Sunday, December 31, 2017

The History of Frankenstein Part I: Lies, Damned Lies, and Mary Shelley's Preface to Frankenstein

Most of us are familiar with the tale of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein -- how she and her husband Percy were on vacation in Switzerland and happened to be staying near Lord Byron, and on a dark and stormy night, after reading some German horror stories, they decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story. It all sounds so genteel. Something you'd see on Masterpiece Theater.

It's also pure BS.

Mary and her step-sister Claire were the Kardashians of the early 19th Century. And I don't mean they were wild by the standards of their day. They did things that would still make the front page of TMZ. If they were alive today, they'd be feuding with Beyonce and Taylor Swift, I guarantee it.

So where did the sanitized version of the story come from?

Why Mary Shelley herself.

In 1831 she was faced with the prospect of her only surviving child, Percy Florence, starting school the following year, and she didn't want him to be dogged by nasty rumors about his parents and grandparents. So when the opportunity to put out a new edition of Frankenstein came up, Shelley decided to heavily revise it, watering down the more controversial elements, and to append a new preface telling how the book came to be written. This being the period before modern mass media, scandals were kept alive by memory and world of mouth. More than a dozen years had passed since Mary's infamous stay at Lake Geneva, so by putting out a sanitized version of events, she was able to influence the narrative.

The preface to the 1831 edition is filled with lies and misleading statements. They begin in the third paragraph when she says, "I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable time in Scotland." In truth she spent most of her childhood in her father's London bookshop, leaving the city only rarely. The "considerable time" spent in Scotland was really a couple summer vacations intended to get her out of her step-mother's hair.

In the next paragraph she claims, "My husband, however, was from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enroll myself on the page of fame." This isn't a lie per se, but it's worded in a way to leave the impression that Mary and Percy were already married when they went to Lake Geneva, when the truth is Percy had a wife back in England, whom he'd dumped to run around Europe with a couple of teenage girl. When Mary describes the writing contest, she says "There were four of us," which is, again, technically correct in that only four of them appear to have participated, but it leaves the impression that only four of them were hanging out together in Geneva, when in fact there was a fifth person present. But the identity of that fifth person and the reason for her presence--and indeed the whole reason for the Shelleys meeting Byron--was scandalous and something Mary wanted to hide.

But to discuss how Mary came to be at Lake Geneva in 1816, we have to take a step back and look at not just her life story, but those of her parents, the radical philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.
You've undoubtedly seen editions of Frankenstein that credit the author by her full name, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. I've encountered a number of people who assume "Wollstonecraft" was her maiden name, but that's not the case at all. Rather, in keeping with the style of the time, it was her middle name taken from her mother's family. Mary Wollstonecraft had been one of the major political thinkers of the 1790s. After laboring as a reviewer for a radical magazine for several years, she burst to fame with a takedown of Edmund Burke entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), which she followed up with a sequel, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which laid the foundations for feminist philosophy. She argued that the only differences between men and women are those imposed upon them by societal pressures, and women would be every bit as capable as men if they were given the same opportunities in education and career.

As Virginia Woolf observed, Wollstonecraft was "no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist"  -- she lived what she preached, and she "thrust aside her theories and modeled them afresh" as she gained experience in life.

Her grandfather had been a wealthy textile manufacturer, and her father had every intention of raising himself to the level of landed gentry. Unfortunately grandpa's head for business was not hereditary, and Papa Wolstonecraft's various schemes pushed the family down the social ladder rather than up, until they were barely clinging to the pretension of being middle class. Papa Wollstonecraft did not handle failure well, and he transformed into a vicious despot. He was abusive enough to cause comment even in the 18th Century, and the family moved every few years due to a combination of rumors and financial failures. Only Mary and her older brother Ned escaped his abuse -- the former because she dared to stand up to him and he was too much of a coward to go after someone who might fight back, and the latter because he sided with his father.

Wollstonecraft skipped out on her family as soon as it was practicable, even though doing so meant moving in with her friend Fanny Blood's family, who were even closer to penury than the Wollstonecrafts. Fanny was a remarkable woman. Somehow, probably thanks to an eccentric clergyman who took both her and Wollstonecraft under his wing, Fanny had received an exceptionally good education for someone so poor. She spoke French fluently and drew illustrations for a botanical encyclopedia. According to Wollstonecraft, Fanny was a better writer than herself, though sadly none of Fanny's letters have survived.

Wollstonecraft's younger sister Eliza also moved out while still young, though she did so through the more traditional method of marriage. At first everything seemed to be going fine for her, but then she gave birth to a daughter and suffered a severe bout of post-partum depression. Her husband wanted to follow a popular bit of folklore that held copious sex to be the best cure for melancholia. It's not clear whether he actually forced himself on Eliza or merely pressured her, but in any event Mary was appalled by what was going on and decided to abscond with her sister. Notably, though, she did not decide to abscond with the baby, who was left in the father's care.

Eliza's husband did plea for her return, but he never took legal action, most likely because the whole situation was embarrassing -- it's one thing for a wife to run off with another man, but to be stolen away by her sister ... he didn't want to put himself up to public ridicule. Unfortunately Eliza's daughter died a year later. While infant mortality was still common at the time, one can't help but wonder if things would've turned out differently if Wollstonecraft had brought the baby along.

