from Percy, Godwin's financial predicament continued to worsen. Fanny, who was tasked with visiting Percy to wrangle money out of him, knew full well how badly her father was doing and must've been aware that she was a burden on him. And by this point she had reached the age of majority, which meant that whatever obligation Godwin felt towards her had become pure charity.

But her prospects in the outside world were miserable. She was virtually unmarriageable in middle class society -- although memories of Wollstonecraft had faded by this point, any family of decent standing would've asked into Fanny's background before permitting a wedding, and with Godwin's biography of Wollstonecraft out there, it would've been easy for them to learn the truth. The same held true for positions as a governess -- after the scandal with Byron, Claire had to travel all the way to Russia to find a family ignorant of her background, and she was let go as soon as somebody uncovered her past. A position in a shop or as a school teacher would've come with less scrutiny, but Fanny still would've been let go if anyone ever figured out who her mother was.

With no good options, Fanny began corresponding with her aunts, Eliza and Everina. By this point they were running at a school in Ireland, and it appears they arranged a position for her there.

But then news out of Geneva reached Britain. Everyone began gossiping about the Godwin sisters and their wild orgies with Byron and Shelley, and of course people dug up old stories about Wollstonecraft as well. Mary's antics proved that bad behavior ran in the family, and surely any girl raised by a radical like Godwin would turn out just as bad. What exactly happened with Fanny's aunts is uncertain, but very likely they rescinded their offer. Whatever chance Fanny had of starting a life on her own were ruined.

The Shelley menage returned from the Continent in September 1816 and settled in Bath, hoping to stay out of the limelight until Claire, whose pregnancy was still a secret, gave birth and something could be arranged for the child. When Percy visited London on business, Fanny came to see him, likely to ask him to take her in. But Percy, like her sisters, believed Fanny was Godwin's creature, and if she discovered Claire's pregnancy she'd rat them out. He didn't turn her down directly, but put the matter off.

After that meeting, stories began to make their way around London about Jane's attitude towards her daughters and Percy, stories that portrayed her like the tyrannical figure who persecuted Caleb Williams in Godwin's novel. When these stories got back to Jane, she was furious, especially since it was obvious that they originated with Fanny -- she had told them to Percy in an attempt to prove herself sympathetic to him and Mary. Now he had spread them on the wind, and Fanny took the blame.

At the same time, Percy's promise to provide Godwin with £300 fell through because Percy could only scare up £248. Despite that, Percy forwarded £200 to Godwin. But Godwin was so desperate at this point that the amount was nowhere near enough.

With home life unbearable and sure to get worse, Fanny went up to Bath to see if anything could be salvaged of her relationship with her sisters. But Mary wouldn't even see her, and Fanny ended up going out with Percy to talk. The only record of their talk is a short, fragmentary poem by Percy:

Friend had I known thy secret grief
Should we have parted so.
Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew i not that heart was broken
From which it came -- and I departed --
heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery -- oh misery
This world is all too wide to thee!

Whatever they discussed, it was not what Fanny wanted to hear, and immediately after finishing their conversation, Fanny boarded a coach to Swansea in Wales. At a stop along the way, she dropped two letters in the mail, one to Mary and Percy, the other to Godwin.

Percy received his letter first, and upon reading it he set out immediately to Swansea. He was already too late. By the time he arrived, Fanny was dead from a laudanum overdose.

Fearing yet another scandal, Percy set about covering things up. He obtained Fanny's suicide note from the landlord and mutilated it to remove her name and any explanation she gave, then he bribed local officials to declare her simply "dead" rather than a suicide. She was buried anonymously in a pauper's grave.

The Godwins followed his lead and made up stories about where Fanny had gone -- off to the country for some fresh air, or to Ireland to live with her aunts, or even to America to start a new life. Anything but the truth.

But while they were circumspect in keeping Fanny's suicide quiet, the next death to strike would cause an unavoidable scandal, and their coverup would require destroying the reputation of a good woman who had been screwed over by Percy.

NEXT TIME: The Desecration of Harriet Shelley