GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Charlotte Gordon’s ‘Mary Shelley: Abandoned by Her Creator and Rejected by Society’

“That fall Mary and Shelley moved to Bath, and Mary immersed herself in her story. She added a new character, Robert Walton, an arctic explorer searching for the north pole, who recounts Frankenstein’s story in a series of letters to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville, providing the reader with another version of the tale.

Like Frankenstein, Walton is obsessed with proving his own genius, acting against the wishes of his beloved sister, who has “evil forebodings” about his endeavor. When at last Walton turns back from his quest, his decision offers a hopeful alternative to the disastrous choices made by Frankenstein and the creature. Walton despairs over his lost glory, but knows that his sister will be relieved that he has survived. The sole voice of reason in the novel, Margaret emerges as an important character, though her words are heard only indirectly, through the letters of her brother, a structural echo of the role most women were forced to play in the lives of men. Her opposition to her brother’s ambition is an important counterpoint to the selfishness of the male characters, reminding the reader of the importance of love and relationships.

Mary’s three-pronged narrative, her Russian doll technique of nesting one story inside another, provides the reader with three different versions of the same set of events. This was a daring departure from the didactic novelists of the preceding generations (such as Samuel Richardson and her own father), and it gave Mary the opportunity to create a complex narrative that asked far more of her readers than a simple parable against the dangers of invention. Careful not to weight the story in favor of either the creator or the creature, Mary conjured a sense of moral suspension in which the conventional questions—who’s the hero? who’s the villain?—no longer apply. The creature and Walton undermine Frankenstein’s version of events, allowing us to see what he never acknowledges: that he was at fault because he did not provide his creation with love or an education. Monsters, says Mary, are of our own making.

Mary spent the summer of 1817 readying the novel for publication, creating a fair copy of the manuscript. She finished right before she gave birth in September. The significance of the novel’s gestation was not lost on Mary. She frequently referred to the book as her “offspring” and linked the story to her own birth. The tale begins “Dec 11, 17—” and ends in “September 17—.” Mary Wollstonecraft conceived in early December 1796 and gave birth to Mary on August 30, 1797, dying on September 10, 1797.

By connecting Frankenstein to her own genesis, Mary hints at the many ties she felt to the novel. Like the creature, she felt abandoned by her creator and rejected by society. Like Frankenstein, she felt compelled to create. Her own birth had caused the death of her mother, but it had also brought life to her characters.

Ultimately, it was the stage versions of the book that made the story famous. In 19th century England playwrights were allowed to borrow freely from novels without crediting the original author. In the hands of adapters, Mary’s multifaceted creation often became one-dimensional. Another odd development was that over time Mary’s hubristic Dr. Frankenstein almost completely disappeared from public awareness; by the 1840s, the word Frankenstein had become synonymous with monster. To the public, Mary’s name became inextricably entwined with that of a murderous fiend. As her fame grew, the many layers and multiple perspectives of the novel were gradually forgotten.”



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