Sunday, February 18, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part VIII: The Revenge of Doctor Polidori

The house party at Lord Byron's villa is a seminal event in the development of horror fiction, but not just because that's where Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein. Though Doctor Polidori's contribution to the contest has sunken into obscurity, it's impact on the horror genre is just as profound. Without him, we would have no Dracula, Lestat, Angelus, or even Edward Cullen.

Of the two stories Polidori wrote that summer, the first is the least notable. In the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary dismisses it completely.
Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole—what to see I forget—something very shocking and wrong of course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned Tom of Coventry, he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted.
This is a muddled description of an event late in Polidori's novella Ernestus Berchtold, though it's possible that Polidori, like Mary, began with a sketch of a frightening scene and expanded it into a full narrative later, in which case Mary may never have read the completed story. (Though the fact that Victor's brother in Frankenstein was named Ernest suggests some cross-polination.)

Polidori's novella begins with an old man and a young, pregnant woman stumbling into a remote Swiss village. The man drops dead from a gunshot wound, but his companion manages to give birth to twins, one boy and one girl, before expiring. The local priest, Father Berchtold, takes in the kids, naming them Ernestus and Julia and raising them as his own. Their only clue to their origins is a locket with a miniature of their mother painted inside.

Years go by and the French Revolution breaks out. As the French amass an army to "liberate" the Swiss from their feudal lords, Ernestus encounters a mysterious and beautiful lady on a mountaintop who urges him to go and defend his country. He's so inspired that he rounds up the local militia and marches them to the front. They take part in many battles in which they display great heroism in the face of the overwhelming French forces. Ernestus meets up with another young commander, an Italian named Olivieri, whose life he saves in a fierce battle.

Eventually the Swiss army crumbles, but Ernestus isn't willing to give up that easily, and he takes to the mountains and becomes a partisan. He has several more encounters with Louisa, the mysterious woman from earlier, eventually learning that she's Milanese and Olivieri's sister. When Ernestus is captured, she arranges for him to escape, and brings him and Julia to Milan to live with her wealthy family, though old Father Berchtold dies before this can take place.

This whole section of the story is quite tedious, with lots of descriptions of battles and running from French troops, all done with the assumption that anyone reading would be intimately familiar with the Franco-Swiss front of the Napoleonic Wars. The main point of interest is that Polidori shows Swiss women taking part in the war just as fiercely as the men.
The combat was obstinate, our chief attack was upon the artillery, with which the enemy was attempting to cross the road. Our women did not shrink, they rushed forward, threw themselves upon the wheels of the guns, and allowed themselves to be hewn to pieces ere they would quit their hold.
Indeed, he even portrays the women being more bloodthirsty than the men.
I could have induced the men to give quarter, but the women were outrageous, they followed our soldiers, and dispatched the wounded, whom their more merciful companions had spared, while they excited the Scweitzers to slaughter even those who threw up their arms; none were saved.
Once the action moves to Milan, the story changes tone completely. Filberto, the father of Olivieri and Louisa, is a minor scion of the noble Doni family, but somehow -- no one quite knows how -- he's amassed wealth far in excess of the main branch of the family. He lives in a palace, surrounded by sycophantic courtiers.

Olivieri, it turns out, is a contrarian who loves to confound people's expectations of him. That's why he joined the Swiss army -- he didn't actually believe in the Swiss cause; he just thought it'd be a way of confusing people. Once he's back in Milan, he changes persona completely, turning into a whorehound and extravagant gambler. He lures Ernestus into his way of life, and the next thing you know Ernestus is deep in debt to some very bad men. Filberto gives him money to pay off those debts, but Ernestus ends up gambling that away too.

Then bad things start happening. First Olivieri disappears, then Louisa gets sick and wastes away. Julia runs away, and when she returns, she's dying after giving birth to Olivieri's son. Before she passes away, Julia relates a story to Ernestus: she'd noticed various curious things about Filberto's behavior, and so one night she decided to spy upon him in his room -- not through a keyhole, but rather a convenient hole in the wall. She witnessed him performing a occult ceremony and conversing a spirit.

Soon after Julia's death, news comes from France that Olivieri's been arrested as the leader of a gang of bandits. Ernestus takes a large part of Filberto's fortune and tries to bribe Olivieri's way out of jail, but he's recognized as an enemy of France and betrayed. Olivieri's bandits come to the rescue, though Olivieri is killed in the escape, and Ernestus barely manages to make it back to Milan alive.

Ernestus and Louisa (who's now recovered from her illness) decide to get married, but their happiness is only fleeting. As a present to Filberto, Ernestus and Louisa hire an artist to paint his portrait, and while they're at it, they decide to have him do a full size version of Erenestus's mom, basing it upon the locket that she left behind. But when Filberto sees the paintings, he freaks out and locks himself in his room. Soon thereafter he dies, but he leaves behind a manuscript revealing the horrible, shocking truth.

Well, it's supposed to be shocking, but when Ernestus Berchtold was published in 1819, the publisher decided to cash in on Frankenstein's success by giving it the subtitle The Modern Oedipus, which gives the game away. Yes, Ernestus and Louisa (not to mention Julia and Olivieri) are half-siblings, their mom having married Filberto but then abandoned him. Oh, and Filberto's wealth came from a genie who visited misfortune on the family every time it fulfilled a wish. It is in fact Ernestus's gambling debts that led to this bad end. You half expect Rod Serling to appear at the end and deliver a moral lecture.

All in all, Ernestus Berchtold is a standard Gothic novel with nothing in the way of originality. The main point to recommend it is that certain plot points seem to be veiled criticisms of Byron and Percy, something that would become much more prominent in the other tale Polidori wrote that summer.

When Byron went on his trip to Vevey, he left behind the first few pages of his ghost story. It's a first person account of a young Englishman who sets off on the Grand Tour of Europe with an older gentleman of mysterious background. Along the way they decide to take a detour to Turkey and see the ruins of Smyrna. They end up camping out one night at an old Muslim graveyard, where the older man takes ill and dies. Before expiring, he gives a ring to his young companion and instructs him,
"On the ninth day of the month, at noon precisely (what month you please, but this must be the day), you must fling this ring into the salt springs which run into the Bay of Eleusis: the day after, at the same hour, you must repair to the ruins of the temple of Ceres, and wait one hour."

"Why?"

"You will see."

"The ninth day of the month, you say?"

"The ninth."

The story breaks off soon thereafter, with the mystery of what would happen next unresolved, though Byron apparently told Polidori that the young man would return to London and witness the dead man walking down the street, still alive.

At some point Polidori showed Byron's fragment to "a lady, who denied the possibility of such a ground-work forming the outline of a tale which should bear the slightest appearance of probability." Polidori took this as a challenge, and since Byron wasn't around, he decided to finish the story himself, calling it "The Vampyre".

But Polidori didn't simply write a continuation of what Byron had done. Rather he took Byron's work as a seed which he grew out in his own way. In Byron's fragment, the backstory between the narrator and the mysterious gentleman is disposed of in a couple expository paragraphs. Clearly Byron was rushing to get to the graveyard scene, where the real meat of the story would begin. But Polidori went back and fleshed out this early part of the tale, to the point that his version of the graveyard scene doesn't happen until nearly two-thirds of the way through the story.

Polidori begins with the arrival of a mysterious gentleman named Lord Ruthven in the London social scene. Ruthven is "more remarkable for his singularities, than for his rank," and soon attracts all kinds of attention, particularly from women of ... low character, let us say, who all but throw themselves at him -- to no effect. Ruthven spurns them all, preferring the company of young ladies of sterling character.

