Of men and monsters is all about the way men react to women, to the detriment of women.
In 1818, Mary Shelley a young woman of amazing talent and possessing a vivid imagination entered the literary scene by writing the Gothic novel, Frankenstein. Mary was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and William Godwin. It is no surprise that a child of such intellectual and well-published parents should be talented herself. But still being a talented woman was difficult in the early nineteenth century when women were severely limited.
Women Versus the Patriarch
Patriarchy restricted women in every way. Writing was one of the few avenues a woman could enter. Even then, many women like Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) wrote under an alias using a masculine name. Mary published Frankenstein anonymously until the second edition.
The 2017 Hanway’s film version of Mary’s life, which is great, suggests that Percy Shelley wrote a foreword to her novel to enable its publication. Thankfully, he had the grace not to claim Mary’s brilliant story as his own. Publishers showed no interest in the work of Mary, because of its unconventional content not befitting her gender. So, why did a young woman born into a good home write of men and monsters?
The Gothic Novel
The tale of Frankenstein started out as a short story prompted by a late-night dare by fireside companions. Mary’s companions, her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were both influential Romantic poets. They dared each other and Mary to write a ghost story. Little did they expect Mary’s story to ace theirs and its character created by Dr. Frankenstein to become legendary.
Many do not realise that Frankenstein was the doctor who created the manufactured monster, not the name of the monster himself. Apart from its unique character and plot, Frankenstein has a deep message about life, death and men and monsters, whatever one perceives them to be. Frankenstein is now viewed as the precursor to the science fiction and horror genres, now so popular, but unknown at the time.
A Scandalous Life Of Men And Monsters
Mary’s life story reads like a Gothic novel. Her early life with Percy Shelley resembles a Catherine/ Heathcliff passion that almost destroys them. It was truly a tale of men and monsters.
Born in 1797, at the time of the French Revolution, Mary’s early life took a fateful turn when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was a Romantic poet whose political activism against the government, shocked many. This included his wealthy and respected parents.
He was already married to the daughter of a tavern owner. This was another reason his parents despaired of him. His family cut him off financially, but this did not deter his rebelliousness.
While circulating political pamphlets in London, he met the young Mary, still in her teens. Although he already had a wife and daughter, Shelley professed love to Mary.
Scandalously, he and love-struck teenager, Mary, ran off together to France in 1814. They took Mary’s young stepsister, Claire, with them. In lodgings they formed an unconventional threesome, a menage a trois as the French say. Mary and Claire, only in their teens, were easy prey for these men and monsters.
The Byronic Hero Of Men And Monsters
Things became even more messy when Claire began an affair with the poet, Lord Byron, a friend of Shelley’s, and bore a child. Byron shunned her, but perhaps in a moment of self-examination, then decided to provide for the child.
This entitled young man, George Gordon Byron, was the inspiration for the term Byronic hero. A man of wealth, position and looks who can write beautiful poetry, saying all the right things, yet has a cold and callous heart. The openly bisexual Byron, like many young aristocrats, was a narcissist who preyed on young men and women. He was monster for his victims like young Claire.
The scandalous lifestyle of the four young people estranged them further from their shocked parents. This became worse when Harriet, Percy’s legal wife, drowned herself. Percy’s two children were given over to foster care, as he was considered an unfit parent.
Frankenstein, Of Men And Monsters
The following years for Mary were years of restlessness, as the young people travelled around Italy. They lived here and there wherever took their fancy. Because of Percy’s health issues the couple moved to the warm climate of Italy where they kept company with Lord Byron.
Mary and Percy had two children who died in infancy. It was about this time, that Mary wrote Frankenstein in response to the dare from Shelly and Byron. By then, she was desperate to find meaning in the moral decay of her life.
Percy had been writing novels and poetry in the preceding years, as had Lord Byron. For Percy these were productive years, when he wrote most of his ideological poetry. He abandoned the political anarchy works of his early youth.
The Death Of Romantic Idealism
But, for young Claire and Mary these years shattered their youthful romantic idealism. Mary and Byron had a conflicted relationship, coloured by his unfaithfulness and lack of responsibility. But suddenly, out of the misery of betrayal, the death of their children and moral decadence, emerged from her brilliant novel Frankenstein.
The story reflects Mary’s torment as the monster lives a tortured existence abandoned by its creator, Dr Frankenstein. Some suggest the monster is Mary herself, nurtured but then abandoned by Shelley. They certainly did not thrive in the company of each other. Sounds familiar. The story of many a relationship!
How Mary Battles The Monsters
In 1819, their only surviving child was born, Percy Florence Shelley in Florence. Percy and his father were on the way by boat to meet an editor friend, when both men drowned in 1822. Percy was only 29.
After her husband’s death, Mary published his unpublished works. She went on to write five more novels, lesser known than Frankenstein. Interestingly, her novel The Last Man tells the story of the future destruction of the human race through a plague.
Her journals are a snapshot of life particularly the social restrictions for women. They show how men can destroy women. This still resonates today. In public and family life women still wage the war against men and monsters.
Mary like her mother before her was a fearless and rebellious young woman unafraid of scandal and censure. She lived a full life and wrote to express herself in a time when most women were suppressed. She never remarried and died at the age of 53 in 1851.
The Origins of The Novel
The ‘novel’ came into being in the 18th century as a construction defined by a slow unfolding of characters and plot with ensuing dramas, misunderstandings and entanglement of the characters, It ends with a final resolution of either happily ever after, or tragedy. The term novel is a contraction of the Italian word ‘novella’, meaning ‘new, innovative’ defining short stories of light and entertaining nature.
Novellas served as refreshing antidotes to the long epic poems of earlier days. It is interesting that the contracted form, now called the novel, is a larger serving of prose than the novella. Early novels usually took a narrative form and told a story in chronological order.
More On The Origin Of The Novel
Such early work did not concentrate on the individual, but employed stereotypical characters to drive the narrative. This was accompanied with moral lessons for the reader. These ‘novels’ were long winded, lacked humour and preached moral rectitude to their audience. They are hard for the modern reader to digest. Read more about the novel at Joni Scott.
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Joni Scott is a writer inspired by true life. She has three published novels, Whispers through Time, The Last Hotel and Colour comes to Tangles. See here. Like Wendy, she has endured life’s arrows and learnt to prosper despite it all. Joni is a Science graduate of Sydney University.