Sunday, September 17, 2006

She's ALIVE!!!

Doesn't look too happy, does she?

Oh no, you say? Not another retelling of that most famous of Dark and Stormy Nights during which Lord Byron challenges each of his several guests at the (rented) Villa Diodati to tell a ghost story, resulting in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein! Indeed, it would be hard to imagine what else could possibly be milked from this transcendent event that has become enshrined in pop culture's collective memory. Movies have been made; books have been written (most recently, Chuck Palahniuk used it as the inspiration for a collection of short stories).

Calm the hell down, man. Before you flee, muttering "So we'll go no more a-roving / So late into the night" under your breath, let me introduce you to the Hooblers, Dorothy and Thomas, whose latest book The Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankenstein does something that, to my admittedly spotty knowledge, has not been yet attempted for the common reader: it explicates the causes and sources of Mary Shelley's immortal novel. The Hooblers' book will doubtless have limited appeal. Those familiar with the English Romantics will be bored by this most obvious of topics within the milieu; the rest won't care. Their loss, as The Monsters proves to be a page-turning soap opera of the first order, detailing the intellectual and sexual lives of some of the most famous people in history. I read most of the book (323 pages of text) in one sitting.

The book is a collective biography of Byron and his four guests on that stormy night in the villa on Lake Geneva. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin, Byron's young physician John Polidori (traveling with Byron in exile), the sexually ambitious Claire Claremont (Mary's step-sister), and the notorious Lord all get their biographical due, but the narrative anchors on Mary. The first chapter is a moving account of the loves, losses, and achievements of Mary's famous mother, the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who died eleven days after giving birth to her daughter. The Hooblers go to work on their thesis right away, finding a symbolic Frankenstein connection years before Mary Shelley was born: Wollstonecraft was, before finding and marrying William Godwin, briefly the lover of Henry Fuseli, the artist who shocked England with his immortal 1781 painting The Nightmare. (Mary Shelley would describe a woman lying murdered in bed by the nameless monster in a manner identical to the woman in the painting.)

But a painting's just a painting; it turned out that Mary would find more than enough monstrousness in her actual father, the radical thinker William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, who had apparently used up the sum total of his decency with Wollstonecraft. After her death, if the Hooblers are to be believed (and perhaps they're being very selective with their primary sources), Godwin calcified into an insufferable moralist as emotionally cold as his Calvinist forebears, whom he resembled far more than he doubtless would have wished. The first tactless thing Godwin did was to write a tell-all biography of his dead wife, in which her sexual history, including the birth of Mary's older sister thanks to the services of a lover named Imlay, is meticulously laid out. Well, there was only so much radicalism that late 18th-century Great Britian could take: Wollstonecraft's memory was smeared until the middle of the 20th century, and Godwin himself was tarred and feathered in the press and spat on in the street. Even after he remarried -- to a no-nonsense woman named Mary Jane Clairmont -- he kept a large portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft hanging up in the living room, perhaps as a reminder to young Mary that, as the single child of the Wollstonecraft-Godwin union, she had a hell of a lot to live up to. (The new Mrs. Godwin's opinion on this shrine to the first wife remains unrecorded.)

Adding to the confusion and misery for young Mary, she "grew up in a strange blended family of five children with no child having the same two parents." The details are too dense to get into here, but let it be said that the brilliant, half-insane young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley eventually found his way to Godwin to pay him homage for Political Justice and other works. Almost immediately, the shunned, unemployable, virtually unpublishable radical latched onto the ingratiating future baronet Percy as a source of financial security; in recompense, Percy -- currently 19 and married to another teenager -- absconded with 16-year-old Mary (along with step-sister Claire Claremont, daughter of the new Mrs. Godwin, with whom Percy certainly had sexual relations soon after declaring his love for Mary). The suddenly affronted Godwin -- the torch-bearer of "free love" -- affected to feel betrayed, and refused all communication with Mary for the foreseeable future . . . though he was not so outraged as to stop asking Percy for more money as the years went on.

