(In this Women-in-Horror month re-post from my defunct Open Salon blog, “The Horror” originally published on February 16, 2015, I want to share with you a second case of Literary gender assault which I referenced in the previous post. This is a real “controversy”… a debate, and a Critical argument being discussed in academia and elsewhere. What I ask you to do is to read this post and ask “why” it is even being entertained…)
Most women who write and read Horror are used to the idea that it is predominantly men in the driver’s seat of our canon. Most of us are fine with the works chosen to represent canon. After all, we girls have Mary, author of Frankenstein. Yet a closer look reveals the very real reason the arc of feminism has risen through the Critical ashes: because several “someones” have been trying to put our Mary in the attic since the publication of Frankenstein.
“…the first edition published anonymously in London. Mary’s name appears on the second edition…” https://www.pinterest.com/pin/83387030570722338/
How many of know that there is (even today) a theory which postulates that the real author of Frankenstein was Mary’s husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley and/or any combination of he and his Famous Writer friends?
Why? Because a decent woman should not and – more importantly – could not write such a critically acclaimed work…especially a woman of nineteen.
This is hideous – even for our genre. Because what message does this send to young women writers of Horror? What does it say to writers of anything?
For those who have read my prior posts about Literary Criticism, this is where Roland Barthes and his dead authors meet the pavement of reality. We and our Critics need to think very carefully about how much biographical minutiae we really want to require in Literary Criticism, and how much it matters. We also need to recognize that if we do decide that biography is relevant, that – well, quite literally in this case – what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…
When one thinks of revising Literary Criticism, theories of conspiracy are not among the typical fare. Indeed, having any Critic of merit present such an argument – even in light of his times (and Critic was a man’s job in those early days) – flies in the face of modern Critical giants like Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and his own theory about the importance of keeping dead authors dead.
This theory that a large conspiracy took place to make Mary the author as a cover or a joke by a group of male poets and essay writers dredges up a Need-to-Know everything one can about every author and the circumstances of the birth of a work. It heightens the importance of copyright and the genesis of intellectual property, it takes the focus off of the work and the message of the work and makes it all about the author and the author’s times.
Is that really why a writer writes? So that Critics can thrash about in one’s personal and private existence and air the most intimate details of one’s life with the written work left as a mere afterthought? Is it really all about the writer? Do we want it to be?
One has to ask those questions and be prepared to answer them if one is equally willing to entertain the idea that Mary Shelley is our modern “who was Shakespeare” mystery.
One has to look at the motivations of all of the parties involved in such a conspiracy theory– including the very Critics who allege and support that a conspiracy was afoot. This started – after all – during a time in which decent women certainly didn’t write beyond invitations to social events and demure correspondence… and most definitely didn’t write like that (except that Mary’s own mother most certainly did). In fact, decent women were not to think at all about the world or its complicated subjects; it was not the place of women to speculate on the doings and the motivations of the doings of men. If it wasn’t about placating their husbands, raising children and looking pretty, about decorating the patriarchal parlor, proper ladies did not do it.
In such a world (argue conspiracy Critics), how could a nineteen-year-old woman with three illegitimate children to her credit write a work like Frankenstein – right under the noses of famous Romantic Poets like her husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley – or his friends also allegedly present that night in Lake Geneva– none other than Lord Byron and his personal companion/physician John William Polidori, who was also a published essay writer and who nurtured his own professional writing aspirations (Hitchcock 26-27).
Isn’t it more likely argue those Critics that such talent would have emanated from professionally established Writers and Poets? Didn’t Shelley himself admit to editing the novel in question?
Forget for a moment that “no poet of any renown would write a novel; no elevated person would stoop to read one” (Hitchcock 25). Forget the “shock” that “a popular poet would descend to write a novel, a new and not altogether respected literary form” (24). What would be the point in publishing it at all? If it could only be a professional amusement between poets, why drag it out into daylight? To put one “over” on the Critics?
Such would seem an awful lot of work with a serious risk of discovery and subsequent damage to a poet’s reputation… all for a giggle. Even given the indiscretions of youth, as well as the Idiot Gene that we all have encountered at one party or another, what is the likelihood that these young men would toy with their own tenuous reputations?
But Percy Bysshe Shelley admits to editing the work…He was present that night and many others…isn’t it at least feasible? Possible?
Many Critics thought so. Susan Wolfson and Ronald Levao state in their introduction to The Annotated Frankensten:
“Confronting a novel propelled by male adventures and transgressions, saturated in the languages and ideas of Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Godwin, Byron, Shelley, and contemporary scientists such as Davy and Darwin, a novel, moreover, known to have been shopped by Percy Shelley, many reviewers assumed that the author was male – probably Shelley himself, or some other deranged, atheist Godwin disciple.” (53)
Perhaps we should pause here a moment to refresh. Frankenstein was written in an estate house (Villa Diodati) at Lake Geneva once rented by Milton in 1638 (Hitchcock 24), Coleridge, Wordsworth and Byron were publishing contemporaries of Shelley, Byron was a friend and present during the alleged contest, the “atheist Godwin” was Mary’s father, and London newspapers of the time were publishing tales of “galvanism” in which Luigi Aldini “toured Europe during the first years of the nineteenth century, demonstrating how electrical charges could move not only the legs of frogs but also the eyes and tongues of sevred ox heads as well (Hitchcock 33).