Soon after Ruthven makes his debut, a young man named Aubrey arrives in London. Aubrey is a classic Country Mouse character, a good hearted young man who grew up in the boonies with little conception of the big bad world that awaits him in the City. His parents died when he was young, leaving him and his sister in the care of distant relatives who didn't much give a damn about him but were more interested in taking care of his inheritance. Raised by servants, "he cultivated more his imagination than his judgement."

Aubrey gravitates toward Ruthven, though Ruthven is aloof to him. But when he learns that Ruthven is about to leave for the continent, Aubrey plucks up the courage to mention he's planning to go on the Grand Tour himself. Ruthven shrugs and says, "Yeah, sure, you can come with me, whatever."

Their trip goes smoothly at first, but while they're staying in Italy, Aubrey receives a letter from his guardians warning him that Ruthven is not to be trusted -- soon after they left London, it had come out that Ruthven had been debauching all those pure young ladies he'd been hanging out with.

Aubrey is skeptical, but he also knows Ruthven has recently been paying attention to a girl from a fine Italian family, so he decides to tail the man. He discovers that Ruthven has rented a room where he's planning to deflower the girl that very night. Aubrey goes immediately to the girl's family and warns them about Ruthven, and they promise they'll keep the girl out of his reach.

The next morning Ruthven is out of sorts, his plans with the girl having been dashed, but he shows no sign that he knows Aubrey is responsible. Aubrey, though, can't go on with Ruthven, and announces he'll be continuing the Grand Tour on his own.

Aubrey heads to Greece, where he becomes obsessed with archaeology, spending his days at ancient ruins digging up potsherds. While there, he stays with a local family, and falls in love with their daughter, Ianthe, though he knows they're too far apart on the social scale to be able to have a relationship.

Ianthe is a font of local folklore, and she tells Aubrey of a local forest where vampires live. According to Ianthe, vampires are eternally young, but to stay that way they have to drink the blood of a maiden once per year. Aubrey doesn't believe her, not even when she warns him that he must never get caught in the woods at night.

Naturally the next night he gets caught in the woods after spending too long on a dig. He finds an abandoned hovel and figures he'll spend the night there, but he's woken by the sound of a woman screaming. He runs into the forest, where he encounters some local rustics who inform him a girl's been kidnapped. After searching around, they discover -- and I know this is going to be a shocking surprise -- the body of Ianthe with her throat torn out and all her blood drained.

Aubrey falls into a swoon, and when he recovers, he's back in the house of Ianthe's parents. And who should be there with him but Lord Ruthven.

After recovering, Aubrey decides to go sightseeing with Ruthven, but they're waylaid by bandits. Ruthven gets shot and seems on the verge of dying, but before he does, he makes Aubrey swear to mention nothing about their trip to anyone for a year and a day. The bandits, following Ruthven's last request, then take his body up to a mountain and lay it out in the moonlight, but when Aubrey goes up to see it later, he finds it's missing.

Aubrey pays the bandits to let him go, and then heads back to England. As he's packing his stuff, he also goes through Ruthven's things and discovers a sheath that matches an oddly shaped knife found near Ianthe's body.

Soon after getting home, it's time for Aubrey's sister to make her social debut. Aubrey doesn't feel up to it, but he agrees to escort her to a debutante ball in London anyway. He leaves her alone for most of the evening, preferring to sulk in a corner. When he goes to take her home, he finds her surrounded by fawning young men. And in that crowd, he spots Lord Ruthven.

Aubrey tries to warn his sister against Ruthven, but every time he opens his mouth, he hears Ruthven whispering in his ear, "Remember your oath." As the weeks go by, his sister and Ruthven become closer, and eventually they announce their engagement. Aubrey realizes their wedding date is set for the day before his promise expires, and he does everything in his power to get them to delay, but to no effect. Everyone assumes he's having a nervous breakdown, and his guardians lock him in his bedroom under the supervision of a doctor.

Of course the wedding day comes and tragedy strikes, very sad, very sad, and utterly predictable.

The obvious thing about "The Vampyre" is that it's about Polidori's relationship with Byron. Aubrey represents the doctor as he wished to see himself, with his more pugnacious aspects elided.
He had, hence, that high romantic feeling of honour and candour, which daily ruins so many milliners' apprentices. He believed all to sympathise with virtue, and thought that vice was thrown in by Providence merely for the picturesque effect of the scene, as we see in romances: he thought that the misery of a cottage merely consisted in the vesting of clothes, which were as warm, but which were better adapted to the painter's eye by their irregular folds and various coloured patches. He thought, in fine, that the dreams of poets were the realities of life.
Lord Ruthven, then, is Byron. The very name gives this away -- Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's former lover who so famously described him as "Mad, bad and dangerous to know," had just penned a roman a clef about her relationship, in which the Byron stand-in is also a Lord Ruthven. Anyone following literature in the early 1800s would've instantly made the connection.

When Aubrey first sees Ruthven, he's smitten, but Polidori, in his role as narrator, makes clear that Aubrey's first impression is deluded:
He watched him; and the very impossibility of forming an idea of the character of a man entirely absorbed in himself, who gave few other signs of his observation of external objects, than the tacit assent to their existence, implied by the avoidance of their contact: allowing his imagination to picture every thing that flattered its propensity to extravagant ideas, he soon formed this object into the hero of a romance, and determined to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him.
As the story progresses, Aubrey is disillusioned, just as Polidori must have been as he saw how Byron treated other people. Aspects of Byron's behavior are, of course, cranked up for the story -- Byron may have metaphorically fed on people around him and left them in ruin, but he never killed them.

There may also be aspects of Percy in Lord Ruthven. The woman Aubrey falls in love with is named Ianthe, a name that was in common circulation among 19th Century poets. Byron himself had dedicated Childe Harold's Pilgrimage to "Ianthe," which was his nickname for Charlotte Harley, the daughter of one of his lovers. But more pertinently, Ianthe is a central character in Percy's Queen Mab, which Polidori read during his stay in Geneva. (Percy also named his daughter with Harriet Ianthe, but it's not clear Polidori would've known this.)

In Queen Mab, Ianthe is an innocent girl that the Fairy Queen takes on a cosmic tour, showing her all the injustice of the world, but also revealing a vision of a utopian future. When she first appears in the poem, Ianthe is in a slumber so deep she appears dead:
Hath then the gloomy Power
Whose reign is in the tainted sepulchres
Seized on her sinless soul?
Must then that peerless form
Which love and admiration cannot view
Without a beating heart, those azure veins
Which steal like streams along a field of snow,
That lovely outline, which is fair
As breathing marble, perish?
Must putrefaction's breath
Leave nothing of this heavenly sight
But loathsomeness and ruin?
Spare nothing but a gloomy theme,
On which the lightest heart might moralize?
Or is it only a sweet slumber
Stealing o'er sensation,
Which the breath of roseate morning
Chaseth into darkness?
Will Ianthe wake again,
And give that faithful bosom joy
Whose sleepless spirit waits to catch
Light, life, and rapture from her smile?
Yes! she will wake again,
Although her glowing limbs are motionless,
And silent those sweet lips,
Once breathing eloquence
That might have soothed a tyger's rage,
Or thawed the cold heart of a conqueror.
Her dewy eyes are closed,
And on their lids, whose texture fine
Scarce hides the dark blue orbs beneath,
The baby Sleep is pillowed:
Her golden tresses shade
The bosom's stainless pride,
Curling like tendrils of the parasite
Around a marble column.
Despite the revelation that Ianthe is merely asleep, this opening passage has enough macabre imagery to make a goth giddy. The description of blue veins on white skin could come straight from Anne Rice. Compare this to the finding of the other Ianthe's corpse in "The Vampyre":
But what was his horror, when the light of the torches once more burst upon him, to perceive the airy form of his fair conductress brought in a lifeless corpse. He shut his eyes, hoping that it was but a vision arising from his disturbed imagination; but he again saw the same form, when he unclosed them, stretched by his side. There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:—upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:—to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, "A Vampyre! a Vampyre!"
Given the amount of time Polidori spent with the Shelley party, and particularly with Mary and Claire, he must have learned about their tortuous history and twisting relations, and given his quarrels with Percy, it seems he came to view the man the same way he did Byron -- as a monster who ruined the lives of those around him.

