MARY SHELLEY’S (HIDEOUS) FILM PROGENY: A LEGACY IN NEED OF RENOVATION

Last week I skipped my weekly appointment because I was extremely busy finishing the edition of my latest e-book project with students. Here it is, finally!: Frankenstein’s Film Legacy (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/215815). Since 2013-14, when I taught a monographic course on Harry Potter, I have been developing a series of projects with undergrad and postgrad students, consisting of publishing e-books based on their course work. The new e-book is my seventh project (you can see the complete list at https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books) and I’m already at work on the eighth, which will be an e-book about how the United States are represented in 21st century American documentary. In fact, I have started to think of my elective courses as a space for new teaching projects. Thus, I’m already thinking of next year’s MA course on Gender Studies as a chance to explore gender issues in recent fantasy films, after producing already an e-book on science fiction (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282). By the way, I was immensely pleased to present this e-book both at Llibreria Gigamesh (in June) and in our recent national conference of English Studies AEDEAN at Alicante (in November).

Frankenstein’s Film Legacy is exceptional in my collaboration with students because it has been based on work by second-year students. So far, I had only worked on the e-books in third/fourth year BA electives and in MA electives. A little bit too rashly, I decided to include an e-book in our exercises for the BA course on ‘English Romantic Literature’, in which we read the ‘six males’ (as a co-teacher calls them), that is, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats, and the ‘two females’ as I should call them –Mary Shelley and Jane Austen. The reason why I used many entries in this blog last semester to discuss these authors, and the reason why I thought of the e-book is that I assumed mine would be a temporary incursion into Romanticism and I would soon return to teaching Victorian Literature. The e-book was meant to mark, then, a singularity in my teaching.

In fact, this is not what has happened and I’m teaching Romanticism again next Spring, but with no plans for a new e-book. The reason is that, although the students have followed quite well my guidelines (I wrote a model fact sheet /essay they were supposed to imitate), my intervention in their writing has been more intensive than usual. The main reason is that their essays were too focused on comparing specific aspects of each of the films with Mary Shelley’s novel (as I had asked them to do, indeed) and in this way, the larger picture was missing. In some cases, simply because they are young and little used to watching films released before 1999, when they were born. In other cases because only I had the complete picture of the e-book and could connect the dots (yes, The Island and Never Let Me Go share exactly the same Frankensteinian topic). The good news is that most of these students will be soon participating in the e-book about the US documentary, and now have a basic training to do so. Incidentally, if you’re thinking that I have used too much time for this project, the answer is ‘not really’: the time I did not use to prepare lectures (thirty students did class presentations based on the films), is the time I have used for the e-book. My own writing and my constant other deadlines have just delayed publication (though obviously the course marks were awarded punctually in June).

So, what’s this e-book about? I selected 75 films, beginning with Metropolis (1926) and ending with Mary Shelley (2017), which dealt with the topic of artificial life and connected, indirectly or directly, with Frankenstein. The final list is down to 57 because I got work from fewer students than I expected, and also because I finally discarded a few fact sheets that were incomplete. Here are the films, in the same order in which they appear in the e-book:

• 1920s to 1970s: Metropolis (1927), Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Godzilla/Gojira (1954), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
• 1980s: Blade Runner (1982), WarGames (1983), The Terminator (1984), The Bride (1985), Weird Science (1985), The Fly (1986), Robocop (1987), Akira (1987), Making Mr. Right (1987)
• 1990s: Bicentennial Man (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mary Reilly (1996), The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996), Alien Resurrection (1997), Gattaca (1997), Gods and Monsters (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Matrix (1999)
• 2000s: Hollow Man (2000), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), S1mOne (2002), Hulk (2003), Van Helsing (2004), I, Robot (2004), The Island (2005), WALL·E (2008), Splice (2009), Moon (2009)
• 2010s: Never Let Me Go (2010), EVA (2011), La Piel que Habito (2011), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Hotel Transylvania (2012), Frankenweenie (2012), Robot and Frank (2013), Her (2013), The Machine (2013), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), Lucy (2014), Victor Frankenstein (2015), Chappie (2015), Morgan (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), The Shape of Water (2017), Logan (2017), Mary Shelley (2017) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019).

