Frankenstein’s Ghosts

Posted by Marie Mulvey-Roberts on April 18, 2011 in Dr. Marie Mulvey-Roberts, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , , ,


There has been a Frankenstein furore lately.  On the on-line BBC News Magazine, appears an article by Thomas Geoghegan, “Frankenstein: 10 possible meanings”.  One could add noughts to that.

Then again, is there anything new to say about Frankenstein? But the novel must still have much to communicate to us, otherwise it would not continue to be recycled in increasingly innovative ways as in the recent Frankenstein’s Wedding, a live drama filmed in front of a crowd of thousands against the backdrop of Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds:

Frankenstein's Wedding

This was preceded by Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, a theatrical production written by Nick Dear, staged at the National Theatre in London:

Danny Boyle's Frankenstein

Live performances were beamed to cinemas across the world including Bristol, where I watched the broadcast and found it unexpectedly moving. Intriguingly, Victor was cast by a white actor and the rest of his family were black, with a white mammy servant.

Then there was the exhibition of “Shelley’s Ghost” at the Bodleian Library in Oxford exhibiting a necklace made out of Mary Wollstonecraft’s hair and the poignant sea-sodden and swollen volumes belonging to her husband P.B. Shelley, one of which he may have hastily pocketed in response to the impending capsizing of his boat, during that final fatal voyage.  I was the last to leave the exhibition and avoided getting locked in as had been the case at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome many summers earlier, when I spent too long communing with the dead poet on the very spot where he had died. What Frankenstein fests await us in 2016 for the anniversary of the ghost story-telling event at Villa Diodati and the bicentenary of the novel in 2018?  Currently, I am discussing with the composer Klatu Barada the possibility of staging a musical of Mary Shelley’s life in Bristol for one of these anniversaries.  He is writing the music and this film trailer link contains a fore-taste of what is to come.

Frankenstein Lighted Way from Hamil Griffin-Cassidy on Vimeo.

Frankenstein is not just about dead bodies, but also about the books of dead authors.  The monster can function as a metaphor for inter-textuality. The very name of Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft Shelley seems to sum up its disparate parts which parallel the allusions to parenting texts sutured together in the novel.  Elizabeth Hand does something similar in her sequel to James Whale’s  The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which also serves as a pastiche of German Expressionist film as she splices together fragments of The Blue Angel (1930) and Pandora’s Box (1929).

Much has been written about the monster in psycho-biographical terms as a manifestation of maternal guilt or grief or as an attempt to resurrect her dead Richard Rothwell, 'Mary Shelley'mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The building of the monster has been seen as a recreation of Mary Shelley herself. This conflation is exploited by a caricature of Richard Rothwell’s famous portrait which depicts her with bolts through her neck (If anyone out there has a copy, please post it).  The Bodleian exhibition displayed a little known portrait of Mary Shelley, which had been identified from known portraiture by the high forehead (re: Boris Karloff’s make-up) and crooked mouth (unlike her monster’s “straight black lips”).  Indeed, both the monster and its author are played by the same actress, Elsa Lanchester, in Whale’s film.

The cradle for the creation of the female creature is the Orkneys.  While this remoteness has some rationale, one wonders why Scotland was chosen for the birthing of this she-monster?  Certainly, there are associations with the monstrous feminine, for instance, John Knox’s demonisation of Mary Queen of Scots in The Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558)

and Lady Macbeth, but are there others?

Edinburgh, with its famous medical school, gained notoriety through its association with body snatchers, Burke and Hare, but that would be later and is a connection which Tim Marshall explores in his book Murdering to Dissect: Grave-Robbing, Frankenstein and the Anatomy Act (1995).

Here he links the publication of the revised 1831 edition of the novel, which followed the punitive dissection of Hare in 1829, with the passing of the Anatomy Act, whereby pauper bodies were requisitioned for anatomical dissection. This meant that doctors and surgeons were no longer dependent on grave-robbers or resurrectionists for bodies.  Incidentally, the first edition of the novel coincided with the use of the Patent Coffin, which had been designed to deter body-snatchers.

When Victor destroys the female monster, he returns her to some of the constituent parts from which she had been created.  Was she beautiful like the monster in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein?  It seems doubtful, even though Victor might have tried to improve on his man-building for woman-building. Hopefully, he would have procured for his laboratory more than the single candle, under the light of which he had constructed his original monster. Even God had needed illumination when at the moment of creation, he had exhorted:  “Let there be light”!  But blasphemy and beauty cannot fully equate within the didactic constraints of the Gothic novel. As Chris Baldick pointed out in his In Frankenstein’s Shadow (1987), only God was able to bring about rightful proportion, a desideratum for beauty going back to the Greeks. When Victor decides to destroy his female creature, he thingifies her as an “it” in a desexualisation, which, presumably, is an allusion to Richard Polwhele’s poem “The Unsex’d Females” (1798), in which Mary’s mother was vilified.

The revenge taken by the creature is to kill Victor’s fiancé Elizabeth Lavenza on her wedding night. In all probability, the creature would have raped Elizabeth, but while Mary Shelley spares her reader from this horror, in Danny Boyle’s stage production, there is no holding back. The monster’s post-orgasmic proclamation is the stark but simple statement, embodying his ultimate ambition: “now I am a man”.

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