The decision to create a vampire in the mold of Byron and Shelley would have an enormous impact on subsequent literature. In traditional folklore, vampires were more like what we'd think of as zombies -- shambling corpses driven more by instinct than actual intelligence, and decidedly unsexy. But after "The Vampyre" came out, that changed. Subsequent vampire stories almost always followed Polidori's lead in making vamps into sexy, smooth-talking aristocrats.

Although we generally think of vampire literature as beginning with Dracula, with Polidori's story being a distant, almost forgotten antecedent, the truth is Polidori inspired numerous imitators, starting almost immediately with Cyprien Berard's knock-off, Lord Ruthwen, or the Vampire (1820). Indeed, the major explosion of vampire lit occurred in France, with numerous books published throughout the 19th Century, including Paul Feval's The Vampire Brothers (1860), The Vampire Countess (1865), and Vampire City (1874), Marie Nizet's Captain Vampire (1879), and Leon Gozlan's The Vampire of Val-de-Grâce (1862) among many others. This period also saw the first female vampire seductresses with Etienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon's The Virgin Vampire (1825), and most famously Theophile Gautier's "Clarimonde" (1836).

Polidori's impact on Britain was less pronounced, but the titular character in the infamous penny dreadful Varney the Vampire (serialized 1845-47) is very much a dumbed-down version of Ruthven, while Sheridan LeFanu's lesbianic tale Carmilla is derived second-hand by way of the French. By the time Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, Polidori's influence on vampire fiction was so pronounced that Stoker needn't have read the original story for it to have affected his writing.

But for "The Vampyre" to have that effect, it first needed to be published. How that came to be is a twisting and confusing tale in itself.

NEXT TIME: How Polidori failed at everything, even success.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part VII: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

It was a dark and stormy night.

Most nights in the summer of 1816 were dark and stormy. It was a dark and stormy year. The eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indes was wreaking havoc on weather around the world, leading people to call 1816 The Year Without a Summer. While there wasn't a Westeros-style winter-that-never-ends, there were occasional summer snowfalls, and overall temperatures were low enough that crop yields were down for the year, leading to widespread food shortages.

Whatever hopes the Shelley and Byron parties had of a pleasant summer on the lake gave way to long days indoors, trying to find ways to amuse themselves. And so it was that on 16 June 1816, Percy, Mary and Claire visited Byron and Polidori at their rented villa, just as they had most days since the pair moved in.

Polidori was laid up with a sprained ankle. The day before, he and Byron had been on the balcony when they'd spotted Mary traipsing up the muddy lane to the house. Byron remarked that a true gentleman would jump from the balcony, run to Mary and offer her his arm. Polidori took the bait, but when he landed on the muddy ground, he slipped and twisted his ankle. Byron had to carry him back inside, where he'd been lounging around ever since.

On the 16th, the party did what they often did on bleak evenings, and picked a book from the library to read aloud. That night Byron chose the Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German ghost stories. By the time they finished reading for the evening, it was late and the storm outside showed no sign of letting up. Mary, Percy and Claire decided to spend the night, and Byron made the suggestion that everyone should take a hand at writing a ghost story to pass the time.

According to Mary, in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she couldn't think of anything at first.
I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which 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. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.
However, Polidori's diary for the next day claims, "The ghost-stories are begun by all but me." Either Mary didn't want to come across as assertive (which would be in keeping with the spirit of the preface)  and so portrayed herself as a meek woman who was no match for those great men of letters who had more ideas than they could use; or she was so mortified about not having an idea that she misled Polidori into thinking she'd already begun.

In the preface, Mary describes what finally inspired her to start writing:
Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. [Erasmus] Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.
After that, she went to bed and had a nightmare:

 I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
By Mary's account, while she lay in bed trying to shake off the nightmare, her mind turned back to the story contest and she realized, "Wait a minute, if that dream was enough to scare me, then surely it'll frighten readers." And so the next morning she announced that she finally had a story idea.

However, Polidori's diary records the same conversation, but he places it on the night before the ghost story contest, and he presents himself as Percy's interlocutor, not Byron.
Shelley etc. came in the evening; talked of my play etc., which all agreed was worth nothing. Afterwards Shelley and I had a conversation about principles,—whether man was to be thought merely an instrument.
Since Polidori's account is contemporaneous, and he had no way of knowing that some random late night bull session would prove to be of utmost importance to literary history, we should take his account as more accurate than Mary's recollection fifteen years after the fact. It is quite possible that Mary was misremembering when she wrote the preface, though given the other, obviously intentional inaccuracies in the preface, it's more likely she was trying to aggrandize her work by making it appear inspired by two of the greatest poets of the 19th Century, rather than one poet and an obscure physician.

So then, the most likely course of events is that on 15 June, Mary listened to a conversation between Percy (a science nerd) and Polidori (a doctor) on what medicine had to say about the nature of life, and they both gravitated to the idea that it's utterly mechanistic, and with enough study it could be measured and recreated. The details of the discussion gave Mary a horrible nightmare.

The next night, Mary and her companions stayed up late listening to ghost stories, and then Byron proposed they should all try their hands at writing their own. Mary's mind flashed to her nightmare and fastened on it as a suitable subject for a horror story. She started fleshing out the dream and committing it to paper. The next day, when everyone was discussing the contest, she announced that she'd had an idea just like everyone except Polidori, leaving the doctor feeling left out. After Percy encouraged her to continue, she began expanding her initial sketch, going both backwards to create Victor's childhood, education and initial experiments, and forward to describe the creature's eventual vendetta against him.

However, the story contest proved faddish. In the preface to the original 1818 edition of Frankenstein, Percy (writing in Mary's voice) notes that the bad weather cleared up the next week, and he and Byron left on their trip to Vevey, forgetting all about their stories, and leaving Frankenstein as the only one to be written to completion. Percy doesn't even mention Claire and Polidori, either because he didn't think they merited inclusion with such illustrious personages as himself and Byron, or to avoid even a vague allusion to the scandals of that summer. But while Claire doesn't seem to have produced anything of note, the same cannot be said for Polidori. In point of fact, the doctor produced two stories that summer, though he didn't publish them until after the success of Frankenstein.


NEXT TIME: The Revenge of Doctor Polidori

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part VI: A Scandal in Geneva

In 1816, Percy Shelley was gaining renown amongst those who followed poetry closely, but he'd made little impression on the general public. But if Percy were the Frank Black of the Romantic movement, Lord Byron was the Kurt Cobain. He'd burst onto the scene four years prior with Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which had become a blockbuster success and marked the beginning of the second wave of Romantic poetry.

Byron had also developed a reputation as a sex fiend that made Shelley look like a monk. There were even rumors that he'd had sex with his sister, Augusta Leigh, and modern biographers are convinced he was bisexual and had relationships with numerous men as well. But unlike Percy, Byron didn't try to justify his behavior with political rhetoric. He just liked to screw.

And as a superstar poet, he had more than ample opportunity, and could pick and choose as he pleased. So when Claire Clairmont showed up on his doorstep, she was nothing special. However, she had something that other women didn't have -- she knew Percy Shelley. Byron was familiar with Percy's work and was eager to learn more about the author, which got Claire's foot in the door. But even then, Byron sensed there was something a little bit off about the situation. Like maybe she wasn't really interested in him but was rather trying to get revenge on her sister for hogging Percy. Byron's good sense told him he should avoid a tryst with Claire.

