Mrs Shelley (Rossetti 1890)/Chapter 7

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Mrs. Shelley (1890) by Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti
Chapter VII. "Frankenstein"
2355476Mrs. Shelley — Chapter VII. "Frankenstein"1890Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti



That a work by a girl of nineteen should have held its place in romantic literature so long is no small tribute to its merit; this work, wrought under the influence of Byron and Shelley, and conceived after drinking in their enthralling conversation, is not unworthy of its origin. A more fantastically horrible story could scarcely be conceived; in fact, the vivid imagination, piling impossible horror upon horror, seems to claim for the book a place in the company of a Poe or a Hoffmann. Its weakness appears to be that of placing such an idea in the annals of modern life; such a process invariably weakens these powerful imaginative ideas, and takes away from, instead of adding to, the apparent truth, and cannot fail to give an affectation to the work. True, it might add to the difficulty to imagine a different state of society, past or future, but this seems a sine quâ non.

The story of Frankenstein begins with a series of letters of a young man, Robert Walton, writing to his sister, Mrs. Saville in England, from St. Petersburg, where he is about to embark on a voyage in search of the North Pole. He is bent on discovering the secret of the magnet, and is deluded with the hope of a never absent sun. When advanced some distance towards his longed-for goal, Walton writes of a most strange adventure which befalls them in the midst of the ice regions—a gigantic being, of human shape, being drawn over the ice in a sledge by dogs. Not many hours after this strange sight a fresh discovery was made of another man in another sledge, with only one living dog to it: this time the man was seen to be a European, whom the sailors tried to persuade to enter their ship. On seeing Watson the stranger, speaking English, asked whither they were bound before he would consent to enter the ship. This naturally caused intense excitement, as the man, reduced to a skeleton, seemed to have but a short time to live. However, on hearing that the vessel was bound northwards, he consented to enter, and with great care he was restored for the time. In answer to an inquiry as to his object in thus exposing himself, he replied, "To seek one who fled from me." An affection springs up and increases between Walton and the stranger, till the latter promises to tell his sad and strange story, which he had hitherto intended should die with him.

This commencement leads to the story being told in the form (which might with advantage have been avoided) of a long narrative by the dying man. The stranger describes himself as of a Genevese family of high distinction, and gives an interesting account of his father and juvenile surroundings, including a playfellow, Elizabeth Lavenga, whom we encounter much later in his history. All his studies are pursued with zest, till coming upon the works of Cornelius Agrippa he is led with enthusiasm into the ideas of experimental philosophy; a passing remark of "trash" from his father, who does not explain the difference between past and modern science, is not enough to deter him and prevent the fatal consequence of the study he persists in, and thus a pupil of Albertus Magnus appears in the eighteenth century. The effects of a thunderstorm, described from those Mary had recently witnessed, decided him in his resolution, for electricity now was the aim of his research. After having passed his youth in his happy Swiss home with his parents and dear friends, on the death of his loved mother he starts for the University of Ingolstadt. Here he is much reprehended by the professors for his useless studies, until one, a Mr. Waldeman, sympathises with him, and explains how Cornelius Agrippa and others, although their studies did not bring the immediate fruit they expected, nevertheless helped on science in other directions, and he advises Frankenstein to pursue his studies in natural philosophy, including mathematics. The upshot of this advice is that two years are spent in intense study and thought, till he becomes thin and haggard in appearance. He is contemplating a visit to his home, when, making some fresh experiment, he finds that he has discovered the principle of life; this so overcomes him for a time that, oblivious of all else, he is bent on making use of his discovery. After much perplexing thought he determines to create a being superior to man, so that future generations shall bless him. In the first place, by the help of chemistry, he has to construct the form which is to be animated. The grave has to be ransacked in the attempt, and Frankenstein describes with loathing some of the details of his work, and shows the danger of overstraining the mind in any one direction—how the virtuous become vicious, and how virtue itself, carried to excess, lapses into vice.

The form is created in nervous fear and fever. Frankenstein being the ideal scientist, devoid of all feeling for art (whose ideas of it, indeed, might be limited to the elevation and section of a pot), without any ideal of proportion or beauty, reaches the point where he considers nothing but the infusion of life necessary. All is ready, and in the first hour of the morning he applies his fatal discovery. Breath is given, the limbs move, the eyes open, and the colossal being or monster, as he is henceforth called, becomes animated; though copied from statues, its fearful size, its terrible complexion and drawn skin, scarcely concealing arteries and muscles beneath, add to the horror of the expression. And this is the end of two years work to the horrified Frankenstein. Overwhelmed by disgust, he can only rush from the room, and finally falls exhausted on his bed, only to wake to find his monster grinning at him. He runs forth into the street, and here, in Mary's first work, we have a reminiscence of her own infant days, when she and Claire hid themselves under the sofa to hear Coleridge read his poem, for the following stanza from the Ancient Mariner might seem almost the key-note of Frankenstein:—

