Saturday, December 26, 2020

SF Luminaries: Mary Shelley

Richard Rothwell: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1840)

"I write bad articles which help to make me miserable — but I am going to plunge into a novel and hope that its clear water will wash off the mud of the magazines."
- Mary Shelley, Letter to Leigh Hunt

Theodor von Holst: Frontispiece to Frankenstein (1831)

There's a section in an 2016 post of mine entitled "Movies about Writers" which includes some remarks on a subgenre I've called "Byron-'n'-Shelley-'n'-Mary-Shelley" films: ones which concentrate on the infamous "haunted summer" of 1816, which she and her husband Percy spent mostly on the shores of Lake Geneva, hob-nobbing with Lord Byron and his hapless companion Dr. Polidori.

Kenneth Branagh, dir.: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to charting the influence of that rather disturbing meeting of minds on popular culture: fiction as well as cinema. I mentioned there Brian Aldiss's SF novel Frankenstein Unbound (1973), Liz Lochead's Dreaming Frankenstein (1984), and Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard (1989). (I might also have added Christopher Priest's The Prestige (1995) - though this is far more notable in the novel than in Christopher Nolan's 2006 film version).

There's also (now) Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2009) to be considered, along with Stephanie Hemphill's Hideous Love (2013) and Jon Skovron's Man Made Boy (2015). Michael Sims, editor of Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Science Fiction (2017), mentions these and various other titles in his own 2018 article "8 Books that wouldn't exist without Mary Shelley's Frankenstein".

Leslie S. Klinger, ed.: The New Annotated Frankenstein (2017)

When it comes to movies and TV shows based on the book, it's hard to know exactly where to begin. There's a reasonably complete filmography in Leslie S. Klinger's New Annotated Frankenstein, which takes you all the way from James Whale's classic Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to that curious film Gods and Monsters (1998), which purports to recreate Whale's own last days.

On the small screen, as well as two series of the UK TV series The Frankenstein Chronicles, there have been three series of that strange amalgam of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, John Logan's Penny Dreadful ...

Penny Dreadful (2014-16)

All of which brings us to the crucial question: what exactly is Frankenstein? I don't mean that perennial confusion about who the title actually refers to: Victor Frankenstein or Frankenstein's monster (the former, of course). I mean, what kind of a book is it?

Peter Fairclough, ed. Three Gothic Novels (1983)

Mario Praz, author of The Romantic Agony (1933), who contributed an introduction to the edition above, is in no doubt. It's a Gothic novel, and offers all of the seductive attributes of that genre. As the article on Gothic fiction on Wikipedia so succinctly puts it:
Gothic fiction tends to place emphasis on both emotion and a pleasurable kind of terror, serving as an extension of the Romantic literary movement ... The most common of these "pleasures" among Gothic readers was the sublime — an indescribable feeling that "takes us beyond ourselves."
"The genre had much success in the 19th century," the article goes on to say, "as witnessed in prose by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein [my emphasis] and the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe ... and in poetry in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge."

The collection above leaves no doubt what area of the literary firmament they see Mary Shelley as inhabiting: the supernatural and weird.

But there is, of course, a dissentient vein of opinion on this point. It's hard to say who really started this particular hare, but it's certainly strongly associated with Brian Aldiss, a prolific SF author in his own right, and author of the 1973 history of the genre Billion Year Spree (updated in 1986 as Trillion Year Spree). In a speech made at the launch of a new edition of Frankenstein in 2008, he summarised his views as follows:

Brian Aldiss Billion Year Spree (1973)

... when I was attempting to write [Billion Year Spree], 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.

... 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 ...

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 ... 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 ...

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.

Mary Shelley: The Last Man (1826)

In a sense the whole argument comes down to The Last Man. This dystopian futuristic fantasy is the only other significant exhibit to consider when attempting to decide whether to weight the scales towards "Gothic novelist" or "Mother of Science Fiction" for Mary Shelley. Brian Aldiss, once again, is in no doubt:
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 it] 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.”
None of the rest of her seven novels shows any particular elements of speculative fiction: most of them are historical in inspiration, and the others (such as Mathilda, unpublished in her lifetime) tend to be more preoccupied with the complexities of sexual politics.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Jules Verne (1828-1905)

H. G. Wells (1866-1946)

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967)

Science Fiction has certainly been gifted with quite a number of fathers: Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Hugo Gernsback, to name just the usual suspects. I suppose that I would feel happier to embrace Brian Aldiss's hypothesis if it weren't for the hyper-Gothic tone of Frankenstein in both the 1818 and 1831 versions.