But this is Lord Byron we're talking about. Given the choice between listening to his good sense or his penis, there was no contest. Here was a girl in front of him practically demanding to have sex with him. Who was he to say no? As he put it later, "A man is a man – & if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours of the night – there is but one way."

He quickly realized his mistake. At this point he was already planning to leave the country -- partly for his health, partly to escape rumors about him and his sister -- so he gave Claire the, "So sorry, so sorry, but I gotta run" treatment and took off for the Continent.

Claire was having none of that, though. She learned that Byron's destination was Geneva, and she went to her sister and Percy and told them, "Hey, I happen to know Lord Byron is going to be this summer. Wanna go meet him?" Mary had given birth by this point, and her son, William (nicknamed Willmouse) was already four months old and looking healthy, so they agreed. In fact, by taking the direct route while Byron went sightseeing, they managed to arrive before him.

Now Byron was an early practitioner of safe sex -- in fact, the first thing he did upon arriving in Europe was to write a friend asking for him to send him some condoms. This would explain how it is that, despite his infamous promiscuity, he only has two illegitimate children attributed to him[1]. The first was with a maid, Lucy Monk, whom he knocked up when he was barely twenty-one and perhaps not yet wise to the idea of birth control. Though their stations in life made a marriage impractical if not impossible, Byron provided her with child support in the amount of £100 per annum (for comparison, Timothy Shelley provided Percy with £200 a year, and though Percy was constantly low on funds, that was due to his profligacy).

Byron's second bastard was with Claire.

It's not clear when Claire realized she was pregnant. She gave birth 12 January 1817, so the conception was probably early to mid-April 1816, though since first pregnancies often go long, it may've been as early as March, which is when her affair with Byron commenced. She left England with Mary and Percy on 3 May, which was probably too early for her to have realized anything was up, but she likely knew by the time Byron arrived in Geneva in late May, or soon thereafter.

When Byron found out, he was less than chuffed, especially since he suspected, not unreasonably, that he was being set up to take the fall for Percy (a suspicion that Godwin shared when he heard about the situation). Nonetheless, Byron did agree to take responsibility, though what that responsibility would consist of was a question for debate. Byron was already married, and though he and his wife were separated, under British law all divorces had to be approved by the House of Lords, which made them virtually impossible to obtain; and besides, Byron's wife had already borne him a daughter, the future Ada Lovelace, so a divorce would only shift the problem around. Byron felt that Claire was too flaky to face the challenges of single-motherhood on her own, so he insisted that she not raise the child herself. Byron wrote to his sister to see if she'd take in the child, but with the rumors already swirling around her, Augusta had to decline. In the end, Byron decided to raise the child -- a girl he'd named Allegra -- himself, though due to his constant travels she spent much of her life being passed around to friends. Eventually he put her in an Italian convent to be educated, over the objections of Percy and Claire, both of whom were horrified at the idea on consigning a child to Papists. As cold as that might sound, Byron did visit Allegra regularly, until she died from typhus at the age of five.

But those were issues for the future. In the meantime, the mood in Geneva was not the genteel garden party that Mary suggests in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.
In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third canto of Childe Harold, was the only one among us who put his thoughts upon paper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all the light and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories of heaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him.
While Mary and her companions undoubtedly managed to find some moments of pleasure that summer, it beggars belief that it could've been the cheery affair she describes. Even Percy, who normally would've been self-centered enough to find fun while everyone around him was miserable, was out of sorts. Dr. Polidori, who was traveling with Byron as his personal physician, described Percy as looking consumptive after first meeting him, and later described an incident in which Percy suffered what sounds like a bad acid trip.
Twelve o'clock, really began to talk ghostly. Lord Byron repeated some verses of Coleridge's Christabel, of the witch's breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs. Shelley, and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.
Such incidents could only have added to the stress Mary must've been experiencing as a mother with an infant to take care of, to say nothing of dealing with Claire's mess of a life.

Of all those present at Lake Geneva, Claire must've been the most miserable. Ever since she'd run away from home two years previously, Percy had been filling her head with his theories of free love and sexual liberation. When he set her aside in favor of Mary, Claire had set out to prove that she could be as much of a rake as any man by seducing the greatest seducer of the age. And now here she was, pregnant and facing an unknowable future, reliant on a pair of men of questionable character. She had, in fact, stumbled upon the same hard truth that caused Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin to reconsider their ideas about sex and relationships twenty years before: Women cannot have sexual freedom if it doesn't come with legal, economic and social equality.

And most galling of all, this meant her mother had been right. Jane had been strict with Fanny, Mary and Claire precisely to prevent them from finding themselves in this situation.

In later years, Claire would become much more traditional in her worldview, to the point that she eventually converted to Catholicism, and in a memoir she wrote in her old age, she'd portray herself as an innocent girl beguiled by Percy and Byron:
Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love I saw the two first poets of England become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery -- under the influence of free love Lord B became a human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women who under the influence of free love ... loved him.
 Certainly what Percy did to her and Mary could be considered predatory -- the way he pressed his ideals upon them (and upon his wife Harriet as well) smacks of a sexual predator grooming a young victim (and they were young -- none older than sixteen when he turned his attention on them, though he himself was little older).

Her charge against Byron is more questionable. Her accusation is undoubtedly true for other women who fell under Byron's sway, but by all accounts Claire was the pursuer in their relationship -- quite literally; she followed him several hundred miles to Geneva, and she did so before she knew she was pregnant, so she had no justification for doing so beyond stalking him. Her mind may already have been poisoned by Percy, but Byron can't be faulted for that.

As for Byron, he had fled Britain to escape scandals, only to find a new one waiting in Geneva. He may've produced radiant verses during his stay, but his mood couldn't've been good. His relationship with Claire was tense, and any interest he had in Mary faded once he realized she wasn't going to sleep with him. That left him with Percy and Polidori to keep him company. The former was the one bright spot of his summer. As two poets of similar age and upbringing, they had much to talk about, and they spent much of their time together, including a lengthy trip to Vevey, Switzerland by themselves.

Byron's relationship with Polidori was much more fraught. Indeed, Polidori's relationships with most people were fraught. His diary for the trip is full of references to quarrels he had with various people along the way. For instance:
 Went to Rossi's—had tired his patience
And:
Horses been a subject of quarrel twice, Berger having accused me of laming one.
And my favorite:
An apothecary sold some bad magnesia to Lord Byron. Found it bad by experiment of sulphuric acid colouring it red rose-colour. Servants spoke about it. Appointed Castan to see experiment; came; impudent; refused to go out; collared him, sent him out, broke spectacles. Laid himself on a wall for three hours; refused to see experiments. Saw Lord Byron, told him his tale before two physicians. Brought me to trial before five judges; had an advocate to plead. I pleaded for myself; laughed at the advocate. Lost his cause on the plea of calumny; made me pay 12 florins for the broken spectacles and costs.
But most pertinent is an entry from 4 June:
Came home. Went on the lake with Shelley and Lord Byron, who quarrelled with me.
After Percy and Byron returned from their trip to Vevey, Polidori's diary breaks off for two months, only resuming after the Shelley menage decamped for Britain:
September 5. —Not written my Journal till now through neglect and dissipation. Had a long explanation with Shelley and Lord Byron about my conduct to Lord Byron; threatened to shoot Shelley one day on the water. Horses been a subject of quarrel twice, Berger having accused me of laming one.
It's not clear whether the September entry is referring back to the quarrel in June, or if they quarreled again during the gap. Either way, relations between Byron, Percy and Polidori were clearly problematic, and Byron let him go soon after the Shelley party left Geneva.

