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Wednesday, 09 September 2009 15:01

The dark side of the Romantics

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The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein by Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler. Little, Brown and Company. 374 pages.

 

Back in the 1950’s, when I was an English major, I frequently found myself moribund with boredom as I suffered through classroom lectures on the meaning of sonnets, epics and allegories. I slogged through the quagmires of literature, not because Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope and Milton were boring, but because I was in thrall to teachers who seemed incapable of making literature “walk, talk and sing.” There were exceptions, of course, but the majority of my guides merely succeeded in convincing me that I was either immune or insensitive to “great literature.”

However, when we got to the Romantic poets, not even the best/worst efforts of my instructors could deaden that music. I heard it; we all heard it: the seductive music of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats. Suddenly, here was a world that was populated by misfits, rebels and (with the exception of Wordsworth) drug addicts. They thumbed their nose at religion and social convention, behaved outrageously and often died young. Even if we didn’t approve of them, they got our attention.

Those of us who loved (or were fascinated by) the Romantics have probably heard some version of that magic night when five young people gathered inside the Villa Diodati, a luxurious summerhouse on Lake Geneva in Switzerland to tell ghost stories. It was June 17, 1818, and violent thunderstorms and lightning swept across the lake that night. Illuminated by lightning and flickering candles, the guests attempted to frighten each other with lurid tales of vampires, the resurrected dead and vengeful spirits.

All of those present were either gifted, famous and/or notorious: George Gordon Lord Byron, “the most famous man in the world,” whose literary works and sexual exploits had shocked (or fascinated) Europe; Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had abandoned his pregnant wife, Harriet, and eloped with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon to be Mrs. Shelley); Dr. John Polidori, Bryon’s personal physician and aspiring poet, who was about to lose his lucrative position; and Claire Clarmont, Mary’s step-sister and Byron’s current mistress (she is pregnant with his child). Finally, there is Mary W. Godwin, daughter of London’s renowned, radical and scandalous William and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, both of whom considered conventional marriage to be “a form of prostitution.”

Of all the lurid images and tales evoked that night, only two are destined to survive: Mary’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Dr. Polidori’s Vampyre — both destined to become world famous (Polidori’s novel will eventually become Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The gothic tales created by Byron, Shelley and Claire Clarmont did not survive long enough to be published.

Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler have undertaken a provocative thesis: to demonstrate that Mary Shelley’s novel is a thinly veiled autobiography. The Hobbler’s contend that the “monster” created by Dr. Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s alter ego! It is a persuasive argument. Both the author and Dr. Frankenstein’s creation are unloved and outcast. Further, both Mary’s father, William Godwin and her perverse husband, Percy Shelley have much in common with the cruel, remote Dr. Frankenstein who rejected his own creation and sought to destroy it.

In addition, the Hobbler’s perceive other parallels between the novel and the lives of all of the original guests at Villa Diadoti. Not only are all of the characters fated to either die prematurely or, like Claire Clarmont, live tragic, obscure lives; they often suffer the loss of their loved ones. In effect, all seem to be victims of a curse that was engendered on the night that Mary Shelley outlined the basic plot of Frankenstein – the tale of a monster that vows to destroy all that his creator holds dear — children, lovers and relatives.

The first to die are children. Mary and Percy’s children fall victims to sickness (cholera and or related epidemics). Then, Harriet Westbrook, Shelley’s abandoned wife and Fanny Godwin, William’s oldest daughter, commit suicide. Byron and Claire’s daughter, Allegra, dies in a convent. Dr. Polidori, having lost control of Vampyre and living as a social outcast, commits suicide; Shelley drowns in a boating mishap; Byron joins a Greek struggle for independence, becomes ill and dies tragically — a victim of incompetent doctors.

The sole survivor, Mary Shelley, devotes the remainder of her life attempting to reconstruct (or resurrect) her brilliant husband’s life and work. She painstakingly gathers his poems, diaries and letters — all of which she edits and transcribes. There is considerable evidence that Mary destroy ed or altered any materials which did not support her vision of Shelley as a brilliant, revolutionary genius. In effect, she “recreated” him.

The Monsters is a brilliant, exhaustively researched work. However, I was distressed to find that some of my most cherished images of the Romantics were groundless myths (Edward Trelawney did not snatch Shelley’s heart from his burning body at the seaside cremation service, nor did Leigh Hunt have it shaped into an amulet that he wore around his neck.). For me, the most distressing evidence in this book is that which dealt with the personal flaws of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Hobblers’ research reveals him to be an arrogant, thoughtless hedonist whose self-serving behavior led to the deaths of his children (acknowledged and unacknowledged), and the suffering of countless others.

In conclusion, the Hobblers provide significant insights into the period that produced the Romantics. It was a period that was preoccupied with the French Revolution and the thrilling ideas of individuality and personal freedom. In addition, Shelley, Byron and Mary Godwin were all fascinated by recent scientific advances — especially experiments with electricity and magnetism — experiments that held an aura of magic about them. These discoveries found their way into Frankenstein. In many ways, they saw themselves as a vanguard — disciples and torch-bearers of a new era of enlightenment in which women would be treated as equals and war would become obsolete. Perhaps they were flawed prophets since that era has not yet arrived.

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