H. G. Wells: The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

But then, the same could be said of Wells's Island of Doctor Moreau, or - for that matter - almost all of Poe's fictional output.

It it were just a matter of Frankenstein itself, I think I might still see it as a bit exaggerated - but The Last Man, direct ancestor of such novels as Richard Matheson's I am Legend (1954), George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), Susan Ertz's Woman Alive (1935), and M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901), does lend potent support to Aldiss's argument.

John Martin: The Last Man (1849)

Admittedly John Clute's magisterial Encyclopedia of Science Fiction complicates the issue somewhat by describing the complex backstory of the idea:
Early treatments, often in verse, include Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville's The Last Man: or, Omegarus and Syderia: A Romance in Futurity (1805; trans 1806); Lord Byron's "Darkness" (1816); "The Last Man" (1823), a poem by Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) which inspired John Martin's mezzotint "The Last Man" (1826); The Last Man (1826), an operatic scena by William H Callcott (1807-1882); "The Last Man" (1826), a poem by Thomas Hood (1799-1845) ...
All of these before even mentioning Mary Shelley's novel!

One thing's for certain, Frankenstein seems fated to remain one of those very few works of fiction which transcends the genre it was written in, which taps into some mythic layer of the collective unconscious. Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - they keep on being revised, revisited, reinvented in a constant cycle of desire. Whatever their authors envisaged for them, it's impossible they could have foreseen such a relentless need for this among all the other products of their pen.

Mary Shelley was undoubtedly a genius. Even given her extraordinary background: daughter of two brilliant and intellectually revolutionary parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft; married to another genius, Percy Bysshe Shelley; no-one could really have predicted the heights of renown she would reach.

If SF has to have a single ancestor, why shouldn't it be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley? The extent of her influence on the genre then and now certainly makes her well worthy of the honour.

Leonard Wolf, ed.: The Annotated Frankenstein (1977)

Reginald Easton: Mary Shelley (1857)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


  1. Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. 3 vols. London: Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818.
    • Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole; Vathek, by William Beckford; Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. 1764, 1786, & 1818. Ed. Peter Fairclough. Introduction by Mario Praz. 1968. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
    • The Annotated Frankenstein. 1818. Ed. Leonard Wolf. Art by Marcia Huyette. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1977.
    • The New Annotated Frankenstein: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Rev. ed. 1831. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Introduction by Guillermo del Toro. Afterword by Anne K. Mellor. Liveright Publishing Corporation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc., 2017.
    • Making Humans: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein / H. G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau: Complete Texts with Introduction. Historical Contexts. Critical Essays. 1818 & 1896. Ed. Judith Wilt. New Riverside Editions. Ed. Alan Richardson. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
  2. Valperga: Or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. 3 vols. London: Printed for G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1823.
  3. The Last Man. 3 vols. London: Henry Colburn, 1826.
    • The Last Man. 1826. Introduction by Brian Aldiss. Hogarth Fiction. London: the Hogarth Press, 1985.
  4. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance. 3 vols. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830.
  5. Lodore. 3 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1835.
  6. Falkner. A Novel. 3 vols. London: Saunders and Otley, 1837.
  7. Mathilda. 1819. Ed. Elizabeth Nitchie. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

  8. Travel narratives:

  9. [with Percy Bysshe Shelley] History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: with Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni. London: T. Hookham, Jun.; and C. and J. Ollier, 1817.
  10. Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843. 2 vols. London: Edward Moxon, 1844.

  11. Children's books:

  12. [with Percy Bysshe Shelley] Proserpine & Midas. Two unpublished Mythological Dramas by Mary Shelley. 1820. Ed. A. H. Koszul. London: Humphrey Milford, 1922.
  13. Maurice, or The Fisher’s Cot. 1820. Ed. Claire Tomalin. 1998. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

  14. Journals & Letters:

  15. The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814–44. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  16. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 3 vols. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

  17. Secondary:

  18. Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. 1974. London: Quartet Books, 1976.
  19. St Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family. 1989. London: Faber, 1990.
  20. Trelawny, Edward John. Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author. 1878. Ed. David Wright. 1973. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)

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