For her part, Mary downplays Polidori in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, his presence and the problems he caused clearly not fitting in with the happy narrative she was pushing (she likewise erases Claire), but Polidori's journal shows that he spent a significant amount of time with Mary, at least up until July when his diary breaks off. For instance, during the nine days when Byron and Percy were away, he records meeting with Mary eight times, often for dinner, but once spending the entire day with her. He also records helping her study Italian by reading the poems of Tasso together, and taking Willmouse for immunization.

While Mary and the others were suffering through these dramas, the people of Geneva -- including a number of Brits there on holiday, were taking note. Byron was, after all, a literary star with a scandalous reputation, and Percy, though less famous, was still of note by himself. And here they both were, running around with a couple of teenage girls -- sisters no less, and one of them dragging around a baby, no one knows whose. Rumors quickly spread that Byron's villa was Orgy Central, and Genevese merchants started renting out spyglasses so curiosity seekers could catch a glimpse of the wild sex that everyone knew was taking place in there. These stories soon filtered back to Britain, where they became the scandal of the decade, and would lead to tragedy for both the Godwins and Shelleys.

And yet, despite all that, if Mary and her companions hadn't had such a miserable time in Geneva -- if their stay had been the cozy vacation that Mary describes in her preface -- genre history would be very different.

NEXT TIME: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

[1] There were scurrilous rumors that his sister's daughter, Elizabeth Leigh, was Byron's, but this is purely speculation; his sister, Augusta, was married at the time, so there's no way of proving who the father was without exhuming bodies.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part V: When Mary Met Shelley

When Percy Shelley showed up to William Godwin's bookshop, Godwin had high hopes of getting money from the young man to pay off his debts. But despite his rich family, Percy had little money himself, and what he did get, he spent. He could occasionally get an allowance from his father, but Timothy Shelley wasn't above cutting his son off for misbehavior. Percy did have one way of raising funds by taking out loans against his inheritance, but because there was no telling when he'd get that inheritance, the interest rates were exorbitant. But Percy was too privileged to care about such minor things, and he agreed to supply Godwin with the needed money. However, once Percy had the cash in hand, he suddenly realized he could use it for himself, and he only gave Godwin a fraction of what he'd promised. This was to be pattern that would repeat throughout their relationship.

When Shelley first started visiting the Godwins in 1812, Mary was out of town -- Godwin had sent her to stay with friends in Scotland to keep her out of Jane's hair -- so Percy's attention first fell upon Fanny, the eldest of the Godwin Girls at eighteen, a mere two years younger than himself. Indeed, his infatuation with her started even before they met. During preliminary correspondence with Godwin, Percy suggested Fanny should come up to visit him and his menage. Godwin politely responded, "Yeah, no." But when the two actually met, things didn't click. It's not clear what the issue was, though my suspicion is that Fanny, being aware of the circumstances surrounding her conception and what her mother went through after Gilbert Imlay dumped her, was wary of a smooth talker like Percy.

In any event, when Mary returned to London, Percy's attention turned to her. She was all of fifteen at this point, and he was twenty-one. Their romance developed slowly over the next couple years as Percy grew increasingly disillusioned with Harriet and the increasingly domestic turn their life was taking. Harriet had by now given birth to their first child, Ianthe, and was pregnant with their second. Mary was a young, impressionable girl, and Percy poisoned her mind against Harriet, making her seem a petty, small minded woman who was an unequal match for his staggering genius -- totally unlike brilliant Mary. If only he had met Mary first, alas! Being young and naive, Mary fell for it. By the time she was sixteen, Percy had bedded her.

Wanting to escape his domestic entanglements, Percy suggested that he and Mary run away to the Continent together. Now this would've been mid-1814, mere months after Napoleon's abdication. Prior to the French Revolution, every young man who aspired to good standing, and even many young women, had taken the Grand Tour of Europe, but as the chaos of revolution and war spread, this had become increasingly difficult and eventually impossible. So for Percy to propose a trip to Europe at this moment in 1814, he wasn't suggesting a little jaunt. He wanted to be one of the first Englishmen of his generation to make the trip, to be able to say, "Yeah, when I first went to Europe, Napoleon didn't even have the drapes up on Elba." And of course such a trip would equally excite Mary, whose mother had so famously gone to France at a time when such a journey was the height of danger.

But before they could set out, Mary's step-sister Claire figured out what they were planning and demanded to come along if they didn't want her to rat them out. Since Claire spoke French far better than either of them, and undoubtedly hoping he could score a threeway, Percy said, "Sure, the more the merrier."

William and Jane were, unsurprisingly, furious when they found out, and they set out immediately to Calais in pursuit, but once they were in France, they realized there wasn't much they could do without creating a huge scandal with Mary and Claire at the center, so they ended up slinking back to England.

The trip did not go as well as Percy had expected. Europe was recovering from two decades of near-constant warfare, and prices were still sky-high. The money he'd brought from England turned out to be nowhere near enough, and after a few weeks they were broke and virtually had to hitch-hike their way back to Britain.

But neither of the girls had any desire to return home and face their parents' wrath, especially since Mary was by now pregnant, so Percy rented lodgings and set up a household with two underage girls, while his actual wife had to move back to her parents. Thankfully Timothy, although no fan of the marriage, was providing Harriet with an allowance. When Percy was hard up for money, he'd return to her and beg her to give him some. This very much did not please her, and when creditors came knocking around, she told them exactly where to find her husband. Mary, who was so besotted with Percy that she couldn't comprehend that he was a no good, two-timing grifter, lashed out at Harriet in her diary: "Harriet sends her creditors here; nasty woman. Now we shall have to change our lodgings."

But Mary soon learned that Percy was less than perfect herself. Percy had abandoned Harriet because he didn't want to be tied down with domestic affairs, and his feelings didn't change now that Mary was pregnant. Rather than sit around the house and wait on her, he decided to go off and party down, and if Mary wasn't up for that, he'd take Claire along instead. In his stead, Percy invited his old friend Hogg to stay with Mary, hoping the two would become lovers and thus negate any recriminations against him for screwing Claire. Hogg for his part was totally down with this -- he seems to have had an almost compulsive desire to stick his dick wherever Percy's had gone before -- but Mary hadn't bought into the idea of free love any more than Harriet had. She seems to have developed an emotional attachment to Hogg, but never took it beyond that.

In any event, Mary's pregnancy was short lived. She gave birth two months premature, and the child died within a week. Mary was left bereaved, all the more so because Percy continued his jaunts with Claire and her father still refused to talk with her -- though he did contact Percy occasionally to beg for money. The only people she had to comfort her were Hogg and Fanny, who braved her step-father's wrath and a howling thunderstorm to walk across London to stay with Mary.

Percy did come back around once Mary was recovered and able to be intimate with him again, and in just a few months Mary was pregnant with her second child.

This time, though, she'd learned her lesson. She insisted that Percy stay at her side, and she arranged for him to send Claire on a getaway to a seaside resort. Unfortunately this was in the days before Ibiza was a thing, so this meant sending her to a British beach, and British beaches are about the least appealing to be found between Tierra del Fuego and the Outer Hebrides. Claire only stayed a short while before she decided "Screw this" and headed back to London.

But her goal wasn't to get back with Percy and Mary, nor to reconcile with her parents.

No, Claire figured if she couldn't have Percy, she'd go one better.

She'd lay Lord Byron.

