Versatile Monster

Marilyn Butler

  • In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and 19th-century Writing by Chris Baldick
    Oxford, 207 pp, £22.50, December 1987, ISBN 0 19 811726 4

The plot of Frankenstein, Chris Baldick points out, can be summed up in two sentences. ‘Frankenstein makes a living creature out of bits of corpses. The creature turns against him and runs amok.’ The mystery is why so many people know the plot of Frankenstein, and have known it, as this book ably demonstrates, since shortly after the work’s first appearance in 1818, without necessarily reading a line of Mary Shelley’s prose. More than a century before it was filmed, it existed in two rival stage versions. Cartoonists drew it, writers and politicians alluded to it. The plot, rather like the monster, got away from its creator and walked the world.

It’s for the range of its significations in changing contexts that Chris Baldick is interested in Frankenstein. ‘This will not be an exercise in tracing Mary Shelley’s literary “influence” (as far as prose style is concerned, it is just as well she had none), but a study of that process of adaptation, allusion and revision by which a modern myth is born and sustains its life.’ Baldick’s time-span is an extended 19th century, from the Fall of the Bastille to the First World War. Some myths invoked in Romantic writing, like Faust and Prometheus, have remoter origins than the Frankenstein fable. Other Gothic novels carried on, Baldick says, ‘safely retrospective flirtations with feudal and Papal power’. But Mary Shelley’s novel is set at the close of the Age of Reason. It’s a story of the 1790s, the decade which ushered in a sixty-year-long cycle of European revolutions, counter-revolutions, rapid social and economic change. Frankenstein, its protagonist, is a man of his day – a scientist, imaginatively a social scientist, who aspires to re-make the world of nature, social and political forms, men and women.

Only eighty pages of Baldick’s book deal directly with Mary Shelley’s. Of these the greater part examines either the myth of a monstrous birth before Mary Shelley adopted it, or the fortunes of the idea after she published it. This approach in effect re-distributes authorship of the fable, and obliges us to consider it as a collaborative popular invention. The idea of likening the French Revolution and particularly the Parisian mob to a parricidal monster may have occurred first to Edmund Burke. Already in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke saw the fomentors of revolutions as sinister magicians, the Parisian municipal army as ‘a species of political monster, which has always ended by devouring those who have produced it’.

After this there was a ready-made rhetoric of unnaturalness and monstrosity on which colourful, emotive 19th-century writers such as Carlyle loved to draw. As Conor Cruise O’Brien observed, the spectre haunting Europe in the first sentence of The Communist Manifesto ‘walks for the first time in the pages of Burke’. Burke’s early opponents, English radicals such as Tom Paine and Mary Shelley’s parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, tried to neutralise the damage his imagery did to the popular side, by giving the monstrous child an even more monstrous parent. If the Revolution was going bad, it was because of the sins of the fathers. Aristocracy became a cruel and negligent parent which reared a race of deformed children.

There have been many modern critical explanations, especially in the last decade, of the power and ‘meaning’ of Frankenstein. But most interpreters take the plot to be Mary Shelley’s own property, and guess at the experiences which may lie behind it. She wrote about a birth because she was a woman; about a hideous birth, followed by parental abdication, either because she was Godwin’s daughter, or Shelley’s wife, or the mother of dead babies. The long sweep of Baldick’s perspective makes all this biographical guesswork look distinctly short-sighted. In its details, his location of the plot’s governing metaphor in the revolution decade is not original to him, as he acknowledges. But no one else has matched the pre-history of Frankenstein so well with the post-history, or indeed attempted a sustained account of what could be called the book’s external relations.

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