Monstrous people; monstrous behavior. And young Miss Mary wasn't much better, more or less laughing at the plight of Percy's abandoned (and pregnant) wife Harriet. (Harriet would eventually commit suicide when it became apparent that Percy would never return to her and their son.) But karma, as always, was instant: soon Mary herself was pregnant. The baby girl died soon after. But at least she was able to rid the household of step-sister and rival Claire, who had been living with them since the elopement. But the nubile Claire -- who emerges as the great instigator of events and engaging anti-heroine in this account -- isn't to be defeated so easily. If she would be denied the famous Percy Shelley, then she would go for bigger game and surpass Mary. Back in the Godwin house in London, Claire commenced writing love letters to none other than Lord Byron himself. The letters were so persistent that Byron eventually started writing back; an affair began. Byron really should have known better, but he was, well, Lord Byron. He summed it up this way: " . . . if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours, there is but one way . . ." The affair was occurring during the scandalous revelations that Byron was having a sexual relationship with his own half-sister. He was being run out of the country. Claire, now pregnant, would follow . . . with Mary (pregnant again) and Percy (dying to meet the infamous poet) in tow.

So that is how they all got together on that dark and stormy summer night in 1816. Actually, it was several weeks that they spent together in the Villa Diodati, Byron and Percy doing most of the talking. The subjects included poetry, philosophy, the supernatural, and science. They discussed the discoveries of Italian Luigi Galvani, "who had shown in 1786 that he could produce muscular contractions in dead frogs by touching them with a pair of scissors during an electrical storm." In 1803, Galvani was trying to do the same thing to human cadavers with electricity collected in Leyden jars. (His name bequeathed us the word "galvanize".) Mary, who had spent a lifetime reading the masters of literature, history, and philosopy, and further enriched during the past 2 years by Percy's manic tutelage, sucked it all in like a sponge. Plainly, Frankenstein was crying out to be born, and Lord Byron's ghost story challenge proved to be the vehicle of conception.

But Mary was also immersed in the new Romantic tradition, which rejected the cold rationalism of her parents' generation. Her fictional baron, Victor Frankenstein, ends up destroyed by science: the nameless monster he creates kills the people closest to his creator and vows to destroy Victor himself. The creator, half-mad like Percy Shelley, tries to turn the tables on the monster and purses the creature in turn, all the way to the Arctic wasteland aboard a ship captained by an explorer seeking the Northern Passage. This part of the plot mirrors a novel that Mary's father had written, Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, in which a servant is framed for murder by a tyrannical employer: both pursue the other murderously. Influences from the world outside and influences from within her private world interlocked to create the inevitable masterpiece. Victor, the combination of her father and husband, perishes in defeat; the monster (her mother? Mary herself?) vanishes into the ice. Still out there. Frankenstein can be read as a declaration of independence from a most burdensome life, a life that was very quickly to become even more tragic: 2 more of her children died, along with her husband at age 29, before the curse abated. We're not surprised to find a reactionary, conventionally religious Mary Shelley in her middle age, who can say of her loving, dull son, "Teach him to think for himself? Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people!" Needless to add, Shelley revised her novel in 1831 to reflect her -- and the times' -- more cautious and conservative attitudes. Now she was Victor, adding incongruous pieces to a ghastly creation. The workmanlike Hooblers put these building blocks together in a most persuasive way.

I really must stop, but before I do, I have to mention the fifth member of the Villa Diodati group, Byron's young doctor, John Polidori -- or, as the Lord sneeringly called him, "poor Polidori". The (already) famous artists in the Villa did not, in the event, actually finish any ghost stories. (Byron produced a fragment; Percy didn't bother with the business at all.) But Poor Polidori eventually cobbled together a famous short novel that all true horror fans revere, The Vampyre. It is with this startling tale (replete with a downer ending, for the vampire lives on) that the young doctor finally gets immortal revenge on his taunting employer. The Vampyre in the story is called "Lord Ruthven" . . . which, as it happens, is the name of the Byronic character in Lady Caroline Lamb's hit-piece on the poet, the novel Glenarvon. (Lamb was another one of Byron's jilted lovers; the experience eventually drove her completely mad.) For the first time in literature, the vampire is an aristocrat, smooth, plausible, handsome, heartless, whose charms are finally more powerful than the repulsion engendered by his otherwise evil behavior. 80 years later, Bram Stoker would make this incarnation of Lord Byron a permanent icon in the world's imagination . . . but Poor Polidori, an inveterate gambler who didn't see any profits from his tale (which sold fairly well), died a suicide, another victim of the curse.

But of course there really was no curse of Frankenstein. As the Hooblers make clear, these super-human monsters, who lived such intense lives as a collective object-lesson for the benefit of posterity, brought the curse of their times and their personal antecedents with them as they destructively stomped across the earth. If anything, Mary Shelley's book broke the curse. The monsters in The Monsters suffered for their right to express themselves so that we -- the sons and daughters of Western civilization, let it be hastily specified -- don't have to.


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