All of these things would have had influence on our Mary, who at one time recalled “how discussions of at Villa Diodati of these scientific marvels had filled her with ideas” (34). Indeed, “poetry and science, Gothic horror and reanimation—these topic tingled in the Geneva air that summer of 1816”…(34) How could they not influence any imaginative, thinking young adult? But more interestingly, how could they influence only the male members of the Geneva party on that night of nights?
Shelley versus Shelley
I say these conspiracy Critics must be fair in their use of historic and biographical detail. What Percy Bysshe Shelley was exposed to and influenced by, so was his wife.
Some may feel the need to “compromise” by saying that the possibility of editing by Shelley would indicate that he at least co-authored the novel… to which I ask, where are the residual checks for the editors of Harry Potter or Tolkien?
Editing is not writing. Editing is about organizational and compositional guidance. It is about streamlining the flow of consciousness, the application and follow-through of logic and the rules of grammar. It is not creating…it is shaping the created. It is about dressing up a story in its finest attire.
And indeed Shelley admits to “editing” the work and Critics have long complained that his influence is indeed “obvious” and that “the manuscript shows assistance at every point…so extensive that one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator” (Wolfson & Levao 11-12) – which is in itself if true a sign of poor editing – and that while his hand in the novel improved some technical quality, it also threatened the integrity of the novel in places where he clearly insinuated himself (Wolfson & Lavao 54).
Does that not imply that it would have been a far different novel had Shelley written it? Or is it merely evidence of … editing not by a professional editor?
Distinguished Professor of English Literature, author and essayist Anne Mellor says something important in her review of the evidence. Mellor, “while acknowledging Percy’s improvements on several levels—from grammar and syntax to narrative logic, ‘thematic resonance,’ and the ‘complexity of the monster’s character’ – also notes Percy’s own missteps: rhetorical inflations and Latinizings, a penchant for imposing ‘his own favorite philosophical, political, and poetic theories on a text which either contradicted them or to which they were irrelevant’ and revisions that distorted Mary’s intentions and ideas [my emphasis]” (Wolfson & Lavao 54).
And isn’t his admission that he functioned as agent, and both his and Mary’s admission that he functioned as editor(Hitchcock 70-73) good enough for conspiracy Critics?
If not, one should look at supporting evidence; for example, despite the loss of the original draft manuscript, what of the copytext manuscript which “argues very strongly against’ the story of Mary-as-scribe “(unless it is an elaborate hoax that they [Percy’s advocates] and their conspiring friends cooked up to fool future scholars)” (Wolfson & Levao 54)? J.W. Polidori confirmed Mary’s “busyness” the “day after” her inspiring reverie, and the only surviving “draft she worked on shows a lively and affectionate relation between the older published poet and his talented lover” (54). Some might say this is merely more evidence of those willing to contribute to conspiracy. But at some point, one would have to be willing to suspend an awful lot of logic.
Furthermore, it would seem that if this document could be used or cited as evidence against Mary as author, then it should also be evidence for Mary. In fact, for Critics who accept Mary as Frankenstein’s author, it is this and other existing documents that bear the greatest weight:
“Here appear numerous local rephrasings in Percy’s hand, most (but not all) retained in the publication of 1818, occasional teasings of Mary about some of her habits of style, and a few ideas about local plot developments. Although Percy was an encouraging, attentive reader and a caring adviser, Mary’s primary authorship is confirmed by documents (letters and memoirs) containing comments from everyone who knew them – Byron, Leigh Hunt, Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, Godwin – that refer to her working on Frankenstein and regarding the novel as her project” (54).
And why does this Critically intense scrutiny of the author – if the rightful author were Mary, stop at calling her a nineteen year old woman? Where is the acknowledgement of her professional pedigree, upbringing and present company?
Her parents were well-known writers and activists – William Godwin – a philosopher, publisher and social critic, a “brilliantly popular writer in the 1790’s,” her mother Mary Wollenstonecraft, a feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, both parents being acclaimed novelists and essay writers (Hitchcock 27)). Our Mary had been writing since she herself was ten years old, had been a reader in her father’s vast library, the lover and wife of Percy Shelley. Her entire life had exposed her to the arts and the writing community along with the likes of Samuel Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Milton and Lord Byron to fuel her imagination. She was a daughter of activists coming of age during the rise of the Gothic, surrounded by poets and philosophers.
Now place her in the times of rising technology – the era of electricity and science. Place her at those contemporary and surprisingly common séances and lectures on the possible reanimation of corpses. See the arcs of electricity that were common affectations of lighting demonstrations and the rise of the Gothic period in literature, the rise of the Victorians as social culture.