Like one who on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a fearful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Frankenstein hurries on, but coming across his old friend Henri Clerval at the stage coach, he recalls to mind his father, Elizabeth, bis former life and friends. He returns to his rooms with his friend. Reaching his door, he trembles, but opening it, finds himself delivered from his self-created fiend. His frenzy of delight being attributed to madness from overwork, Clerval induces Frankenstein to leave his studies, and, finally (after he had for months endured a terrible illness), to accompany him to his native village. Various delays occurring, they are detained too late in the year to pass the dangerous roads on their way home. Health and peace of mind returning to some decree, Frankenstein is about to proceed on his journey homewards, when a letter arrives from his father with the fatal news of the mysterious death of his young brother. This event hastens still further his return, and gives a renewed gloomy turn to his mind; not only is his loved little brother dead, but the extraordinary event points to some unknown power. From this time Frankenstein's life is one agony. One after another all whom he loves fall victims to the demon he has created; he is never safe from his presence; in a storm on the Alps he encounters him; in the fearful murders which annihilate his family he always recognises his hand. On one occasion his creation wished to have a truce and to come to terms with his creator. This, after his most fearful treachery had caused the innocent to be sentenced as the perpetrator of his fearful deeds. On meeting Frankenstein he recounts the most pathetic story of his falling away from sympathy with humanity: how, after saving the life of a girl from drowning, he is shot by a young man who rushes up and rescues her from him. He became the unknown benefactor of a family for some period of time by doing the hard work of the household while they slept. Having taking refuge in a hovel adjoining a corner of their cottage, he hears their pathetic and romantic story, and also learns the language and ways of men; but on his wishing to make their acquaintance the family are so horrified at his appearance that the women faint, the men drive him off with blows, and the whole family leave a neigbourhood, the scene of such an apparition. After these experiences he retaliates, till meeting Frankenstein he proposes these terms: that Frankenstein shall create another being as repulsive as himself to be his companion—in fact, he desires a wife as hideous as he is. These were the conditions, and the lives of all those whom Frankenstein held most dear were in the balance; he hesitated long, but finally consented.

Everything now had to be put aside to carry out this fearful task—his love of Elizabeth, his father's entreaties that he should marry her, his hopes, his ambitions, go for nothing. To save those who remain, he must devote himself to his work. To carry out his aim he expresses a wish to visit England, and, with his friend Clerval, descends the Rhine, which is described with the knowledge gained in Mary's own journey, and the same route is pursued which she, Shelley, and Claire had taken through Holland, embarking for England from Rotterdam, and thence reaching the Thames. After passing London and Oxford and various places of interest, he expresses a desire to be left for a time in solitude, and selects a remote island of the Orkneys, where an uninhabited hut answers the purpose of his laboratory. Here he works unmolested till his fearful task is nearly accomplished, when a fear and loathing possess his soul at the possible result of this second achievement. Although the demon already created has sworn to abandon the haunts of man and to live in a desert country with his mate, what hold will there be over this second being with an individuality and will of its own? What might be the future consequences to humanity of the existence of such monsters? He forms a resolution to abandon his dreaded work, and at that moment it is confirmed by the sight of his monster grinning at him through the window of the hut in the moonlight. Not a moment is lost. He tears his just completed work limb from limb. The monster disappears in rage, only to return to threaten eternal revenge on him and his; but the time of weakness is passed; better encounter any evils that may be in store, even for those he loves, than leave a curse to humanity. From that time there is no truce. Clerval is murdered and Frankenstein is seized as the murderer, but respited for worse fate; he is married to Elizabeth, and she is strangled within a few hours. When goaded to the verge of madness by all these events, and seeing his beloved father reduced to imbecility through their misfortunes, he can make no one believe his self-accusing story; and if they did, what would it avail to pursue a being who could scale the Alps, live among glaciers, and pass unfathomable seas? There is nothing left but a pursuit till death, single-handed, when one might expire and the other be appeased—onward, with a deluding sight from time to time of his avenging demon. Only in sleep and dreams did Frankenstein find forgetfuluess of his self-imposed torture, for he lived again with those he had loved; he endured life in his pursuit by imagining his waking hours to be a horrible dream and longing for the night, when sleep should bring him life. When hopes of meeting his demon failed, some fresh trace would appear to lead him on through habited and uninhabited countries; he tracks him to the verge of the eternal ice, and even there procures a sledge from the wretched and horrified inhabitants of the last dwelling-place of men to pursue the monster, who, on a similar vehicle, had departed, to their delight. Onwards, onwards, over the eternal ice they pass, the pursued and the pursuer, till consciousness is nearly lost, and Frankenstein is rescued by those to whom he now narrates his history; all except his fatal scientific secret, which is to die with him shortly, for the end cannot be far off.