A mixed bag, yes, undeniably. By the way: the e-book ends now with Alita because a student suggested that we include this title. At first, I believed that it would diminish the coherence of the e-book, which I intended to finish with Mary Shelley’s biopic. But, then, I finally saw that Alita works as a sort of ‘to be continued…’. My aim, as I hope you can see, was to teach my students that the influence of Frankenstein is indeed colossal, even though in many cases the films depended on an intermediate source or made no direct allusion to Shelley. The moment, however, you see these 57 films from a perspective that takes Frankenstein into account, interesting things happen. Pedro Almodóvar can now be said to be a science-fiction film director. Both A.I. and the live action version of Pinocchio force us to consider what Mary Shelley’s novel would have been like had Victor made a young boy rather than an adult male. The presence of women, or females, in films such as Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Ex Machina (2014) also raises the question of how Mary’s dark tale would have differed had Victor made a woman originally, or finished making the female mate for his monster.

There are many films I like very much in the list and I think it is necessary to highlight once more the turning point marked by Blade Runner (1982), the first film to hint, albeit quite confusedly, that our future replacement at the top of the animal hierarchy might be flesh-and-blood artificial humans rather than mechanical constructions. I’ll clarify once again that the Nexus-6 replicants whom Detective Deckard must ‘retire’ are not robots but adult individuals made like Victor’s monster out of separate organs. The difference is that Victor scavenges the organs for his Adam from dead people (and animals) and the replicants are assembled using living organs tailor-made for them, using genetic engineering. This is the same method used to make the ‘robots’ of Karel Čapek Shelleyan play R.U.R. (1920). In its original Czech ‘robot’ means ‘slave worker’ and this is what caused the confusion. November 2019, when Blade Runner is set, has come and go and we are not closer to seeing replicants in our streets. Yet, what is already being discussed is whether the humanoids soon to be our companions will be fully mechanical or fully organic. In just two hundred years, then, since Mary Shelley published her Gothic novel, what was pure fantasy is now almost reality.

The films examined in the e-book tell the same story which Mary Shelley told but with variations on the main roles (the creator, the creature) and the background. What is frustrating is that none of the direct adaptations of Frankenstein is minimally good as a film. James Whale’s 1931 version is iconic because it did literally provide popular culture with a major icon in Boris Karloff’s performance and looks, but it cannot be said to be a great film. Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not what its title promises, though it comes a bit closer. There are more embarrassing attempts at transferring the tale onto the screen: Victor Frankenstein (2015) is a mess, full stop. My first intention, in fact, was to focus the e-book exclusively on direct adaptations of Mary’s novel but I did not see what the students would learn by seeing tons of bad movies. This is why I opted for the indirect adaptation, the Frankenstein-themed film if you wish.

The other major disappointment is Haifaa Al-Mansour’s recent biopic, Mary Shelley (2017). I had included Ken Russell’s eccentric Gothic (1986) in the list for the e-book but this is one of the movies that was finally not covered. I thought, anyway, that Al-Mansour’s feminist credentials (she’s the first Saudi Arabian female film director ever) made her a very good choice to lead the team behind the film. Then I saw her biopic in the middle of teaching Frankenstein and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Trying to compress the eight years (1814-1822) of Mary and Percy’s romance in just two hours did not work well at all. Biopics, as a matter of fact, work best when they focus on a single central episode for there is no good way you can summarize real life. I come to the conclusion that a documentary would have served the same purpose but much better; yet, the fictional representation of reality still dominates over the non-fictional.

I don’t know if I am here projecting my own fatigue but after seeing Alita, yet another disappointing film, I have the impression that the topic of artificial life needs an urgent renewal. To begin with, this is a strange case of knowing, yet not knowing Mary Shelley, which possibly explains the failure of Al-Mansour’s biopic (and Jeannette Winterson’s inclusion in Frankissstein of yet another retelling of Mary’s creation of her monster). The treatment of Mary’s person is too superficial for fans to be content and for non-fans to be recruited to the cause of vindicating her genius. Next, her novel still lacks a good audio-visual version, whether this is for cinema or for TV. I don’t mean by this one that is faithful down to the last detail but a version that gives a better impression of that peculiar thing called the ‘spirit’ of a novel. In the third place, the new tales need to get closer to actual science or to actual scientific speculation (in the vein of the first Jurassic Park) and not just be vehicles for shallow plots with skinny girls beating the hell out of bulky male villains. Or with artificial women playing femme fatale or unexpectedly having babies (doesn’t anyone know what a tubal ligation is?). The plotline “scientist makes creature that goes berserk” is, let’s recall it, two hundred years old already. We need to start thinking of a new angle –but just don’t mention the word ‘reboot’… Except for Planet of the Apes!