NEXT TIME: A Scandal at Lake Geneva


Sunday, January 21, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part IV: Pretentious, Privileged and a Total Ass: Percy Shelley

The Shelley's were a family of jumped up businessmen. Percy's grandfather, Bysshe, had been born in the American colonies in 1731, where his family had already accumulated a decent bit of money, though not enough to be considered wealthy. Bysshe rectified this after moving back to England, first by marrying well, and then, after his wife died, marrying again even better. Towards the end of his life, in 1806, he wrangled his way into a baronetcy.

Baronets are one of the lowest rungs of British nobility -- in terms of standing, they're the same level as knights, the main difference being that baronetcies are heritable whereas knighthoods are one-and-done. The position dates back to the Middle Ages, but it was rarely used until James I was strapped for cash and decided to sell a bunch of titles as a quick fundraiser. From then on, baronetcies became a way for rich gentlemen to give their families a little extra sheen.

By all accounts, Bysshe was a dotty old man given to wild flights of fancy. His son Timothy, however, was the exact opposite -- sensible, but tough and concerned with propriety above all else. In other words, the sort of person who'd be played by John Vernon in the movie and presented as a villain, though any examination of the plot would leave you hard pressed to define what exactly he was doing wrong.

Unfortunately for Timothy, his son Percy took after Bysshe and not him. Percy's life began happily enough, living on his father's estate with his beloved sisters, where any early signs of wildness didn't cause comment. But Percy needed an education, and in those days a gentleman's education meant boarding school. Timothy intended Percy to do his upper levels at the prestigious Eton, but before that could happen Percy needed to learn the basics, and for that Timothy chose a school that was below the family's standing.

Though Bysshe hadn't yet bought his baronetcy yet, Percy stuck out like a sore thumb at school, and quickly attracted the attention of bullies. Percy responded with arrogance, looking down on his classmates and lashing out, when he could, against those who didn't defer to him as he felt he deserved. It was during this period that he became interested in science, and particularly the study of making things go boom, which was to become a lifelong obsession of his, both literally and figuratively.

By the time Percy reached Eton, he was well on his way to becoming an iconoclast, though the question remained: what form it would take. If he had been a teenager in the 1980s, he would've become a wannabe beatnik. If he'd been one in the '90s, he would've played at being a hippie. Instead he was a teenager in 1810, and so his interests turned to the radicalism of the 1790s, before anti-revolutionary reaction had swept it all away. His first major literary works were the Gothic novels Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, published in 1810 and '11 respectively, by which point the Gothic genre was well past its peak of popularity and heading into a period when there were as many parodies as straight attempts at the genre. He then turned to Romantic poetry, a genre that had been all the rage at the turn of the century when Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey had been at their height, but was now looking like a fading fad rather than a movement that would have long lasting effects. But this time Percy lucked out, as Lord Byron, another upperclass wastrel, was about to burst on the scene and ignite the second wave of Romantic poetry.

Percy's political and social views were similarly out of step with his time. He came across William Godwin's work at that age when anything a young man reads will mark his way of thinking for the rest of his life. Not only that, but he somehow found the first edition of Political Justice, before Godwin had walked back his more radical views.

Shelley's father was by this time a Member of Parliament, and his grandfather had obtained his baronetcy, so Percy's embrace of the most radical Revolutionary Era political beliefs was the equivalent of a modern teenager whose parents are country club Republicans going to college and joining a group of Black Bloc protesters.

But Percy's embrace of Godwinism went beyond the political. Being the privileged brat that he was, Shelley was a budding profligate, and Godwin's views on free love gave him a philosophical framework that would justify his screwing any woman he wanted. He wasn't just satisfying his sexual desires -- he was striking a blow against reactionary sexual mores. His fucking around was a revolutionary act!

One of his first conquests was a schoolmate of his sisters, Harriet Westbrook, who was a mere thirteen when he first met her (he was sixteen, so this is slightly less skeevy than his later conquests). He kept up a correspondence with her through his years at Oxford, preaching to her about Godwinian philosophy and trying to convince her of the rightness of open sexual relationships. After he got expelled from Oxford for publishing a pro-atheist manifesto, he and Harriet (who was by then sixteen) eloped to the Lake District and got married. Harriet's sister tagged along, and Percy hoped to bring his friend and fellow expellee Thomas Jefferson Hogg along, though any hope he had to set up a menage fell apart when Hogg pushed himself on Harriet and she rebuffed him by loudly quoting Bible passages.

While in the Lake District, Shelley met Robert Southey. In the 1790s Southey had been a Godwinian radical, but now, pushing forty, he'd transformed into a mainline Tory living a comfortable, homey life with his wife who loved to bake. Shelley was horrified at what he saw and began to worry that he was on the same path in life. 

But then Southey happened to mention William Godwin in passing. As with all young men, Shelley believed that anything that had happened before he could remember it was ancient history. Since Political Justice had been published while Shelley was still an infant, he naturally assumed Godwin must be long since dead. When Southey revealed that not only was the man still alive, but he was raising the two daughters of Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley knew he had to go to London and meet him.

NEXT TIME: When Mary Met Shelley

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part III: The Godwin Bunch

William Godwin was not suited to single fatherhood, and he knew this. As soon as it was seemly, he began searching for a new wife, and he found one in Jane Clairmont, the proverbial "widow next door".

Or at least Jane claimed to be a widow, but the truth was she'd adopted the name "Clairmont" to cover the fact that she was an unwed mother twice over, likely by two different men. One of these was a son named Charles, who played little role in the events to follow, and the other was a daughter who shared her name with her mother, but was known as Claire for the sake of -=ahem=- clarity.

Most of our information on Jane comes from admirers of Wollstonecraft who felt Godwin's new wife was a major step downwards, or from Mary Shelley, who despised her step-mother. This is further filtered through early authorized biographies of Mary and Percy, which portrayed Jane as an overbearing harridan, though as Mark Twain pointed out, her chief failing was "tell[ing] some disagreeable truths about [Percy]".

Still, Jane was likely an overly strict mother in the manner of parents who've screwed up their lives and are determined to prevent their children from repeating their mistakes. And as is usually the case, she failed completely. Two of her daughters would make the exact same mistake Jane had, and the third would do something far worse.

There are also accusations that Jane favored her own children (which came to include a second son, William, Jr.) over Wollstonecraft's. It is true that Charles and William, Jr. both received formal education and Claire attended a boarding school for a while, but Mary and Fanny were educated almost entirely at home. However, this most likely reflects discussions Godwin and Wollstonecraft had had on education. Godwin was an early advocate of homeschooling, and his anarchism made him distrust formal, regimented education. He felt children should be encouraged to explore their curiosity in a manner similar to what we now call Montessori. He deferred to Jane on her own children, but raised Mary and Fanny in the manner he felt Wollstonecraft would've approved of.

It's certainly hard to imagine that any British school that was open to girls at the time would've provided an environment as intellectually stimulating as the Godwin household, where Aaron Burr could pop by at lunch to discuss current events, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge would come over on Saturday to get everyone's opinion of his latest poem. On top of that, the household included Godwin's own bookshop/publishing house, which the girls had free access to. This explains the wide range of literary allusions found in Frankenstein, which would put any modern college freshman to shame -- and indeed, there have been critics who've argued that Percy must've co-written the novel because no uneducated nineteen year old girl could've been that knowledgeable. Horsehockey.

Apart from literature, Mary may also have gained some knowledge of science from the bookshop -- this was still a period when, apart from orbital mechanics, even the most cutting-edge scientific discoveries were understandable to layfolk -- though likely she picked up most of it from Percy, who was a bit of a nerd. Helping out with the shop also would've required the girls to learn enough math to total out a bill, which is about what would've been expected of them at a girl's school.

