Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Gothic Monster’s Mother

Ellen Moers
Ellen Moers

What I mean by Female Gothic is easily defined: the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteent-century, we have called the Gothic. But what I mean — or anyone else means — by “the Gothic” is not so easily stated except that it has to do with fear.

In Gothic writings fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite auctorial intent: to scare. Not that is, to reach down into the depths of the soul and purge it with pity and terror (as we say tragedy does), but to get to the body itself, its glands, epidermis, muscles and circulatory system, quickly arousing and quickly allaying the physical reactions to fear.

Indeed the earliest tributes to the power of Gothic writers tended to emphasize the physiological. Jane Austen has Henry Tilney say, in Northanger Abbey, that he could not put down Mrs Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho: “I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time.” For Hazlitt Ann Radcliffe had mastered “the art of freezing the blood”: “harrowing up the soul with imaginary horrors, and making the flesh creep and the nerves thrill.”

Mary Shelley said she intended Frankenstein to be the kind of ghost story that would “curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” Why such claims? Presumably, because readers enjoyed these sensations. For example, in Joanna Baillie’s verse play on the theme of addiction to artificial fear, the heroine prevails upon a handmaiden, against the best advice, to tell a horror story: “At the time when literary Gothic was born, religious fears were on the wane, giving way to that vague paranoia of the modern spirit for which Gothic mechanisms seem to have provided welcome therapy.”

Walter Scott compared reading Mrs Radcliffe to taking drugs, dangerous when habitual “but of most blessed power in those moments of pain and of languor, when the whole head is sore, and the whole heart sick. If those who rail indiscriminately at this species of composition, were to consider the quantity of actual pleasure which it produces, and the much greater proportion of real sorrow and distress which it alleviates, their philanthropy ought to moderate their critical pride, or religious intolerance.”

A grateful public rewarded Mrs Radcliffe, according to her most recent biographer, by making her the most popular and best-paid English novelist of the eighteenth-century. Her pre-eminence among the “Terrorists,” as they were called, was hardly challenged in her own day, and modern readers of Udolpho and The Italian continue to hail her as mistress of the pure Gothic form.

The secrets of Mrs Radcliffe’s power over the reader seem to be her incantatory prose style, her artful stretching of suspense over long periods of novelistic time, her pictorial and musical imagination which verges on the surreal. But the reasons for her own manipulation of that power remain mysterious, and there is no sign that any more will ever be known of her life and personality than the sparse facts we now have.

She was married, childless, shy, sensitive to criticism of her respectability as woman and author, and addicted to travel — an addiction she was able to satisfy more thorough reading and imagining than through experience.

Ann Radcliffe’s novels suggest that, for her, Gothic was a device to set maidens on distant and exciting journeys without offending the proprieties. In the power of villains, her heroines are forced to scurry up the top of pasteboard Alps and penetrate bandit-infested forests. They can scuttle miles along castle corridors, descend into dungeons, and explore secret chambers without a chaperone, because the Gothic castle, however, ruined, is an indoor and therefore freely female space.

In Mrs Radcliffe’s hands, the Gothic novel became a feminine substitute for the picaresque, where heroines could enjoy all the adventures and alarms that masculine heroes had long experienced, far from home, in fiction.

She also made the Gothic novel into a make-believe puberty rite for young women. Her heroines are always good daughters, her villains bad, cruel, painfully attractive father figures, for which her lovers are at last accepted as palely satisfactory substitutes, but only after paternal trials and tortures are visited upon the heroine.

When satirizing the form, Jane Austen wisely refrained from tampering with this essential feature of Mrs Radcliffe’s Gothic: the father in Northanger Abbey is one of Austen’s nastiest.

As early as the 1790s, then, Ann Radcliffe firmly set the Gothic in one of the ways it would go ever after: a novel in which the central figure is a young woman who is simultaneously persecuted victim and courageous heroine. But what are we to make of the next significant turning of the Gothic tradition that a woman brought about a generation later?

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, in 1818, made over the Gothic novel into what today we call science fiction. Frankenstein brought a new sophistication to literary terror, and it did so without a heroine, without even a prominent female victim.

Paradoxically, however, no other Gothic work by a woman writer, perhaps no other literary work of any kind by a woman, better repays examination in the light of the sex of its author. For Frankenstein is a birth myth, and one that was lodged in the novelist’s imagination, I am convinced, by the fact that she was herself a mother.

Much in Mary Shelley’s life was remarkable. She was the daughter of a brilliant mother (Mary Wollstonecraft) and father (William Godwin). She was the mistress and then wife of the poet Shelley.