In the meantime, Wollstonecraft had to find a way to support herself and Eliza. She couldn't very well impose her sister on the Bloods, so that was out. Governessing and companioning (basically being a personal assistant for a wealthy spinster or widow) were horrible jobs that women avoided whenever possible. Mary had friends who would lend her money to start a shop, but her bourgeois pretensions made her see shopkeeping as beneath her.

Which left school teaching.

Mary invited her other sister, Everina, to join them, along with Fanny Blood, who knew French, a subject that any decent school had to offer. With the backing of friends, Mary set up a small school and boarding house that was never quite prosperous, but did keep the four women afloat for a while. More importantly, it brought Mary into contact with the educational reform movement of the period. Recognizing her keen mind, her fellow reformers urged her to write a treatise on educational theory. The book she produced was nothing original, but it was well argued and gave her a (very small) public profile, along with a connection to the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson.

But the situation with the school couldn't last. Fanny suffered from consumption, and she was affianced to a British merchant in Lisbon in the hope that a warmer climate would improve her health. Perhaps it did, but whatever effect it had was negated when she became pregnant. Mary scrounged up what money she could and sailed to Portugal, arriving just in time to comfort Fanny on her deathbed.

With the two best teachers gone, the Wollstonecraft school entered a terminal decline and collapsed soon after Mary returned to England. Wollstonecraft made arrangements for her sisters, then deigned to take a job as governess to the children of Robert King, the Viscount of Kingsborough. Between her hardheadedness and middle class pride, Wollstonecraft could not get along with her mistress, the Lady Caroline, who treated her perfectly kindly but with an attitude of noblesse oblige that got under Wollstonecraft's skin.

The Kings let Wollstonecraft go after a year, though a single year was enough for Mary to infect her star pupil, Margaret King, with a revolutionary mindset. Margaret later sided with the Republicans during the Rebellion of 1798, and then dumped the husband her parents had arranged for her and ran off to Italy with her true love. And that's not even mentioning the time she disguised herself as a man so she could attend medical school ....

The newly unemployed Wollstonecraft got in touch with Johnson, who was in the process of starting a new magazine and had an opening for a book reviewer, which she snatched up.

Not long after this, the Revolution in France began. At first it received broad support from British intellectuals, who hoped the French might move away from absolutist monarchy towards a more constrained constitutional system like their own. But as radical ideas spread in France, some intellectuals began having doubts. Edmund Burke, who had up until this point been a fairly liberal man, gave voice to these doubts in his book Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke took the view that reform was all well and good, but it had to be approached carefully and slowly, without disrupting the existing social order. Sure, France could stand a dose of democracy, but let's not get carried away by giving the peasants the vote or abolishing aristocracy! (This is still considered a foundational work of modern conservatism.)

Reflections proved to be the first salvo in a long-running pamphlet war between pro- and anti-revolutionary thinkers in Britain. The first major response to reach bookshops came from Wollstonecraft in her long essay A Vindication of the Rights of Men, published less than a month after Burke's book hit shelves. Subsequent writers like Tom Paine would offer more detailed and logical rebuttals, but Wollstonecraft hit him where it hurt most, by attacking his rhetoric and turning it against him to show how shallow his arguments were.

Wollstonecraft followed this up with a sequel, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which attacked the French -- namely Talleyrand -- for clinging to patriarchal notions about the place of women in society and not advocating for the equality of everyone regardless of gender.

During this time, Johnson regularly threw dinners for his friends, many of them leading thinkers of the day, and through these Wollstonecraft made her entrée into the intelligentsia. At one dinner she had her first encounter with William Godwin, though it was a less than auspicious beginning for a relationship -- Godwin had come specifically to meet Tom Paine, but Paine turned out to be shy and reserved in social settings, whereas Wollstonecraft was outspoken and dominated the conversation. It would be years before the two met again. In the meantime, Wollstonecraft became attracted to another of Johnson's friends, the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (whose painting The Nightmare would inspire a pivotal scene in Frankenstein and serve as the cover art for numerous editions).

 Wollstonecraft had attracted several suitors over the years, but either because of her own paternally induced antipathy towards men, or because her intellect and outspokenness intimidated the men of the time, none of her relationships had gone anywhere. Fuseli, who was already married to one of his models, was different. He took Wollstonecraft seriously as thinker, but more importantly, he turned her on. Up until this point, Wollstonecraft had exhibited little sign of a sex drive, approaching relationships with men as rational affairs. Fuseli, however, managed to activate her libido. They probably didn't consummate their relationship, but he did shift her views on sex. The philosophy she'd been developing up to this point was what would be termed today "sex-negative feminism" that expected everyone in society to remain in the bounds of strict sexual propriety, but after her relationship she started wondering -- what if women could have the same sexual freedom that men already have.

Unfortunately she would soon learn the hard way that without social and economic equality, sexual liberation was impossible.

NEXT WEEK: That Time the First Feminist and the First Libertarian Got Married

No comments:

Post a Comment