Enjoy, in any case, the collective effort that my students and I have made to show you the way into Frankenstein’s immense film legacy. And celebrate Mary’s powers of creation, always vastly superior to Victor’s.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IN THE MONSTER’S OWN WORDS: GETTING TO KNOW FRANKENSTEIN’S NEW MAN

I was interviewed last week on a Catalan-language radio show on monsters (“AutoCine: Els Monstres”, Cerdanyola Ràdio, https://www.ivoox.com/autocine-els-monstres-audios-mp3_rf_35501071_1.html ). The presenter’s last question was ‘which famous monster is most imperfectly known?’ and I had to reply that this is Frankenstein’s creature.

Unfortunately, the movies have transmitted a very limited image of this monster, based on the theatrical line descended from Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823), the melodrama (with songs!) by Richard Brinsley Peake. This was the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel and, as happens with modern film adaptations, many audience members took for granted its fidelity. The famous 1931 film directed by James Whale is, in fact, based on the 1927 play by English author Peggy Webbling, who must have been familiar with Peake’s play. She, like him, characterises the monster as an inarticulate being, incapable of uttering any coherent speech. Webbling, incidentally, is also responsible for the absurdity of calling the creature by his maker’s name. The monster speaks in later films (for instance in Roger Corman’s 1990 Frankenstein Unbound, based on Brian Aldiss’s novel) but only Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation reflects Mary’s original conception of the creature as an intelligent, perceptive individual. Even so, Branagh’s cannot be said to give an accurate picture of the monster’s acumen and singular process of self-education.

Many critics have disputed Mary’s authorial decisions about this self-education. The monster, if you recall, takes shelter secretly in a hovel attached to the humble home of the De Laceys, a French family down on their luck for political and personal reasons. The arrival of the son’s Turkish fiancée, Saffie, is used by Mary as the excuse to have the monster witness her education, which he mimics. Since the monster, as I explained in the previous post, is an enhanced (or augmented) Homo Sapiens, I’m ready to accept that he can profit by this second-hand method of learning, though I grant that the whole process does test the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. This is further tested with the monster’s casual discovery of three fundamental books (John Milton’s epic biblical poem Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther). He also happens to be in possession, very conveniently, of Frankenstein’s journal. This volume covers the several months of the research leading to the creature’s creation and the monster has it because Victor kept him in the cloak which the creature takes to cover his naked body.

By the time creature and creator meet in the Alps, the monster can already use sophisticated speech, though he has never had the chance to interact with a fellow human being: all run away scared, or turn against him violently, as soon as they see him. If he tries to speak, this is to no avail–his monstrous physiognomy causes such overreaction that communication is simply impossible. If Victor can overcome his revulsion and sit down to patiently listen to his ‘son’, this is only because he has no option. His parental duty, as we know, is of no consequence, for the moment his baby was born, Frankenstein turned his back on him, expecting the ugly thing to vanish, somehow. The monster, however, insists that Victor must play the role of parent like any other father.

I’d like to comment on two passages, often quoted but, anyway, worth considering in order to learn who this monster is. I find it quite peculiar that in his process of self-learning the creature chooses no name for himself, for this complicates our reading very much. Very obviously, he is a man, for Victor has made him as such, and calling this new man ‘the monster’ and ‘the creature’ is something I very much dislike, since it is demeaning. The obvious name for him is Adam (a name he knows from reading Milton’s version of the Biblical fall in Genesis) but, for whatever reason, Mary kept him nameless, a questionable decision that somehow shows her bias against her own creation. (And that, indeed, confused Peggy Webbling…).

In Chapter 15, the monster tells Victor about his having read the diary narrating his ‘accursed origin’ and the ‘disgusting circumstances’ of his unnatural birth. The diary also contains ‘the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person (…) in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible’. No wonder he is ‘sickened’. Logically, he questions Victor’s methods: ‘God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred’. From this passage one must deduce that the monster does not look radically non-human but horridly human, and that his physical appearance is scary for that very reason. His ugliness, in short, is our own ugliness, as if you could take an average human being and deprive him of any feature that makes him moderately attractive. I remain, in any case, perplexed by the reaction of those who come across Victor’s new Adam, for they seem to lack the curiosity that led so many spectators to enjoy the strange frisson provided by freak shows in the 19th and the 20th centuries. The monster, let’s stop to consider for a second, does look human: he has no claws, or big fangs, or any other feature we connect with aggression–so why do people scream and run away at his sight? I do not quite understand why nobody stops, once the shivers are controlled, to ask him ‘what are you?’