She read widely in five languages, including Latin and Greek. She had easy access to the writings and conversation of some of the most original minds of her age. However, nothing so sets her apart from the generality of writers of her own time, and before, and for long afterwards, than her early and chaotic experience, at the very time she became an author, with motherhood.

Pregnant at sixteen, and almost constantly pregnant throughout the following five years; yet not a secure mother, for she lost most of her babies soon after they were born; and not a lawful mother, for she was not married — not at least when, at the age of eighteen, Mary Godwin began to write Frankenstein. So are monsters born.

What in fact, has the experience of giving birth to do with women’s literature? In the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, very few important women writers, except for Mary Shelley, bore children; most of them, in England and America, were spinsters and virgins.

With the coming of Naturalism late in the century, and the lifting of the Victorian taboo against writing about physical sexuality (including pregnancy and labour), the subject of birth was first brought to literature in realistic form by male novelists, from Tolstoy and Zola to William Carlos Williams.

Tolstoy was the father of thirteen babies born at home; Williams, as well as a poet and Naturalist, was a small-town doctor with hundreds of deliveries to his professional credit. For the knowledge of the sort that makes half-a-dozen pages of obstetrical detail, they had the advantage over women writers until relatively recent times.

Mary Shelley was a unique case, in literature as in life. She brought birth to fiction not as realism but as Gothic fantasy, and thus contributed to Romanticism a myth of genuine originality. She invented the mad scientist who locks himself in his laboratory and secretly, guiltily, works at creating human life, only to find that he has made a monster.

“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet […]. The rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs […]. His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing […]; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

That is very good horror, but what follows is more horrid still: Frankenstein, the scientist, runs away and abandons the newborn monster, who is and remains nameless. Here, I think, is where Mary Shelley’s book is most interesting, most powerful, and most feminine: in the motif of revulsion against newborn life, and the drama of guilt, dread, and flight surrounding birth and its consequences.

Most of the novel, roughly two of its three volumes, can be said to deal with the retribution visited upon monster and creator for deficient infant care. Frankenstein seems to be distinctly a woman’s mythmaking on the subject of birth precisely because its emphasis is not upon what precedes birth, not upon birth itself, but upon what follows birth: the trauma of the after-birth.

Fear and guilt, depression and anxiety are commonplace reactions to the birth of a baby, and well within the normal range of experience. But more deeply rooted in our cultural mythology, and certainly in our literature, are the happy maternal reactions: ecstasy, a sense of fulfilment, and the rush of nourishing love which sweep over the new mother when she first holds her baby in her arms.

Thackeray’s treatment of the birth of a baby in Vanity Fair is the classic of this genre. Gentle Amelia is pregnant when her adored husband dies on the field of Waterloo, a tragedy which drives the young woman into a state of comatose grief until the blessed moment when her baby is born.

“Heaven had sent her consolation,” writes Thackeray. “A day came — of almost terrified delight and wonder — when the poor widowed girl pressed a child upon her breast […] a little boy, as beautiful as a cherub […]. Love, and hope, and prayer woke again in her bosom […]. She was safe.”

Thackeray was here recording a reality, as well as expressing a sentiment. But he himself was under no illusion that happiness was the only possible maternal reaction to giving birth, for his own wife had become depressed and hostile after their first baby was born, and suicidal and insane after the last.

At the time of Vanity Fair, Thackeray had already had to place her in a sanitarium, and he was raising their two little girls himself. So, in Vanity Fair, he gives us not only Amelia as a mother, but also Becky Sharp. Becky’s cold disdain toward her infant son, her hostility and selfishness as a mother, are perhaps a legacy of Thackeray’s experience; they are also among the finest things in the novel.

From what we know about the strange young woman who wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was in this respect nothing like Becky Sharp. She rejoiced at becoming a mother and loved and cherished her babies as long as they lived. But her journal is a chilly and laconic document, mostly concerned with the extraordinary reading program she put herself through at Shelley’s side.

Her own emphasis on books in the journal has set the tone of most of the discussion of the genesis of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley is said — and rightly — to have based her treatment of the life of her monster on the ideas about education, society, and morality held by her father and her mother.

She is shown to have been influenced directly by Shelley’s genius, and by her reading of Coleridge and Wordsworth and the Gothic novelists. She learned from Sir Humphry Davy’s book on chemistry and Erasmus Darwin on biology.

In Switzerland, during the summer she began Frankenstein, she sat by while Shelley, Byron, and Polidori discussed the new sciences of mesmerism, electricity, and galvanism, which promised to unlock the riddle of life, and planned to write ghost stories.

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