The one area where Mary and Fanny's education lagged Claire's was in French -- even in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, knowing French was de rigueur for any middle class woman, and neither of the girls who stayed at home seem to have learned it with any proficiency.

As to the reason Godwin now owned a bookshop, that was simple -- he was in desperate need of money. Obviously the transition from bachelorhood to being a father of five had been hard on the accounts, but even before he'd started his relationship with Wollstonecraft, he'd been having difficulties.

While An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice had been a financial success when it first hit shops, by the mid-1790s, as conservative propagandists spread alarm at the "Reign of Terror" in France, and Britain began its long and bloody war against the Revolutionary regime, being a radical philosopher was no longer a lucrative business to be in, and Godwin had to take on debt to maintain his lifestyle.

He made a number of stabs at reinventing himself. He put out a heavily revised edition of Political Justice in 1796, and another in 1798, each one watering down his original radicalism. Some of this was undoubtedly cravenness (a number of his colleagues had been arrested for sedition, and he only remained free because his book was too expensive to have attracted a mass audience), but as I discussed last time, some of his positions legitimately did evolve in response to events. But in any case, if people weren't interested in radical philosophy anymore, watered down radicalism wasn't going to bring them running back.

After Political Justice had come out, Godwin had penned a novel titled Caleb Williams, which is usually considered a Gothic though it's lacking in anything even vaguely supernatural. The story, concerning a servant who is persecuted by his master after discovering the master's dark secret, was Godwin's attempt to make his philosophy accessible to the average Joe, and had been a major success. So with his finances in dire straits, Godwin decided to take another stab at the Gothic, which was now at the height of its popularity, and in 1799 he published St. Leon, a tale of a man who acquires the Elixir of Life from an alchemist. He churned out several more potboilers in the coming decades, but apart from Caleb Williams, his fiction is only notable for its influence on Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

Once he was married to Jane, they decided to put out a line of children's books together, for which they founded their own publishing house, marketed as The Juvenile Library. They wrote a number of primers together -- mainly retellings of Biblical stories and Classical mythology -- and Jane translated The Swiss Family Robinson into English. They also convinced several friends to contribute as well, most notably Charles and Mary Lamb, who wrote Tales from Shakespeare for them.

But Godwin's biggest literary production during this time was his biography of Wollstonecraft, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Godwin had a rationalist streak in him that often led him to misunderstand basic human behavior, and this was a case in point. He believed that if he gave a 100% accurate account of Wollstonecraft's life, readers would understand the motivations for her philosophy and be more likely to support her ideals, so he didn't hide anything about Wollstonecraft in his account. Her helping her sister abandon her husband and child. Her relationship with Fuseli. Her affair with Imlay.  Her bastard daughter. It's all there. From a modern perspective, this is invaluable, especially in light of the Shelleys' later attempts to rewrite history. But when the book appeared in 1798, it destroyed Wollstonecraft's reputation. Her lifestyle was taken as proof that women's equality would lead to immorality. Other early feminist thinkers had to distance themselves from her work, which led to A Vindication of the Rights of Women becoming disconnected from the women's rights movement as it developed throughout the 19th and 20th Century.

But the book, and Godwin's other works during the period, did manage to stave off insolvency and keep a roof over the family's head. However, staving off insolvency isn't the same as getting out of debt, and the family was in a constant state of financial crisis. Godwin often had to turn to friends for "loans" that were for all intents and purposes gifts -- as he said in Political Justice, those who have the means owe it to those who have the needs, especially when the needy are worthy gentlemen such as Godwin. But as the years wore on, the number of friends Godwin could lean on dwindled away. Some hit financial troubles of their own; some got tired of throwing money into a bottomless pit; and many simply got old and died.

So when a young nob named Percy Shelley sent a letter proclaiming himself to be Godwin's biggest fan, Godwin smelled opportunity, and he invited Percy to stop by the next time he was in London.

NEXT WEEK: Pretentious, Privileged and a Total Ass -- Enter Percy Shelley

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The History of Frankenstein Part II: That Time the World's First Feminist Married the World's First Libertarian

At the end of 1792, even though tensions between Britain and France were running high, Mary Wollstonecraft moved to Paris, joining a British expat community made up largely of radical philosophers who were alarmed by the growing reactionary atmosphere back home. The most prominent of these was Tom Paine, who had fled Britain after hearing a rumor he was going to be charged with treason. Paine was working with Condorcet on reforms of the French education system, and he asked Wollstonecraft to submit ideas for women's education.

But Wollstonecraft had arrived in France at the worst possible time. Only a few days after settling into Paris, she witnessed King Louis being carted through the streets for his trial. France was already at war with Austria and Prussia, which had formed a coalition to restore Louis to his full monarchical power, and the King's execution in January 1793 brought Britain, Holland and Spain into the conflict as well. In response, the French National Convention created the Committee of Public Safety to take executive control of the country. The Committee took action to stabilize the economy and establish price controls on food, and organized a massive army that repulsed the enemy invasion. But at the same time they faced the threat of counter-revolutionary forces in the form of war profiteers, fifth columnists and insurgents. The Committee resorted to mass arrests of suspected Royalists, subversives, and Catholic clergy who wouldn't forswear their loyalty to Rome. Those judged guilty of high crimes were put to death.

Wollstonecraft hadn't foreseen this turn of events. It wasn't (contrary to what British propagandists claim) that the French were behaving exceptionally badly. After all, the British government at this time was establishing a domestic spy network to keep an eye on suspected subversives, many of whom would eventually be jailed, and in 1798 they'd carry out massacres and stage mass executions to put down an uprising in Ireland. But Wollstonecraft held the Revolution to higher standards than that. This was supposed to be a rational movement to make the world a better place, and here they were behaving no better than George III.

But still, Wollstonecraft decided to stick it out, and she soon hooked up with an American smuggler named Gilbert Imlay, becoming not only his lover but an unofficial business partner. The two never married, though Imlay did claim her as his wife to the French government, which led them to treat her as an American citizen rather than an Englishwoman.

In 1794 Wollstonecraft gave birth to her first daughter, Frances or Fanny. Unfortunately for the both of them, Imlay was a fickle bastard with no desire to be a father, and he ditched them soon after Fanny's birth. At first Wollstonecraft tried to stick it out in France, but being a single mother in this period was difficult enough; being one in a foreign country was even worse, to say nothing of a country that's at war with your homeland, and in 1795 she returned to London and tried to get back with Imlay.

Imlay was still a bastard, however, and he wouldn't take her back of even give her support. With no one else to turn to, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide. Imlay saved her, and afterwards he asked her to undertake a trip to Scandinavia to sort out some business matters for him. Whether this was a genuine attempt to get Wollstonecraft's mind on other matters, or just cynical exploitation ... well, Imlay was supposed to rendezvous with her in Germany but never made it. Once she returned to London, Wollstonecraft realized the relationship was beyond salvage and tried to drown herself in the Thames, though she was saved by a passerby.

Wollstonecraft recovered slowly, and it was during this time that she encountered William Godwin again and began a relationship with him.

To call Godwin the world's first libertarian is perhaps a bit unfair -- he wrote his major political work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, only a decade and a half after Smith published The Wealth of Nations and more than half a century before Marx and Engels began The Communist Manifesto, which makes it impossible to map him onto modern political axes that are defined by dogmatic capitalism and socialism.