Now remember what it was like to be nineteen. Remember the raw emotions, the primal fears, the easy way in which monstrosities rose in the imagination and dreams came vivid in their visitations in the night. If you are a writer, remember how rich and tactile an experience it was to write at nineteen. Remember the ideas? Remember how easily monsters came unbidden? Remember the perverse joy of Horror?
Then consider what it must be to witness the death of a child, to be surrounded by infidelities, disinheritances, public scrutiny, suicides, the endless pursuit of creditors, children birthed and dying out of wedlock… to constantly try to hide or disguise the decline of wealth, to be young and in love as passionately as you are afraid of the changing tides of your times. Imagine all of this in your primal imagination on a dark and violently stormy night with the reading of ghost stories and the ultimate challenge of writing one of your own as a contest of youth.
Consider also what it was to be nineteen in 1816. Life expectancy hovered around 40 years… (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/davidjstokes/1800.htm and http://longevity.about.com/od/longevitystatsandnumbers/a/Longevity-Throughout-History.htm) This means that even a morose teenager had some measure of right to be contemplating death and its meaning, because our Mary would have rightfully assumed she was at middle age.
Consider to be wrapped in all of that, and to be a writer. Consider the company she kept—in fact, visit the world of the Romantic Poets for a real taste of the Gothic…
Even using the very rules of conspiracy set about by those anti-Mary critics, one has to acknowledge that Mary had the necessary background – the chops as it were – to have done the deed herself. She had motive and opportunity.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Many modern Critics admit that Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s finest work, that much of her subsequent novels (and yes, she most certainly did write other novels) were lackluster by comparison, seemed somehow distracted and not as focused. But our Mary was also widowed by then, and lost even more children to untimely death.
Try writing novels and not having real life impact your voice and plot. Try being a woman with a complicated reputation in those times. Try keeping a roof over your head.
Perhaps the pressures of being a woman, and a writer, and the possible author of a work like Frankenstein weighed heavily – even like a burden upon her.
Then if all else fails, look at Harper Lee, who it was once said believed that she had nowhere to go but down after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Truths do not matter. What matters is what the writer believes when she is writing.
How do we know why Mary’s other novels were not as successful? How do we possibly get in her head?
Again, I say that Roland Barthes is right: we don’t belong in writer’s heads. We as Critics or readers don’t have a right to their history. We need to appreciate the work as the work.
Maybe we don’t even have a right to know for sure that Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelly wrote Frankenstein. But she said she did. Her husband said she did. All of the people who were there that night at Lake Geneva said she did. They have even found peripheral information – letters, journals, etc. corroborating those very claims – from people who knew the players of the time. No one alludes to a conspiracy but those odd, dissatisfied Critics who believe a woman of nineteen could not have possibly written a work of merit – especially if she were married to an established writer, a man of position...
How incredibly sad. And how incredibly bigoted and sexist.
It is for these very types of reasons that women in Horror today feel skeptical of the publishing machinery that makes canon fodder of them and meteoric successes of more men than women in our genre. We have to question because there are just enough idiots out there to give us cause.
Case in point: every biography of Mary Shelley includes mention of the controversy, mentions the one idiot doubt of her authorship of the work known as Frankenstein. The disenfranchisement of her work has become associated with her very history and tainted the wondrousness of the novel itself. The only male author subjected to the same scrutiny is Shakespeare. (My, Mary, what good company those skeptical Critics have put you in….)
And to the Critics who believe that a nineteen-year-old could not possibly write such worthy stuff, I say that Percy Bysshe Shelley was not that much older, and gee whiz look at H.P. Lovecraft and what his childhood nightmares did for him. I say quit trying to make controversy where historically there is none.
Quit trying to shove Mary in the attic.
We need young women writers in Horror. We need them because they become old women writers in Horror. We need them for vision and the carelessness and impetuousness of youth. We need them and our canon needs them.
The birthing of Frankenstein as a novel is one of the most documented and argued cases of inception we can summon into argument. How it came to be, when it came to be, why it came to be and a list of all the pedigreed witnesses to the birth are available for anybody who wants to do a little research and reading. Ultimately, there is little foundation for supporting the theory of a conspiracy; it’s not only unlikely, it’s just plain weird.
So get off her. Let her breathe. Our times and modern Critics are busting Mary out of the attic prison sexist Criticisms have attempted to make for her. And there are bigger reasons for leaving it to rest than Conspiracy egos can support. Bigotry has had its time, its opportunity, a socially constructed stage upon which to prove its allegations. Nothing came of it except one important truth:
She’s our Mary. She is the rightful birthmother of Frankenstein. And we as readers and writers of the genre couldn’t be more proud or defensive of her right to be. No matter who she was married to or partied with on one dark and stormy night.
Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: a Cultural History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, c2007.
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley: a Biography. New York: E.P. Dutton, c1987.
Wolfson, Susan J. and Ronald Levao, eds. The Annotated Frankenstein by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, c2012