Wednesday, March 28, 2018

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

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

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

What is Frankenstein about at its most basic level?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT TIME: Defining Terms

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

Monday, March 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT TIME: Assembling the Monster -- Frankenstein as Autobiography

Monday, March 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT TIME: The Desecration of Harriet Shelley