Tag Archives: mary shelley

46. The legend of Mary Shelley

With my editor/publisher hat on my head I am returning Miranda Seymour’s greatly praised Mary Shelley to print through Faber Finds. On first publication in 2001 the book was hailed by the FT’s reviewer as “the most dazzling biography of a female writer to have come my way for an entire decade.” And 2011 has already proved to be a year of passionately renewed interest in The Woman Who Wrote Frankenstein – her life, her legend and enigma retain all their powers to enthrall. Danny Boyle’s new staging of Shelley’s most famous novel has been a huge success for the National Theatre (your correspondent wrote on the subject for the Guardian back in February) and the fascination of readers with the ‘tangled lives’ of the circle of Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley has been evinced yet again by the great reception afforded to Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics.
Merely to know that Mary Shelley completed Frankenstein when not quite 19 is to be aware this was no ordinary young woman. But Mary’s exceptionality began with her parentage: her father was the radical novelist/thinker William Godwin, her mother the intrepid proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who died of septicaemia 12 days after giving birth to her – a grievous inheritance for any child.
Wollstonecraft’s life is rather better known than her writing – partly because the widower Godwin wrote an impassioned memoir of her, including details of her unmarried motherhood and various love affairs which aroused a deal of public disapproval. Mary certainly read her father’s memoir, and her mother’s books, including the famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In Mary’s case, how far had the apple fallen from the tree? Well, in describing Wollstonecraft as ‘feminist’ one intends to say above all that she was a model of self-reliance and that her passionate concern was with how the potential of her sex could be freed by education. And young Mary did indeed get the benefit of a good, advanced education, though her father was in other ways an unhelpfully remote figure. Still, it may be that no small part of the appeal to Mary of Godwin’s protégé Percy Bysshe Shelley was the aura Shelley exuded of a readiness to live out the ideals of Mary’s parents.
Of course, the romance of Mary and Shelley proved to be no giddy jaunt, much less a seamless union of minds. Clearly Percy Bysshe offered her good editorial advice in the writing of Frankenstein, the fame of which would enable her to eclipse his literary star for a while. But the fact remains that of Mary’s five pregnancies with Shelley only one child survived into adulthood. Consequently she suffered profound depressions, and came to build up resilient defences against the outside world where she had been so often wounded. In the end she would outlive all the luminaries of the ‘Pisa circle’: a lone mother, Shelley’s flame-keeper, author of many volumes though none to rival her ‘hideous progeny’ Frankenstein. In Mary Shelley we may say there was a sort of ungovernable daring but also, over time and perforce, a driving need for social ‘respectability’. And these dual forces are twinned to a degree in her work.
Speaking of dual forces: I just noticed this remarkable ‘trailer’ for the National Theatre’s Frankenstein, which makes simple but stunning use of the twinned casting of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

9. The Otherworldly Girls of Ghost Stories

It would seem decidedly un-gallant to say of a woman that she has a perfect face for the supernatural or macabre. (“The way you look, you ought to be in horror movies…”) And yet there are a number of highly striking actresses to whom this description applies. One could say it, and purely in tribute, of Barbara Steele, or of Grace Zabriskie, or even of Michelle Pfeiffer; and most certainly it is true of Alice Krige.
South African-born Krige has done a good deal to suggest that her glacial, fine-boned, well-bred looks are not quite of this earth through her performances as, inter alia, a cat-beast in Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers, as an alien queen in one of the many Star Trek spin-offs, and in the movie of the videogame Silent Hill. Naturally, it is of great significance around this parish that she played Mary Shelley in Ivan Passer’s film about the events at Villa Diodati in 1816, Haunted Summer. But I’d say Krige’s finest hour remains her dual performance as Eva Galli/Alma Mobley in John Irvin’s film of “Peter Straub’s terrifying bestselling novel” Ghost Story.
I’ve never read the Straub novel but having lately become aware of how much intriguing plot/theme material is in it – material that the movie naturally didn’t have time to dwell on – I’m convinced I must crack it open one day. But from childhood I still remember the movie fondly, and Krige’s performance especially.
The movie plot focuses on a quartet of New England codgers who call themselves ‘The Chowder Club’ and convene regularly in a wainscoted sitting room to drink brandy and tell each other blood-chilling tales. But these old boys (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) share an awful secret from their salad days, when they were complicit in the terrible death of a young woman – Eva Galli – on whom they were all sweet but who was, it turned out, vastly out of their league in terms of her formidable qualities. The audience approves, therefore, as Eva quite rightly returns from a watery grave to plague the old men who did her in.
It is a trope of the horror/fantasy genre that a woman can appear in superficially pleasing form yet be not what she seems, or else exactly what one might fear – a wraith or a devil, veiling a threat or playing some wicked game, having risen from the tomb or crossed into this world from some Other. The reader may have gathered by now that this is a trope I have been happy to pass along (like a virus?) through The Possessions of Doctor Forrest.
In Ghost Story, sure enough, one by one the Chowder Club start to drop, as flies to a wanton girl. Fairbanks’ son Craig Wasson is supposed to fight off the threat, but he is rather compromised, having already been seduced by a manifestation of Eva (that is, ‘Alma’) before he was aware of her unholy provenance. The allure is obvious, of course: there can be something terribly appealing about someone who’s a bit different, a bit special – and then something terribly unappealing too. You could get a nasty nip… And both as 1920s’ Eva and 1980s’ Eva, Krige is so wispily lovely that one comes to dread her sudden and drastic reversions to the form of a rotted corpse nearly as much as her victims do.
I daresay you can find the entirety of Ghost Story to watch online if you look hard enough… The trailer below is of the top-drawer kind that they don’t make anymore, and is possibly slightly better than the actual film…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

