An initial reaction to learning that one of the iconic Gothic horror novels ever written was the not just the work of a woman, but a young woman not yet out of her teens must almost always be surprise if not outright shock. That emotional reaction was likely even more intense at the time of the novel’s release. While it is certainly true that women represented a significant portion of the population experimenting with the still relatively new form of literature aptly title the novel, most female authors were producing genteel romances, not horrific examinations of science run amok. After reading the novel and conducting research into the history and character of Mary Shelley, however, what is most striking is how my very own reaction to the idea of this clearly intelligent young woman with writing talent spilling forth from her very DNA likely was a great an important stimulant in the creation of her masterpiece.
A Vindication of the Talent of Mary Godwin Shelley
The mother that Mary never got to know personally as a result of her early death was a major philosopher at the vanguard of the feminist movement. In her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary’s mother asserts that no room for debate exists over the fact that women are “degraded by a concurrence of circumstances” before launching a critique against the insidious means by which formal society institutes rules of etiquette to manipulate behavior (Wollstonecraft). Mary Shelley had a personal relationship with her father, by contrast, so one can only assume that the radical politics that mark his own writings had even more intense affect the development of her psyche. Her father’s textbook on anarchy, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, essentially argues that the ability to use reason in the name of self-government is inescapably hindered rather than an assisted by powerful institutions like religion and government (Godwin). Toss in the fact that young Mary’s formative years were spent in the heady company pf men who were not just leading literary lights, but also political radical. Men like her husband Percy Shelley and poet Lord Byron and the shock that such a tender young feminine mind could actually be capable of producing the novel Frankenstein begins to crumble. In fact, the revelation that Mary Shelley essentially spent her entire young life almost exclusively on at least the fringes of politically radical discourse between enormous talents capable of translating those radical ideas into essays, poems and stage dramas has the effect of reshaping all initial preconceptions about the creation of the novel
Armed with the knowledge of what Mary brought all on her own to the alpine villa near Lake Geneva that fateful year without a summer where cold weather inspired ghost stories, the real question suddenly transforms from how is it possible she could have written Frankenstein to how could she have not written it? A closer scrutiny of the narrative reveals the story of the tragically misunderstood and woefully underestimated creature created from the various parts of others to be nothing less than autobiographical on the part of its author.
Frankenstein explores themes related to being “degraded by a concurrence of circumstances” as well as institutional obstructions to a degraded character being allowed to use reason. In other words, the novel touches upon issues that had clearly been whirling around the Godwin household since Mary was a baby. What is most curious about the novel on closer inspection, however, is the utter lack of even one single strong female character. Neither Caroline nor Justine nor Elizabeth fulfill the expectations of a model of radically progressive femininity that might be expected from the offspring of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. While this absence seems inexplicable at first, the more one learns about Mary Shelley, the more sense it makes.
Frankenstein’s creature is viewed with suspicion and he is immediately made inferior by almost person with whom he comes in contact. He seems to be incomplete, stitched together from a collection of others, as it were. Mary Shelley almost certainly must have felt that she was viewed as inferior because she was a woman and even among those who engaged in the battle of misogyny, she might still have developed an inferiority complex on the fear that others saw her only in terms of the lofty company she kept. A company they may not have felt she had the intellect to keep up with.
The absence of a strong female protagonist in Frankenstein exists because the Creature is the doppelganger of the female author of his story. Following the research into the story behind the story of Mary Shelley, the greatest change in how I now view Frankenstein has to do with how I view the creature. I no longer immediately see Boris Karloff and his big metal bolts or any of the other male actors who have played him. Frankenstein’s creature for me now looks like an woefully underestimated young teenage girl in a long flowing gown sitting among a group of men with a sly smile more mysterious than that of the Mona Lisa playing about her lips.
- Godwin, W. (1985). Enquiry concerning political justice: And its influence on modern morals and happiness. London: Penguin.
- Wollstonecraft, M. (1974). A critical edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A vindication of the rights of woman: With strictures on political and moral subjects.