Faced with his general rejection, the monster assumes his abjection and starts behaving in a vicious manner which corresponds morally to the ugliness of his physical appearance. As we know, he kills Victor’s youngest brother William and blames poor Justine, a mixture of servant and family member, for that crime. When he demands, in Chapter 17, from his creator that he manufactures a female companion to share his misfortune with, Frankenstein expresses serious doubts that this can be a solution to the problem of how to contain his evident ‘malice’. The monster is offended: ‘My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor, and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being and become linked to the chain of existence and events from which I am now excluded’. Famously, in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), also directed by James Whale, the female monster starts screaming the moment she sees her intended male companion; she shows, instead, a manifest interest in the rather handsome Frankenstein… The novel has no similar scene because Victor decides to abort the bride, but it is very easy to see that the monster’s logic is very faulty, and sexist. He (that is, Mary) never thinks of the needs that the new Eve might have; in fact, she is to provide the same comforts as the later Victorian angel in the house: companionship but, above all, but, above all, unconditional love and even admiration which will supposedly curb down the monster’s alleged inclination to do evil. ‘Give me a nice woman and I’ll be a nice man’ is a recipe that, we know, does not work at all well.

Victor’s new Adam is, in the early stages of his life, a meek, well-behaved individual that gradually learns to respond with aggression to the abhorrence he is treated with. This is an obvious reading. I believe, however, that he is also naturally spiteful and resentful. I don’t mean naturally malevolent but the type of individual that will bear a grudge down to the last consequences. Granted, the grudge he bears against Frankenstein is more than justified but the decision he makes to murder William and, later, Victor’s bride Elizabeth is unfair to the victims and, ultimately, counterproductive. Naturally, we should not forget that Mary intended Frankenstein to be a gothic story and she had to stress the moral monstrosity of the creature. In her argumentation, the monster is corrupted, so to speak, by the animosity people display against him and, so, the community if partly responsible for his crimes. However, you cannot be both innocent and guilty of the murders you choose to commit, and this is the unstable position in which Mary places her new Adam. Super-human as he is in many aspects of his anatomy, he is, nevertheless, very human in the worst aspects of his personality: his capacity for hatred and violence. Nothing will convince me that the creature would have been a good companion for the bride. Or a good father to their children.

The very fact that I am discussing these moral issues shows how complex the characterisation of Mary’s monster is. In the end, the main challenge she poses to her readers is forcing us to wonder how we would react if we ever came across Victor’s man. Would we give him a chance to explain himself? Would we be part of the mob chasing the poor thing in so many films? Would we be disgusted, fascinated, or both? How much difference from our human standard, in short, are we willing to tolerate in our fellow human beings? These are all valid questions, and I marvel that an eighteen-year-old girl could manage to put them together in that strange child of her imagination that Frankenstein is.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY: THANKS TO MARY’S LOVE

The title of my post today is intended to be ambiguous: I mean to say that it is thanks to the love of his wife Mary that Percy Shelley is celebrated as a major poet, and that both he and all poetry readers must thank her for her efforts. As she wrote, ‘He died, and the world showed no outward sign. But his influence over mankind, though slow in growth, is fast augmenting; and, in the ameliorations that have taken place in the political state of his country, we may trace in part the operation of his arduous struggles’. Yet, while it is true that Percy Shelley’s post-humous fame was based on the gradual discovery that his texts were politically relevant and inspirational for later times, his writings would not have survived without Mary’s editorial intervention and her determination to make them be known.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) died shortly before his thirtieth birthday. He had published a long list of volumes (about twenty) including poetry, drama, fiction, and essays but Shelley was known only by a small circle of connoisseurs. He had no public fame in life comparable to that which his good friend Lord Byron enjoyed (if that is the correct word) though he had a high impact among those who knew him. Famously, Byron said of Percy Shelley that ‘I never met a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him’, which suggest he was also well liked as a person, not only as an artist of the word.

Percy drowned in the sea, near Livorno in Italy, where he lived since 1818, in a boating accident that was the product of imprudence and poor seamanship. A fierce summer storm caused his poorly build ship, the Don Juan, to sink. Percy, his friend Edward Williams, and boat boy Charles Vivien had no time to react. Shelley’s much disfigured remains washed up on the shore eventually and he was cremated on the beach following Italian quarantine laws. Legend, established by the mendacious Edward Trelawney, has it that his heart survived the burning, though Duncan Wu argues that the cherished relic is possibly a piece of the liver… No matter. His devastated widow–who was only 24 and had also lost three children–set out to make sure that the memory of her husband survived for posterity, with the help of devoted friends like Leigh Hunt.

In 1824, two years after Percy’s death, Mary published Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a lovingly assembled volume which shows her accomplished editorial skills (she worked in some cases with almost undecipherable manuscripts). Amazingly, Mary had to withdraw this book from circulation at the request of her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley. He adamantly refused her the right to publicise the details of his son’s complicated private life, fearing that scandal would hurt the snobbish family. Percy’s father only relented when he was approaching ninety, apparently out of affection for his grandson Percy Florence, Percy and Mary’s only surviving child. Sir Timothy finally allowed Mary to publish in 1839 The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, on condition that she did not include a biography. Mary added abundant notes to the poems that can be read as a sort of covert life of the poet. She had no doubt that her notes would tell the truth about the man, for she had ‘the liveliest recollection of all that was done and said during the period of my knowing him’.