5. Frankenstein: Storm of Words

By and (c) Abigail LarsonThe glorious drawing to my left is by the brilliant illustrator Abigail Larson, and depicts – as if you didn’t know – Mary Shelley with her creation, ‘Frankenstein’s Monster.’ Last month I wrote a lengthy piece for the Guardian about Shelley’s Frankenstein: the genesis of the work, the life of its maker, and its latest revival in a new stage version for the National Theatre. (I also blogged at my regular site here.) I’m pleased to say that on March 15 2011 I’ll now have the chance to revisit these themes live on stage at the National, seated amid distinguished company. I am the allotted chairperson for a platform discussion entitled ‘Frankenstein’s Creator: Mary Shelley’, the speakers being Claire Tomalin (biographer of, inter alia, Mary Wollstonecraft) and Daisy Hay, author of Young Romantics, celebrating the idealistic circle whose starriest members were present by Lake Geneva in 1816 at the symposium that brought Frankenstein forth.
Doctor Forrest contains a homage of sorts to Frankenstein, just inasmuch as there is a passage of the novel wherein Forrest finds himself in such an unholy predicament that he is reduced to ‘a miserable life in the woods’, ‘fearful of encountering the visage of a human being’ – akin, maybe, to the lot of the human creature made from grave-robbed bones and then cast out into the wild by Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein.
In the Guardian piece I wrote the following:
‘After nurturing their adaptation through discussions over two decades – says Nick Dear – he and Danny Boyle decided that ‘what we had never seen done was the story told from the creature’s point of view.’ Such a focus was overdue since, for a likely majority of Shelley’s readers, the emotional core of Frankenstein is the six-chapter section at its centre wherein the Creature confronts Victor with all that he has suffered by his maker’s rejection – how the outcast was forced to survive alone in the wild, his inchoate delight in Nature dashed by his bitter meetings with Man’s hostility. The creature has learned language and syntax from a discarded edition of Paradise Lost, and his pain at all he has been denied is rendered in the fiery tones of Milton’s ‘fallen angel’ Satan. ‘Hideous’ Mary’s creature may be, but in literary terms his erudite author fashioned him from the very finest materials.’
Without doubt this is the core of Frankenstein’s appeal in my eyes – the plight of the creature, his terrible eloquence, and the damnable state of his creator. The strange Gothic pathos of Shelley’s novel resides for me partly in its sense of dread and confessional horror, but above all in the disputations – storms of words – between Victor and the creature, those passionate and violent outpourings of conflicted feeling for one another. (Karl Miller – in Doubles, his brilliant study of duality in nineteenth-century literature – offers a useful précis of Frankenstein’s double-dealing: ‘Shelley’s hero is an orphan who orphans the creature he has made, a creature who is then pitied as a monster capable of attacking his maker’s bride…’)
One can indeed hear the cadences of Paradise Lost in the creature’s tirades and laments. Like Satan he carries within him something sublime, most evident in his regard for the natural world (also fully of a piece with the Romantic worship of nature.) In Milton, Satan sings plaintively of the Eden from which he is excluded: ‘If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange / Of hill, and valley, rivers, woods, and plains, / Now land, now sea and shores with forest crowned, / Rocks, dens, and caves!’ Shelley’s creature feels the same stirring in his breast, but he, too, has no home in the world, and his fallen state causes him to be consumed by hate, to desire in malevolence to mar the creation of the ‘Almighty styled.’ Satan understands he has no pleasure ‘[s]ave what is in destroying; other joy / To me is lost.’ It is in much the same vein that Frankenstein’s monster, spurned the length of the Earth, vows ‘eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.’
I don’t think that any dramatic adaptation of Shelley can hope to convey truly the eloquence owned by the creature on the page – films need to move more swiftly, and the soliloquy rather belongs to a different epoch of theatre, whereas the pace of a novel is essentially in the hands of the reader. I do feel, though, that Robert De Niro’s performance in the unfairly-maligned Kenneth Branagh film of Shelley does as much as any to express that eloquence, albeit in an idiom once removed – and particularly so in this sequence: the great and terrible demand that Victor ‘create a female’…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized