Tuesday, September 25, 2018

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: Our Endless Blind Date with Mary Shelley

Elle Fanning as an imaginary Mary lost in dreams, in Mary Shelley (2017).

Just in time for the 200th anniversary of the publication of this exotic, bizarre, thought-provoking and psychologically complex concoction by a precocious teenager, a new biography of Mary Shelley arrives to tantalize us further with her tangled web of masculine mythology and proto-feminism writ large. In addition to being timely, In Search of Mary Shelley, from Pegasus and authored by renowned poet Fiona Sampson, has the added virtue of admitting that the search goes on for the true essence of this strange girl, and that it’s unlikely anyone will ever know the real core of this scarily prescient modernist daughter of two radical parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Macabre Mary lived from 1797 to 1851.

Never one to be left out of any cultural celebration, Hollywood too is also getting in on the act with the release of a biopic (a term I’ve never admired) called Mary Shelley from Hanways Films, and starring young Elle Fanning in the title role, as good a choice as anyone for a character who will always remain a puzzle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The author herself is at least as alluring an unnerving as the creature she created.

But that new film might just be more indulgence in the cinematic uncanny, and what interests us here is the source material, not only of the ghostly and ghoulish Frankenstein mythology but also of the somewhat skewed and unsettling psyche of the 19-year-old who manifested it. Which is why Sampson’s biography is such a vital contribution to grasping the history not only of this spooky narrative but also of the radical romanticism at work in the early years of the 19th century. So, in order to truly enjoy Sampson’s “search for Mary,” a task which is easy to submit to since it is so well constructed a creative profile, the very first thing you’ll need to do is erase from your mind all traces of the Boris Karloff and Colin Clive portrayals (“It’s alive, It’s alive!) in the 1931 James Whale film.

Then pick up this new biography and absorb it (hopefully reading at night in dimly-lit rooms) long before ever entertaining the earnest Elle’s attempt to embody Shelley as a newly re-filmed character. The second thing I suggest is to stop referring to the creature Victor Frankenstein assembled as a “monster.” It was the deluded and arrogant doctor who was the actual monster, not the innocent victim of his grandiose experiments with galvanic life-and death-altering forces who was brought back into an unwilling existence before being condemned, once it was too late, as too hideous a being to contemplate.

Now we’re ready to commence an impossible journey towards that ever-retreating and shape-shifting phantom, the erstwhile widow Mrs. Shelley. Owing to my inexplicable interest in reading about mythology as a kid, I was fortunate in some ways to make my first childhood encounter with the written story itself before ever seeing the 1931 movie (or indeed any of the other umpteen follow-ups). This good fortune allowed me to realize the true horror of her Modern Prometheus (the crucial subtitle often overlooked in people’s assessments of her story) in the context of the written word, where the scenes depicted are far scarier, and the human implications far more disturbing, than anything the cinematic uncanny could ever cook up.

Along the way of our search for Mary Shelley with Fiona Sampson, we first must come to terms with the fact that her new biography of the young author is the twentieth attempt. All of the others, with the possible exception of Muriel Spark’s 1951 version (worthwhile as a work by a fellow fictional artist, perhaps) or maybe the 2001 venture by Miranda Seymour (who had access to previously unknown research papers and documents) are not quite up to the standard of Fiona Sampson’s.

There is even a Mary Shelley encyclopedia, so extensive is the public appetite for this strange girl’s imagination. And I suppose it’s easy to understand why she fascinates us so much: her outrageous love affair while she was still a pale, brilliant but quirky 16-year-old girl with the married poet Percy Shelley, who abandoned his wife and children to elope with her; her jaunts around the alps and romps near Lake Geneva with wayward pals like Lord Byron, who first challenged Percy and Mary to devise the most unsettling ghost stories, one “dark and stormy night.” Mary wins the competition, of course, and delivers to us one of the longest-lasting themes in literary history.

Sampson does an excellent job of placing young Mary in the context of the turbulent Romantic period, as well as in the substantial shadow of her visionary mother Wollstonecraft (who died shortly after her birth), the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), who embedded sturdy feminist genes in her daughter even in absentia. Mary scandalously runs off with Percy Shelley in 1814 at 17 years of age. She writes her amazing novel two years later, then Shelley dies by drowning in 1822. Mary enters a permanent state of mourning until her own demise at the age of 53.