I’ll get back to Sir Timothy later but I’d like to stop first at Mary’s ‘Preface’ for the 1839 anthology. My opinion about Percy Shelley is no doubt coloured by the negative view transmitted by my dear teacher Guillermina Cenoz that he was, basically, a selfish man. She saw Frankenstein as a work which Mary wrote mainly aiming to secretly expose and punish her husband’s artistic career and personal self-centredness for the cost it meant to family life. I tend to agree with her view, for Percy’s biography is, besides, full of his palpable need to get attention from adoring women: not only his two wives (Harriet Westbrook and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) but also other women present in his life as intimate friends, such as Jane Williams.

It is often supposed that Percy was a practitioner of free love, and that he not only had liaisons with other women but also that he tried to have Mary involved with other men. I think this is part of our constant over-sexualization of every close relationship and that Percy was, rather, a man who craved for emotional attention. Of course, what do I know? It occurs to me, though, that if he had misbehaved in a very serious way, Mary would not have made the effort of producing the two volumes (the second edited while her health was seriously impaired). She would not have written, either, the preface for, though she speaks of fulfilling a duty, nobody really expected her to do anything for her late husband.

Mary’s preface has been accused of sanitizing Percy and offering an angelic view of the man. She called him ‘a pure-minded and exalted being’ and though she referred to his brain and not his body, her hagiography, which led to Shelley’s canonization in Victorian times, is only now being contested from a more politically-oriented stance. It is important to recall that Mary was writing under the strict surveillance of Sir Timothy and that a loving widow (she never remarried) is not probably the most impartial judge of her dead husband. I find, however, the preface as candid a view of Percy as was possible under the circumstances and I don’t think, anyway, that an artist’s widow in more recent times would produce something substantially different in tone and intention. It is also interesting to note that the efforts of Mary’s own father, William Godwin, to honour his dead wife’s legacy, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) caused much outrage because of his outspokenness. This was no doubt a precedent Mary had in mind.

Mary begins mentioning the ‘obstacles’ now ‘happily removed’ which allow her to ‘fulfil an important duty,—that of giving the productions of a sublime genius to the world, with all the correctness possible, and of, at the same time, detailing the history of those productions, as they sprang, living and warm, from his heart and brain’. She will offer no comments on his private life, ‘except inasmuch as the passions which they engendered inspired his poetry’. A bit mysteriously, she writes that the time ‘to relate the truth’ has not come and she will not, anyway, offer a convenient version. ‘Whatever faults he had ought to find extenuation among his fellows, since they prove him to be human; without them, the exalted nature of his soul would have raised him into something divine’. To err is to be human, then, though we will never know to what faults Mary referred. And why should we?

Now, for the main qualities: ‘First, a gentle and cordial goodness that animated his intercourse with warm affection and helpful sympathy. The other, the eagerness and ardour with which he was attached to the cause of human happiness and improvement; and the fervent eloquence with which he discussed such subjects’. Mary launches then into presenting Percy as a man fully committed to the cause of political freedom, with utmost passion: ‘any new-sprung hope of liberty inspired a joy and an exultation more intense and wild than he could have felt for any personal advantage’. These words were written after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the first timid step into the widening of the franchise to all male voters in Britain, and Mary stresses that decades before, when her husband was politically active, defending any kind of freedom was a risky enterprise. Percy’s poetry reflects ‘the determination not to despair’, against the tenet that Romanticism is the expression of despair.

Mary argues that Percy’s poems are of two types: ‘the purely imaginative, and those which sprang from the emotions of his heart’. Of the second type, the ‘more popular’, she writes that they were the expression of personal feeling that, while running deep, he was ‘usually averse to expressing (…) except when highly idealized’. This is puzzling for it suggests that Percy’s ‘intensity of passion’ and ‘extreme sensibility’ were better manifested in the poems than in person. Mary refers to finding fragments of unfinished poems with manifestations of his deep self of which she was not aware but, then, every person leads a secret emotional life not even available to their spouses. Interestingly, she mentions that Percy himself valued the ‘metaphysical strain’ expressed in the less popular poems above the personal effusion: ‘He loved to idealize reality; and this is a taste shared by few’, though she trusts that there is plenty in his Platonic poems ‘that speaks to the many’.

