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. ^

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