Mary Shelley

Highlights from the Frankenstein exhibit at The Morgan

By a happy accident, the Morgan Library’s show on Frankenstein’s bicentennial opened the same week that my book club planned to meet and discuss the novel. So, having just read the novel, we were primed to appreciate the show.

Verdict: a stunning exhibit, not just for fans of the novel but for anybody interested in the Romantic period and the origins of horror as a genre.

My highlights:

A few artifacts revealing connections between the geniuses of the period that I hadn’t known about. When you walk in, the first thing you see is the original of Füseli’s famous painting, The Nightmare, which has appeared on the cover of multitudes of horror story collections and books abut witchcraft and the supernatural. What I hadn’t known was that Füseli was a lover of Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and that the painting and others by the great Swiss master of the uncanny would’ve been known to Mary Shelly personally.

A few bits of Percy Shelley’s skull, supposedly snatched from his funeral pyre by a friend. And less than a foot from them are the fragmentary pages of a poem Shelley had with him on the sea voyage on which he drowned.

Percy Shelley’s own copy of Paradise Lost, which was displayed in a line-up of period copies of all the books Frankenstein’s monster reads in the course of his education.

Pages from the manuscript of Frankenstein itself, which contained memorable passages that you can just puzzle out, as well as what is unmistakably the marginal scribblings of Percy Shelly, offering up vivid phrases to enliven his wife’s book.

The portraits of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft that you see on the covers of their books, which felt like being in the presence of the two women. More remarkable was a line in the description of Mary Wollstonecraft’s portrait that mentions her and her daughter’s friendship with Aaron Burr and his wife Theodosia. That puts fewer than two degrees of separation between all the American founding fathers and the seventeen-year-old girl whose genius would invent science fiction and change the world.

Go see the show! I haven’t described half the wonders you’ll see.

Book Review: Frankenstein at 200

Frankenstein broke into my boyhood consciousness like a thunderclap. I read it over a series of August afternoons in my parents’ living room in Santa Fe where, in the high summer, each day begins in dry heat and sunshine and ends in a rumbling electrical storm that arrives at 2 or 3 p.m. Perfect weather to read a moody, romantic masterpiece with at least two big scenes that take place in similar conditions.

I came to the book for the horror and weirdness, which it delivered, but stayed for the larger world it opened up to me. It was the first Great Book I ever read that I had just enough outside knowledge to glimpse its greatness. After that first page, when we’ve gone from the day-to-day details of the narrators life to soar over the polar regions and into interplanetary space, I was caught in an enchantment which didn’t let up until the final page.

Rereading it now, that first page seems like a portal into science fiction for all of Western literature. It’s also the start of a tale within a tale, which links Frankenstein to Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights. As a boy, I knew none of this. I was interested in the way that alchemy and early electrical science show up in the story. After a span of nearly four decades, I was not quite as as transported or transformed as I was in my first reading. But I am still in awe of this book. Here’s why.

It is a myth. Like Dracula, She, Peter Pan, or Sherlock Holmes, this book endures because it taps into something primal, deeper than any reader or even Shelly herself could understand. It’s about depression, unintended consequences, guilt, the loss of innocence, and the cosmic tradeoff of consciousness and free will–all at once. You can’t intend to write a story like this. You have to channel it like a sibyl (or like the sibyl that opens Shelley’s other masterpiece The Last Man).

It is also a nightmare. [SPOILERS] According to Gestalt therapy, you are everybody in your dreams. This could be true of Frankenstein. In an anticipation of Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde, the creature is both a separate demon conjured by Victor the magician and also a projection of his own worst impulses. The monster is like a huge shadow of his creator, full of lust, resentment, and rage. Certain sequences feel like nightmares, like the time Victor spends in prison accused of murdering his best friend. I don’t know about you, but I can vividly remember dreams in which I know I’ve somehow committed a terrible crime, even though I have no memory of it.

It is beautiful. Some of the narrative events feel like forced set pieces. There is no real reason that Victor and the creature should end up arguing on a glacier in the Swiss Alps, racing through the steps of Russia, or in a crowded graveyard at night in Geneva. But it doesn’t matter because it’s all so deliciously brooding and Romantic. Take a look at pretty much any painting by Caspar David Friedrich or Eugene Delacroix and you’ll get the same sensibility. In one passage, the dead eyes of one of the hero’s loved ones are transformed, in Victor’s mind’s eye, into the watery grey eyes of the monster he’s created, and he’s surrounded by the echoing laughter of his creation, all as he’s kind of zoning out while looking at a twilight ocean off the coast of Northern Scotland. It could be an impressionistic sequence from a film.

It is fun without sacrificing complexity. [SPOILERS] You can read Frankenstein as a straight up horror story. It races along from location to location in short, punchy chapter. But if you pause over any of the major moments, you’re suddenly in a maze of ambiguities that quickly feels like real life. After Victor’s dying words, a speech worthy of any Romantic hero, you think you’ve got the perfect ending ringing in your ears. But then the creature shows up to get the final word, and you almost believe his side of the story, which calls into question everything you’ve read up until that point.

It is a treasury of smaller stories. The book starts out in epistolary form, narrated by a minor character named Walton, who feels as fully fleshed out as any of the narrators who succeed him. Thereafter, a series of villagers, servants, citizens of Geneva, faculty members of Victor’s University, and a few other characters show up, each replete with their own story. A later novelist, like Wilkie Collins (or modern horror maestro Justin Cronin, in whose books even the dogs get backstories) would’ve told every last story. But Shelley, like her contemporary Jane Austen, is a miniaturist who captures whole universes with economy and style.

It is short, but richly detailed. Somehow, Shelly understood that odd fiction can’t bear the weight of length. The whole section in which Victor furiously creates the monster is sketched out in perhaps 2-3 pages, but they are richly detailed enough that you feel as though you’ve read 20 or 30 pages. The entire book wraps up in just 216 pages. The best modern practitioners of uncanny stories, like Isak Dinesen, David Mitchell, Adam Haslett, and Cormac McCarthy also write in this highly compressed style. The same is true of all great science fiction. All of H.G. Wells’ most famous novels, for example, are barely 200 pages.

It hasn’t been tarnished by sexism or racism. [SPOILERS] Questions of race and gender show up and are given an enlightened treatment, even by today’s standards. The creature himself, as a narrative embodiment of enlightenment tabula rasa thinking, speaks to the idea that all consciousness is equal, regardless of the body it inhabits. In one scene, Victor’s dawning feminism leads him to shrink back from creating a female monster, even though the demon demands one. When he realizes there is no natural order that will make his female creation bound to the agreements made before her birth, he destroys his work. And the whole question of creating full-fledged intelligence from nothing, and of being careless what that intelligence learns from its human creators, is about to be relevant. We are perhaps ten years from true A.I. and already grappling with these issues. Will A.I. be our shadow or our savior? Shelley the sibyl somehow foresaw this dilemma.

Frankenstein turns 200 this year, and it is still as bright as beautiful as it was in 1818. Yet the Shelley family had no inkling of the novel’s lasting fame.

Shelley’s father hastily sold the rights to a theater production, cashing in while they could. Despite scribbling 2000 words of revisions into the margins of one printed copy of Frankenstein, she left it with an innkeeper as a gift, unsure there would ever be a reprint in where she could use them.

This year a number of books about Frankenstein are out, along with rewrites that use the story to examine our own moment, even the U.S.’s foreign wars in Iraq and elsewhere. Like the monster in the story, Shelley’s creation seems to have a size and strength its original creator could never have foreseen.