Bette London’s article starts by describing the reframing of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s stories by their son Percy. The son was much more conventionally Christian and embarrassed by the risque reputation his parents had garnered. Front and centre of this rebrand of the Shelley story is the statue by Henry Weekes at the top of the article which uses Christian iconography to paint a picture of Mary as a Madonna-like figure to the spectacle of Shelley’s masculine martyrdom.
London then goes on to critique both feminist and nonfeminist readings of Frankenstein and this is the bit where I started to really pay attention. She asserts that the sexless or female reading of the Creature’s gender and even that of his creator as a feminist reading draws focus away from the very obvious spectacle of the masculine form that reoccurs throughout the novel. Emphasis is placed on the physical male form, and it is laid out periodically for others to gaze upon. If we deny the masculinity of Victor and his Creature we deny Mary Shelley‘s deliberately and explicitly masculine spectacle which she artfully constructed to highlight the hubris and deficiencies of this particular brand of masculine creation.
You may notice that I often refer to Mary Shelley as Shelley, rather than adhering to convention and using Shelley as a shorthand for Percy Bysshe Shelley. It is really down to Bette London’s article on the male spectacle in Frankenstein, in which she points out that that the esteemed authoress is always Mary to Percy’s Shelley, even in scholarship surrounding Frankenstein that should give greater deference to the author of the text.
It gets confusing because I am so accustomed to this mode of addressing the poet as Shelley, a la Byron, Keats and Coleridge, that I often slip and have to go back through an article to check how many times I messed up.
This over-familiarity when addressing Mary Shelley, in addition to the portrayal of her authorship as monstrous shows an almost calculated dismissal of her role as one of the most influential gothic, horror and proto-science fiction authors in the English literary canon.
“How could a girl of 18 write such a confronting story?”
Well, because she is intelligent, imaginative and more than little disenfranchised. She also had a lot of opportunities to flourish that she might not have had if she was not surrounded by “radicals” who had already been prepped for an intelligent, persistent and creative woman by her mother. It’s not that strange when put in perspective, and if we take away those antiquated notions of the fragility of a young maiden. Frankenstein is singular, groundbreaking and monstrous; Shelley’s authorship, however, should not be viewed in similar terms.
Shelley should be regarded as a genius of gothic fiction, rather than a mysterious anomaly. The woman of the 1810s was exposed to her share of gruesome spectacles and overwhelming sorrow, so what, aside from a lack of access to education and the means of publication, was so different between the male aspiring writer and the female?
It is simply a matter of social conditioning and fewer opportunities.
And if we are too busy looking at the monstrous spectacle of female authorship, we’re likely to miss the spectacle of male ego, cruelty and hubris that is right in front of our faces.