Like most political thinkers of the late 18th Century, Godwin's primary concern was personal liberty, and his approach to it was utilitarian. He posited an early form of the Trolley Problem in which he imagined the French philosopher Fenelon in a burning room with his chambermaid, and concluded that any reasonable person -- even the chambermaid's husband -- should prefer to rescue Fenelon because he would make greater contributions to society. But at the same time, Godwin would reject modern Randian Libertarianism and the way its adherents assume the accumulation of wealth is an inherent good and the poor are lazy slobs who deserve their lot in life:


Justice obliges [a rich man] to regard this property as a trust, and calls upon him maturely to consider in what manner it may best be employed for the increase of liberty, knowledge and virtue. He has no right to dispose of a shilling of it at the will of his caprice. So far from being entitled to well earned applause for having employed some scanty pittance in the service of philanthropy, he is in the eye of justice a delinquent if he withhold any portion from that service. Nothing can be more incontrovertible. Could that portion have been better or more worthily employed? That it could is implied in the very terms of the proposition. Then it was just it should have been so employed. -- In the same manner as my property, I hold my person as a trust in behalf of mankind. I am bound to employ my talents, my understanding, my strength and my time for the production of the greatest quantity of general good. Such are the declarations of justice, so great is the extent of my duty.

But justice is reciprocal. If it be just that I should confer a benefit, it is just that another man should receive it, and, if I withhold from him that to which he is entitled, he must justly complain. My neighbour is in want of ten pounds that I can spare. There is no law of political institution that has been made to reach this case, and to transfer this property from me to him. But in the eye of simple justice, unless it can be shewn that the money can be more beneficently employed, his claim is as complete, as if he had my bond in his possession, or had supplied me with goods to the amount.
Both Engels and Kropotkin recognized Godwin as being part of their political lineage, though Engels felt that Godwin's emphasis on the individual and distrust of institutions made him ultimately incompatible with socialism. Ultimately it is modern Libertarians who are more direct descendants of Godwin, even if he himself would be appalled at Paul Ryan and Rand Paul using his ideas for such twisted ends.

There is one trait Godwin had that is shared by modern Libertarians, and that is a penchant for theorizing on subjects for which he had minimal experience. A case in point: For the first forty years of his life, Godwin lived as a bachelor with no signs of any romantic entanglements in his life, but that didn't stop him from writing about the subject. He began shrewdly enough:

But the evil of marriage as it is practised in European countries lies deeper than this. The habit is, for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow to each other eternal attachment. What is the consequence of this? In almost every instance they find themselves deceived. They are reduced to make the best of an irretrievable mistake. They are presented with the strongest imaginable temptation to become the dupes of falshood. 
This is certainly the conclusion our society has come to, apart from a few religiously conservatives. While we might want Ron and Hermione (or Harry and Hermione, or Harry and Neville) together forever, we recognize that in real life it's best not to marry your high school sweetheart. It's best to shop around a bit, find out what your options are, and take them out for a test drive by living together for a bit. But most of us (though in declining numbers) still recognize marriage as a potential endpoint for a relationship. Not so with Godwin. He believed that marriage itself was evil:

Add to this, that marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties. So long as two human beings are forbidden by positive institution to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice is alive and vigorous. So long as I seek to engross one woman to myself, and to prohibit my neighbour from proving his superior desert and reaping the fruits of it, I am guilty of the most odious of all monopolies. Over this imaginary prize men watch with perpetual jealousy, and one man will find his desires and his capacity to circumvent as much excited, as the other is excited to traverse his projects and frustrate his hopes
The framing of the argument is male-centric, with the woman as simply a prize to be won -- though it should be noted that this was the legal case at the time; for all intents and purposes, once a woman said, "I do," her husband owned her and all her property. And Godwin's idea of reform ignores the effects of patriarchy on the whole issue -- the fact that most men prize women when they're young and good looking, and they have less interest in taking care of a woman who has children from another man.

But one thing that separates Godwin from modern Libertarians is that he was willing to reconsider his ideas in light of new facts, and he did so on this issue after re-encountering Wollstonecraft. In the third edition of Political Justice, the above passage becomes:

Add to this, that marriage, as now understood, is a monopoly, and the worst of all monopolies. So long as two human beings are forbidden by positive institution, to follow the dictates of their own mind, prejudice will be alive and vigorous. So long as I seek, by despotic and artificial means, to maintain my possession of a woman, I am guilty of the most odious selfishness. Over this imaginary prize, men watch with perpetual jealousy and one man finds his desire, and his capacity to circumvent, as much excited, as the other is excited to traverse his projects and frustrate his hopes
Notice how in this new version, the problem with marriage isn't that one man is keeping a woman from another man, but that the act of possessing a woman is itself "despotic and artificial".

His change of thinking is more obvious when it comes to the matter of sex and love. In the first edition of Political Justice, Godwin reasoned:
The intercourse of the sexes will in such a state fail under the same system as any other species of friendship. Exclusively of all groundless and obstinate attachments, it will be impossible for me to live in the world without finding one man of a worth superior to that of any other whom I have an opportunity of observing. To this man I shall feel a kindness in exact proportion to my apprehension of his worth. The case will be precisely the same with respect to the female sex. I shall assiduously cultivate the intercourse of that woman whose accomplishments shall strike me in the most powerful manner. 'But it may happen that other men will feel for her the same preference that I do.' This will create no difficulty. We may all enjoy her conversation; and we shall all be wise enough to consider the sensual intercourse as a very trivial object. This, like every other affair in which two persons are concerned, must be regulated in each successive instance by the unforced consent of either party. It is a mark of the extreme depravity of our present habits, that we are inclined to suppose the sensual intercourse any wise material to the advantages arising from the purest affection. Reasonable men now eat and drink, not from the love of pleasure, but because eating and drinking are essential to our healthful existence. Reasonable men then will propagate their species, not because a certain sensible pleasure is annexed to this action, but because it is right the species should be propagated; and the manner in which they exercise this function will be regulated by the dictates of reason and duty.
 This is of course the sort of overly-rational thinking you expect from Libertarian sci-fi fans who think Mr. Spock is the ideal of manhood. But after his relationship with Wollstonecraft, Godwin completely changed his tune:

It is a question of some moment, whether the intercourse of the sexes, in a reasonable state of society, would be promiscuous, or whether each man would select for himself a partner, to whom he will adhere, as long as that adherence shall continue to be the choice of both parties. Probability seems to be greatly in favour of the latter. Perhaps this side of the alternative is most favourable to population. Perhaps it would suggest itself in preference, to the man who would wish to maintain the several propensities of his frame, in the order due to their relative importance, and to prevent a merely sensual appetite from engrossing excessive attention. It is scarcely to be imagined, that this commerce, in any state of society, will be stripped of its adjuncts, and that men will as willingly hold it, with a woman whose personal and mental qualities they disapprove, as with one of a different description. But it is the nature of the human mind, to persist, for a certain length of time, in its opinion or choice. The parties therefore having acted upon selection, are not likely to forget this selection when the interview is over. Friendship, if by friendship we understand that affection for an individual which is measured singly by what we know of his worth, is one of the most exquisite gratifications, perhaps one of the most improving exercises, of a rational mind. Friendship therefore may be expected to come in aid of the sexual intercourse, to refine its grossness, and increase its delight. All these arguments are calculated to determine our judgement in favour of marriage as a salutary and respectable institution, but not of that species of marriage in which there is no room for repentance and to which liberty and hope are equally strangers.
In other words, Godwin and Wollstonecraft had mindblowing sex, and all the more so because they were intellectual equals who respected each other.

But their happiness was short lived. Wollstonecraft became pregnant at the end of 1796, and she and Godwin decided, despite their mutual misgivings about marriage, to wed so their child would be legitimate. But Wollstonecraft was by now thirty-eight, an age at which child birth became dangerous. Her daughter Mary was born safely, but Wollstonecraft contracted a postpartum infection and died a mere two weeks later, leaving her two daughters in the care of a forty year old man who had spent his entire life as a bachelor.

NEXT TIME: The Godwin Bunch