The “real” Mary, circa 1839. (Hulton Archives)
She spent her “twilight” years editing her late husband’s puffy verse and attempting to write five other novels, none of which ever approached the enchantment or enlightenment of her first effort. The answer to what makes her Frankenstein narrative “the first modern myth” is largely what occupies Sampson as she takes us on an exhaustively detailed excursion into the mind of the writer and the conscience of the age in which she lived. As Sampson puts it well, “She changed the face of fiction. She has challenged every modern generation since she wrote her first novel to explore both empirical science and moral philosophy; and in the hubristic researcher Victor Frankenstein and his creature, the nearly human of our nightmares, she created two enduring archetypes.”

When she was a high-spirited and rebellious teenager, one of Mary’s arms became “mysteriously handicapped,” possibly suffering from some severe eczema or psoriasis, and it grew to become “like a monstrous appendage stitched from some other body on to her own.” This odd episode led to her being sent away from the family home in London to recuperate in the sea air of Ramsgate, and it may even have contributed to the extended mediation she imagined for the bodily form of “the creature she invents in her first novel who will be stitched together by Frankenstein” from dead foreign body parts and electrified into animation again.

One of the services Sampson provides the reader is to convincingly collage together something of the texture of the author’s personality and its formative influences. One of Mary Shelley’s own observations of the true purpose of biography, “to deduce the peculiar character of a person from the minute characteristic details that punctuated their life,” proposes biography as a kind of mirror into which we can gaze and see someone other than ourselves, and yet one informed by our presence before the mirror.

Shelley herself asked, in the preface to the 1831 third edition of her 1818 story, “How did I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?” The question remains unanswered and perhaps unanswerable. How, indeed, did she conjure a literary archetype that speaks so deeply and distressingly to “the mysterious fears of our natures” and the perennial founding “myth of modern science” carefully crafted to induce and awaken “the most chilling horrors imaginable”? For Nick Groom, who wrote the introduction to the original 1818 text, Frankenstein was, among other things “a creation myth about the origin of all stories.” Perfectly said.

Illustration by Bruce Hutchison of Mary haunted by her own literary invention.

Yet for another close observer, Anne Mellor, it also “articulates, perhaps for the first time in Western literature, the most powerfully felt anxieties of pregnancy.” In other words, it plumbs the very haunting origins of life itself out of sheer personal will power and animal desire, creating what  Shelley referred to as “my monstrous progeny.” I myself have termed it a collision between a masculine mythology and a feminist visionary, a sense somewhat shared by the science historian Brian Easlea in his fantastically titled book Fathering the Unthinkable, in which he examines “Mary Shelley’s indictment of masculine ambition” and further detects in Frankenstein and Shelley a daring exposure of “the compulsive character of masculine science.”

He also posits that Shelley demonstrates her intuitive (and feminist) grasp of the fact that Frankenstein’s presumptuous act of creating life also marks an incestuous violation, especially in the scene where the Modern Prometheus, Victor, attempts to sleep after he has fled from the hideous creature he has created and becomes “disturbed by the wildest dreams,” having just witnessed one come to life in the waking world.

A final pertinent question remains. Is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus a ghost story, a Gothic romance, a horror story, or possibly the very first science-fiction story (it certainly predates both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells)? And the answer that Sampson seems to suggest is: yes. It’s all those things at once, especially a love affair between a man and his equipment. Whatever it is, it became an immediate bestseller upon its anonymous release and has never flagged since.

When the second edition was released in 1823, reviewers were genuinely stunned to discover that the now attached author’s name revealed her supposedly tender distaff gender, and by the time the third amended and improved edition came out in 1831, it was already a modern (and modernist) classic. Sampson’s masterful lifting of the obscure veils surrounding the personal biography and lifestyle of it’s maker goes a long way to explaining how and why her book still matters. It is a work of intuitive genius, and far from tender.

In Search of Mary Shelley is also a highly captivating detective story in its own right, one that follows a number of intriguing clues to the background and unconscious motivations at work in the production of so inspiring and terrifying a fictional character. The lamentable and melancholy observation of Captain Walton in Frankenstein is perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Shelley herself: “There is something at work in my soul that I do not understand.”

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His most recent work is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in November 2018.

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