Mary, born in 1797, was forty-two when she wrote the preface, thirteen years older than when Percy died. She grants that ‘there is the stamp of such inexperience’ in all his production, for ‘the calm of middle life did not add the seal of the virtues which adorn maturity to those generated by the vehement spirit of youth’. On the other hand, Mary notes that her husband was a ‘martyr to ill-health’, attributing his heightened sensitivity to ‘constant pain’, which made this ‘perfectly gentle’ man often irritable and overexcited. Mary reports that the day before his untimely death Percy declared ‘If I die to-morrow I have lived to be older than my father’, meaning that his body had accumulated in less than thirty years more sensibility and feeling than many others could expect to have in much longer lives. Live fast, die young… and leave a sadly destroyed body and an inconsolable widow. A tragedy, really.

Percy Shelley’s family background is that of the gentry portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels. Percy’s paternal grandfather, Bysshe Shelley, was 1st Baronet of Castle Goring (a baronetcy is the lowest title in the aristocratic hierarchy; baronets are commoners with a right to be called Sir). His upward social mobility and that of his son Timothy were secured by means of rewarding matches with rich heiresses (the same tactic followed by Byron and his father). It is often forgotten that upper-class patriarchal masculinity treated sons as chattel to be traded with other equally powerful families, and this is what Percy resisted.

Initially the relationship with his father was good, as proven by the fact that Sir Timothy financed the first four volumes his son published (two collections of poems with one of his sisters, two gothic novels). A disastrous turning point happened, however, when Percy, then nineteen, married sixteen-year-old Harriet, a schoolmate of his sister Helen and the daughter of a coffee-house owner. If the Westbrooks thought the match would guarantee their daughters’ financial and personal happiness they were quickly deceived. Sir Timothy reduced Percy’s allowance to a minimum and the couple survived, together with her sister Elizabeth, mainly by borrowing much above their possibilities. To make matters even worse, Percy had got himself expelled from Oxford shortly before eloping with Harriet for having written the pamphlet ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. He had no degree, no qualifications, and no way of entering any of the gentry-sanctioned careers for men.

Romantic legend has presented the relationship between Percy and Mary as the stuff of beautiful, romantic legend but nothing could be further from the truth–it was, at least at the beginning quite a sordid affair. Percy originally met Mary when she was fourteen and he, then nineteen and recently married, a visitor in William Godwin’s home. Mary’s father was happy enough to receive money from his admirer but he was outraged when, two years later, Percy abandoned Harriet to elope with Mary, then sixteen, to Europe. They may have married there but if this happened then Percy became a bigamist. Harriet had his second child (Charles, the elder was Ianthe) a few months before Mary had her first with Percy, Clara. Mary and Percy could finally marry legally in England in 1816 a few weeks after Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park’s Serpetine. She was then heavily pregnant, probably from a lover, not Percy. Sued by Elizabeth, Harriet’s sister, Percy lost custody of his two children, who were put in foster care. One can imagine Sir Timothy’s disgust as his son’s behaviour, though he did not come to the rescue in any way, leaving Harriet’s children unattended.

In the preface Mary writes that Percy ‘spurned’ his privileges because he foregrounded his ideological duties. ‘He was generous to imprudence, devoted to heroism’, she writes. I will not deny his idealism but it is important to note that once Sir Bysshe died in 1815, Percy became the beneficiary of an annuity of about £1000. This was not much in relation to the lifestyle of his social circle, which is why Mary and he eventually moved to Italy, where they frequently coincided with Byron. When Percy died, Mary depended on her work as a writer (she published other novels, not only Frankenstein) and on the rather limited help which Sir Timothy gave her for the upkeep of Percy Florence. It seems that one of his conditions was that she never used her name in her publications, to prevent any connection with the surname Shelley (see https://knarf.english.upenn.edu/People/tshelley.html).

The anonymous author of the article I have referenced calls Sir Timothy a ‘mean-spirited, hard-hearted’ man and a ‘forsaker of genius’, an expression I have found nowhere else on Google. This seems a fair judgement particularly since Sir Timothy was indeed aware of his son’s literary talent. The life he intended for Percy was a repetition of his own: a political career as an MP in some rotten borough under the protection of an aristocratic patron and marriage to a landowning heiress. It is easy to see why an idealistic youth like Percy would reject this plan but, of course, the downside of his rebelliousness is that Shelley always depended economically on the men of his family, both his father and his grandfather. This great defender of the workers of England never worked to earn a living, though I grant that he did much work on the literary front. In contrast another idealist young man decided decades later to make the most of his father’s money by running his factory and embezzling funds to start a political revolution. I mean, of course, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895).

