Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a bedfellow for the bicentenary?
The basis of Frankenstein is an experiment that pulls the rug from under its own repeatability. “Never will I create another like yourself,” says the scientist to his “odious handiwork.” The book itself, by the same token, is commonly considered a literary one-off. Mary Shelley, however, was not writing in a vacuum. As if to remind us of this, the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein—which where calculated from the date of composition was celebrated in 2016, but where calculated from the date of publication is being marked now—has weirdly wrapped itself around last year’s Jane Austen bicentenary.
With one Austen novel in particular, Persuasion, Frankenstein enjoys a striking degree of simultaneity.
So adjacent are they that in the realms of romance (where both authors went to school) the two books could have made themselves even more interesting by claiming to be switched infants. Persuasion was finished in August 1816, just as Shelley began work on Frankenstein; and alongside Northanger Abbey it was published in late December 1817, with Frankenstein once again hard on its heels. Such coincidences might almost license fantasies about cross-contamination in the production process. In this case, the resulting hybrid would have been a book so bizarre as to leave Pride and Prejudice and Zombies looking like a match made in heaven. An observation offered by Austen’s character Mrs Croft defines the distance which Persuasion tries to put between itself and what became Shelley’s concerns in Frankenstein:
“The only time that I ever really suffered in body or mind, the only time that I ever fancied myself unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that I passed by myself at Deal, when the Admiral (Captain Croft then) was in the North Seas. I lived in perpetual fright at that time….”
We see here that for Austen “danger” is something to be experienced offstage or in parenthesis, or left for other pens to dwell on, while the quiet life of home takes precedence. As she famously told her niece, “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” For Shelley, on the other hand, a ship’s captain in the North Seas is the very thing to work on, and not merely the stuff of a subclause. She foregrounds it, in fact, as the starting-point of Frankenstein. A state of perpetual fright is what her readers positively seek—and from their point of view, so long as she is delivering that, no Deal adds up to a very good deal indeed.
Jane Austen, therefore, seems as much Mary Shelley’s arch-enemy as the creature is Frankenstein’s. Yet the coincidental simultaneity is not altogether a paradox. Beneath it lurks a certain streak of similarity. One of the oldest critical orthodoxies about Austen is that everything in her novels is pitched toward moments of undeception. So it proves in Frankenstein also: “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart,” “I dreamt that I wandered in flowery meadows and pleasant vales . . . but awoke, and found myself in a dungeon.” In so far as Shelley’s subject is miscreants and (in all its various forms) misconception, her novel also emulates Austen’s exploration of the damaging effects of prejudice. The creature is shown to suffer these, in fact, from everybody who is not blind.
For both authors, to think about prejudice is necessarily to reflect on education— as when Frankenstein’s creature comes across little William, “a beautiful child, who . . . was unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity.” How much that we may have believed was innate is really “imbibed”? Austen’s Marianne, in Sense and Sensibility, regards the moral sense as an instinctive propensity (“we always know when we are acting wrong”); but can conscience work intuitively, or does it always have to be trained? Should we think of intelligence, or of evil, as inborn in us; or as the consequence of environmental conditioning? The creature has a heart which is “susceptible of love and sympathy,” but “wrenched by misery to vice and hatred.”
From these thoughts on original sin Shelley is led to ponder the origin of language, as the creature becomes in the book’s central chapters a specimen of the feral child. In Frankenstein’s “workshop of filthy creation” she is led to speculate on the origin of life itself: is it a property of matter, or is there a life-force independent of the organism? Fittingly, a veil of mystery is drawn over the origins of the novel too. Since there is no author’s name on the 1818 title page, the text tells its readers less than they might like about its making (but instead, with a quotation from Paradise Lost, diverts their attention to the making of man). Some have stuck stubbornly to the notion that the vital spark was added by Shelley’s husband. At least, that Percy Bysshe Shelley Wrote Frankenstein is an abiding myth: number 25 in Duncan Wu’s 30 Great Myths about the Romantics. That Jane Austen could have written the novel instead would be an even more outlandish idea—something fit for the White Queen to believe, or imbibe, before breakfast. It is a tempting idea all the same, for anyone drawn to see Shelley’s Frankenstein as a Crazy Mirrors version of an Austen novel: Persuasion through the looking-glass.