A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Divinity School, Bodleian Library, Oxford: 7th Oct. 2008.
Mary Shelley has bequeathed us not only a perennial example of the fantastical but a trail of confused editions and prefaces, interpolations, variations in early editions, which have proved a bibliographical puzzle in their own right. Dr Robinson has now cleared away those entanglements in this bold new Bodleian Library publication.
Some of us recall that Dr Robinson – he’s being very modest about this – lent his talents to a phenomenon which is almost as extraordinary as Frankenstein itself – that is to say the Pickering and Chatto ‘Complete Works of Mary Shelley’, published in the 1990s. Extraordinary, did I say? Can you think of any other novelist whose complete works – and in such an elegant edition – have first been published 150 years after her death? That’s a phenomenon in itself!
The old anti-feminist rumour that Percy Bysshe wrote the novel is scotched forever. Yes, I did once call him a creep. A lot of his poetry is wonderful, but that doesn’t stop him being a creep. There’s an argument on at the moment about how the most ghastly people write the most beautiful poems. Somehow, one thinks of Wordsworth ……
Anyway … this idea that Percy Bysshe wrote the novel has now been scotched forever. Anyone who’s had the rotten luck to read Shelley’s gothic novel ‘Zastrossi’ will have long known the idea to be preposterous.
A teenager! She was a teenager, you know?! Not the sort of female teenager today’s newspapers would have us believe in. Mary came from a civilized – a crowded but civilized – home. Literature, science and politics were regularly discussed there; Coleridge read his poetry there. (To see and to hear Samuel Taylor belting out ‘The Ancient Mariner’ might not have been to everyone’s taste – a bit like early Dr Who – but it is something to have a living poet rampant in the parlour, even if aided and abetted, I might say, by ‘a substance’ …) Anyway, Mary would have been aware that new things had developed and that the world was opening up, in the same way that we’re aware now that we’re closing down the shop – victims of our own cult of greed.
However, let’s get onto something much more cheerful – my own book – my history of science fiction. It was called ‘Billion Year Spree’ and when I was attempting to write it, I had to begin at the beginning – as one does. At the same time, there were a lot of people who were very eager to find out who was the ‘Father’ of science fiction, and I was very happy to proclaim that Mary Shelley was the Mother of Science Fiction. It caused a lot of bad blood at the time, but happily it’s been spilt and mopped up now.
As if to prove this unsuspected truth in the same way that a scientist doesn’t announce his discovery until he can repeat it, Mary later wrote another futurist novel, ‘The Last Man’. In making this claim, which I took care to buttress with examples, I wanted not only to retrieve the book to current attention in a way that my readers might at first resent but would ultimately profit from, but also to retrieve it from the hands of Universal Studios’ horrific Boris Karloff, because I saw that it was so much more than a horror tale. It had mythic quality. Dr Robinson says that “myth is no more nor less than a symbolic language designed to express an essential truth”. I think that’s absolutely the case. His new, invaluable book – which if you haven’t already bought you’re about to do – is designed to disentangle the complexity of building this myth. Much had to be built. Much had to be rebuilt. Some had to be discarded.
The fantastical had been in vogue long before Shakespeare. It was eternally in vogue. Aristophanes’ The Birds creates a cloud cuckoo land between earth and heaven. Someone wrote the music to it – I forget who. Then there’s Lucian of Samosata in the first century of our epoch, who describes how the King of the Sun and the King of the Moon go to war over the colonization of – can you guess? – the colonization of Jupiter. I know it, because I looked it up in Wikipedia!
Christendom was full of angels and lots of fibs about the planets being inhabited. One’s knee deep in these discarded fantasies, but it was Mary Shelley, poised between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, who first wrote of life – that vital spark – being created not by divine intervention as hitherto, but by scientific means; by hard work and by research.
That was new, and in a sense it remains new. The difference is impressive, persuasive, permanent.
You’ll recall that in Ingolstadt Professor Crempy mocks the old and learned names – Paracelsus et al. Well, antiquity is no longer the court to which we must appeal. The crucibles are hotting up. Of course, nothing was understood of asepsis at this period. The growth of micro-organisms in the body had yet to be studied. Such was probably the cause of Mary Wollstonecraft’s death – that’s Mary Godwin’s mother – when her daughter was born. Thus, the jumbled components of the creature all fit together without harm.
For a perspective on Frankenstein, we could do worse than read her later novel. I just want to have a word about ‘The Last Man’. It was published in 3 volumes early in 1826 – Mary no longer a teenager, of course. Various personae in that book take on the mantles of Percy Shelley and Gordon Byron, but they’re both dead and gone. Mary writes for a living – a well-travelled route to penury. She has to resort to padding; that’s the way you sometimes have to make your living if you’re a writer. (I’m not speaking personally, of course …) Being only a reader and not a scholar, I’m at liberty to say that I find the first volume of ‘The Last Man’ confused and deadly dull. Matters improve once the plague gets going and then dire events and foreboding interpenetrate the text.
We are asked, for instance: “What are we, the inhabitants of this globe, least amongst the many people that inhabit infinite space? Our minds embrace infinity. The visible mechanism of our being is subject to merest accident.”
Well, ‘Frankenstein’ ends in gloom. You remember perhaps the final sentence – or at some future date you WILL remember the last sentence:
The conclusion of ‘The Last Man’ is relatively cheerful. The last man sails on, down the Mediterranean, under – and I quote – “the ever-open eye of the Supreme”.
Mary had to earn her living, and so she had to soften her approach to ‘the Supreme’ to sustain an audience, I believe. Whereas ‘Frankenstein’ stands alone or was prompted only by that little clique on the shores of Lake Geneva in an inclement summer, ‘The Last Man’ has company; a sense that the end was nigh. Thomas Campbell wrote a poem of the same name, and John Martin – that strange painter – paints the scene together with a similar and quite as uncomfortable theme of solitude.
These misgivings were prompted by news of a plague emanating from Calcutta – really the Capital of all diseases, I’d say. Anyway, the plague advanced eastwards towards Teheran and Basra where the bodies of the dead were too numerous to bury. It also spread towards the vast hunting grounds of China. Its name was cholera.
A second pandemic followed. It spread from Moscow, along the Danube, in infected a million people in Hungary. Krakow fell, Warsaw, Riga … In 1831 the plague crossed the sea to Sunderland, and from there on to Scotland and London, so that this novel of Mary Shelley’s is prodomic – possibly the first coinage of what became a favourite science fiction currency – the ‘prodroma’ – speaking out as a defence against the evil that might come.
They were so young in those Diodati days. Percy was born in 1792 and Mary five years later. Today’s new Bodelian book reveals rather charmingly how they worked together on the body of Frankenstein. Actually, as I say, I think Percy’s a bit of a creep, but I must say that his additions are frequently helpful, although at one point he rants unnecessarily about class distinction in England. (It had no effect.)
But here we can also read Mary’s original text written when she was still a teenager and without any other finger in her writerly pie.
Another aspect remains ever vivid, pervading all editions. The creature has a negligent father and no mother. Mary had a negligent father and no mother. Hence, the creature’s cry, reversing Christian doctrine:
“I am malicious because I am miserable.”
It is that pervasive and melancholy sense of loss which gives the creature its puissance and provides the force that propels this beautiful, notorious story along.
Brilliant, sad Mary Shelley. She did, indeed, speak as she says, “to the mysterious fears of our nature”.
She died, as did J M W Turner, in 1851 – the year of the Great Exhibition.
If only she could have seen that new resurrection.
( © Brian W Aldiss. 2008.)