Shelley’s idealism and commitment to the cause of freedom are, then, respectable but also the product of his class and privileged circumstances. Mary celebrated her late husband in her preface and the two anthologies but I wonder how she felt about Harriet. It is hard not to sympathise with this poor woman and her children. As a worker’s daughter I myself have a great deal of mistrust against upper-class individuals presenting themselves as liberators, much more so against those who never did a day’s paid work in their life. I may value Percy Shelley’s poetry (I really do) and I might accept that he was not as selfish as my teacher painted him. Still, I have many doubts about Shelley, beginning with whether he really deserved all the love Mary put into the task of ensuring his immortality. And I wonder whether he would have done the same for her.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

REVISITING FRANKENSTEIN: A FEW NOTES ON DOMESTICITY, THE CYBORG AND THE POST-HUMAN

I will soon start teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and although the best time to revisit this classic was last year–the bicentennial anniversary of its original publication–2019 is also a good moment to re-read it, for it is the year when Ridley Scott set his masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982). Both novel and film are closely connected, since Blade Runner, though based on Philip K. Dick’s bizarre SF novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969) is one of the myriad texts descended from Frankenstein. Mary Shelley was the first to ask, in earnest, ‘what if science could generate powerful monsters that could escape human control?’ and this is a question that frames Dick’s and Scott’s work. And our year 2019.

I have recently reviewed an article by a young researcher in which I found some confusion regarding the use of the concepts ‘post-human’ and ‘cyborg’, and I’ll use Frankenstein to clarify them, and then to proceed with some comments. Before I forget: I’m using the Oxford World’s Classic edition (the 2008 reprint) with my students but I was aghast to see that the prologue and the bibliography are the work of one Prof. M.K. Joseph who died in 1981. I immediately e-mailed the Literature editor at Oxford UP to suggest that they commission a new introduction by someone who truly understands how Mary Shelley’s mistresspiece connects with current, urgent issues, and, generally, with our science-fictional present. We’ll see if they answer.

Brian Aldiss famously celebrated in Billion Year Spree (1973) Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction, stressing in passing that the Gothic narrative mode is one of the foundations of sf, at least of its more technophobic branch. Re-reading the novel now, at the beginning of 2019, and possibly for the fifth or sixth time (I lose track), a few things strike me as singular. One is that Mary’s tale is a frontal attack against male ambition but not necessarily a feminist text; the other is that she understood long before we had a name for it, what the post-human is.

The feminist question is obvious enough: Victor’s horrific ordeal is framed by the letters that explorer Robert Walton sends to his sister Margaret so that we see how useless men’s pursuit of glory, honour and fame is. The alternative lifestyle which Mary recommends is, nevertheless, one of sedate domesticity, in which women occupy a traditional position as dutiful, pre-Victorian angels in the house.

Margaret, the addressee of the letters by Captain Walton that frame Victor’s and the monster’s testimonials, stands for married bliss in safety and domesticity. So does Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s adoptive sister, and doomed wife as the monster’s victim; as such, she is the embodiment of the dangers that men bring into the peace of the hearth but also of total submission. Mary, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the woman who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), among which she placed education in a central position, never mentions Elizabeth’s right to attend university, as Victor and his friend Henry do. She is raised to be Victor’s wife and no event in the awful tragedy that unfolds diverts her from this path, even though she could have been much better company for Victor if only she had some inkling of his overambitious scientific pursuits. Mary Shelley simply offers no critique of the patriarchal script written for Elizabeth by his adoptive parents and by Victor himself, even though the author is adamant that there is something very wrong in men’s extra-domestic pursuit of glory and, using Barbara Ehrenright’s phrase, their ‘flight from commitment’.

I partly agree with Mary’s critique of the male sacrifice of domesticity–possibly what she endured as Percy Shelley’s wife–because it is often based on total selfishness. At the same time, I fail to see in which ways the world would be a better place if the many self-driven individuals (mostly men but also many women) had limited themselves to raising families. There must be a middle ground.

Reading David Grann’s excellent non-fiction account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s suicidal search for the lost City of Z (the title of the book), I often thought that male wanderlust must be evidence of ingrained insanity. Yet, so many women also feel the drive to fulfil their ambitions even against all reason that it cannot simply be a matter of gender but something else that makes domesticity secondary. Why someone with small, dependent children would volunteer to travel to Mars, and possibly never return, baffles me, not so much because of the need to fulfil the dream but because of the aspiration to combine ambition and family. This is not, of course, Walton’s and Frankenstein’s situation, and perhaps what Mary Shelley was saying is that excessive ambition is incompatible with family life, and even with life. But, is this right? If she was imagining some low-key, pastoral idyll, as an alternative, she does not explain. At the same time, most often the likes of Victor are managing to create man-made horrors while keeping jobs and family well balanced, a possibility Mary does not contemplate, believing as she does that scientific discovery is a kind of youthful brain fever that overtakes everything else in the single individual’s life. Again: there must be a middle-ground.

How about the cyborg and the post-human? The monster that Victor creates is NOT a cyborg, for a cyborg is a creature, or person, whose body combines organic and inorganic materials. Donna Haraway had read sufficient science fiction when she wrote her famous 1985 tract ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’ to understand this, but it seems to me that very often students and scholars who use the word cyborg do not really know what they’re talking about, and simply assume that the word refers to any artificial creation.

Victor’s monster is artificial because he is not woman-born but he is 100% organic. Frankenstein discovers first the principle of life, ‘the capacity of bestowing animation’, and decides next to build a superhuman body–if that body is functional, then he will apply himself to re-animating ordinary human corpses. Since preparing ‘a frame’ is difficult because of ‘its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins’ he decides to work at a larger scale: ‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet [2.40 m] in height, and proportionably large’. Mary wrote before DNA was known, and before the first transplant of a human organ was ever attempted, and we need to read this part of Victor’s research as a necessarily preposterous tale; yet, the main point is that he is not using magic but science.

Once the creature is made–and in its manufacture 20-year-old Victor is amazingly successful–Frankenstein is appalled to see that he is an ugly thing: ‘His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips’. Nobody has really managed to give an accurate pictorial representation of the monster, who does not look at all like the bolts-and-nuts version of Boris Karloff. Yet, I always say that Victor’s problem is that while he is a great anatomist and a wonderful surgeon, he is a disaster as an artist. A failure, if you wish, as a plastic surgeon. Had be been able to combine the features selected harmoniously, we would have a very different tale of celebrity, as everyone admires a beautiful being. As for his being a giant, well, being 7 feet tall is the foundation of Pau Gasol’s celebrity… The monster would be a highly valuable basketball player today!

Something that I missed in previous readings is how often the monster refers to ordinary human beings as another species, and also to himself. I am always correcting my students when they refer to the human race for we are a species (Homo Sapiens) and not a race, and I was surprised to see that the monster is well aware of this crucial difference. The name Homo Sapiens was coined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 but this was long before any thought of evolution was contemplated by Charles Darwin (1809-1882); many have commented on Mary’s allusion to Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus (1731-1802) as the scientist whose discoveries in connection to electricity may have inspired Frankenstein’s use of an engine to ignite the spark of life. Yet, to me, the monster’s awareness of species difference is far more exciting.

When he demands en Eve from his maker, the creature argues: ‘I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create’ (my italics). Of course, I’m cheating a little bit, for Mary mixes ‘species’ and ‘race’ indiscriminately and, thus, Victor decides to destroy the female creature he is working on afraid that ‘a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror’. He is horrified to see himself as the ‘pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race’. My point, though, is equally valid: Frankenstein is the earliest text to posit the possible replacement of Homo Sapiens with a man-made superior human species, that is to say, with a post-human species.

The difference between the cyborg and the post-human is, then, easy enough to understand: the cyborg has inorganic material in their body and cannot pass on any modification of this kind to their offspring; in contrast, the post-human is a different human species that will breed other individuals of the same species, and might wipe out Homo Sapiens if competing for the same environmental resources. As the Neanderthal disappeared, so might we, with the difference that this might happen out of our own mad shattering of the frontiers of science, if we go just one step too far and modify the human genome. Of course, neither Mary nor Victor knew about all this, but their ignorance is irrelevant (also an anachronism): the monster is a monster because we are terrified of the possibility that other humans might push us out. Victor, it must be recalled, manufactures not just someone who is big but also someone who is strong, extremely resistant to heat and cold, with an enhanced muscular capacity and, in short, far better equipped than Homo Sapiens to live on a radically post-human Earth.

The other novel I am teaching this semester is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), published five years before Frankenstein. Indeed, Austen died in 1817, while Mary Shelley was busy writing her novel, as a young mother of the boy William. I never cease to be amazed that English Literature could accommodate in the same period styles in fabulation so thoroughly different. And I wonder what would have happened if Elizabeth Bennet instead of Elizabeth Lavenza had fallen in love with Victor Frankenstein, rather than Fitzwilliam Darcy. Or if Darcy had kept a secret lab at Pemberley. Possibly, some kind of literary short-circuit!

How lucky we are, then, that we can enjoy both Mary Shelley and Jane Austen.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/