The story is told; and the friend—for he feels the utmost sympathy with the tortures of Frankenstein—can only attempt to soothe his last days or hours, for he, too, feels the end must be near; but at this crisis in Frankenstein's existence the expedition cannot proceed northward, for the crew mutiny to return. Frankenstein determines to proceed alone; but his strength is ebbing, and Walton foresees his early death. But this is not to pass quietly, for the demon is in no mood that his creator should escape unmolested from his grasp. Now the time is ripe, and, during a momentary absence, Walton is startled by fearful sounds, and then, in the cabin of his dying friend, a sight to appal the bravest; for the fiend is having the death struggle with him—then all is over. Some last speeches of the demon to Walton are explanatory of his deed, and of his present intention of self-immolation, as he has now slaked his thirst to wreak vengeance for his existence. Then he disappears over the ice to accomplish this last task.

Surely there is enough weird imagination for the subject. Mary in this work not merely intended to depict the horror of such a monster, but she evidently wished also to show what a being, with no naturally bad propensities, might sink to when under the influence of a false position—the education of Rousseau's natural man not being here possible.

Some weak points, some incongruities, it would be unreasonable not to expect. Whether the eternal light expected at the North Pole, if of the sun, was a misapprehension of the author or a Shelleyan application of the word eternal (as applied by him to certain friendships, or duration of residence in houses) may be questioned. The question as to the form used for the narrative has already been referred to. The difficulty of such a method is strangly exemplified in the long letters which are quoted by Frankenstein to his friend while dying, and which he could not have carried with him on his deadly pursuit. Mary's facility in writing was great, and having visited some of the most interesting places in the world, with some of the most interesting people, she is saved from the dreary dulness of the dull. Her ideas, also, though sometimes affected, are genuine, not the outcome of some fashionable foible to please a passing faith or superstition, which ought never to be the raison d'être of a romance, though it may be of a satire or a sermon.

The last passage in the book is perhaps the weakest. It is scarcely the climax, but an anticlimax. The end of Frankenstein is well conceived, but that of the Demon fails. It is ridiculous to conceive anyone, demon or human, having ended his vengeance, fleeing over the ice to burn himself on a funeral pyre where no fuel could be found. Surely the tortures of the lowest pit of Dante's Inferno might have sufficed for the occasion. The youth of the authoress of this remarkable romance has raised comparison between it and the first work of a still younger romancist, the author of Gabriel Denver, written at seventeen, who died before he had completed his twentieth year.

While this romance was being planned during the latter part of the stay of the Shelley party in Switzerland, after their return from Chamouni, the diary gives us a charming idea of their life in their cottage of Montalègre. We have the books they read, as usual; and well did Mary, no less than Shelley, make use of that happy reading-time of life—youth. The Latin authors read by Shelley were also studied by Mary. We find her reading "Quintus Curtius," ten and twelve pages at a time; also on Shelley's birthday, August 4, she reads him the fourth book of Virgil, while in a boat with him on the lake. Also the fire-balloon is not forgotten, which Mary had made two or three days in advance for the occasion. They used generally to visit Diodati in the evening, after dinner, though occasionally Shelley dined with Byron, and accompanied him in his boat. On one occasion Mary wrote: "Shelley and Claire go up to Diodati; I do not, for Lord Byron did not seem to wish it." Rousseau, Voltaire, and other authors cause the time to fly, until their spirits are damped by a letter arriving from Shelley's solicitor, requiring his return to England. While in Switzerland Mary received some letters from Fanny, her half-sister; these letters are interesting, showing a sweet, gentle disposition, very affectionate to both Shelley and Mary. One letter asks Mary questions about Lord Byron. There are also details as to the unfortunate state of the finances of Godwin, who seemed in a perennial state of needing three hundred pounds. Fanny also writes of herself, on July 29, 1816, as not being well—being in a state of mind which always keeps her body in a fever—her lonely life, after her sister's departure, with all the money anxieties, and her own dependence, evidently weighed upon her mind, and led to a state of despondency, although her letters would scarcely give the idea of a tragedy being imminent. She writes to Shelley and Mary that Mrs. Godwin—mamma she calls her—tells her that she is the laughing-stock of Mary and Shelley, and the constant "beacon of their satire. " She shows much affection for little William, as well as for his parents; but there is certainly no word in these letters showing more than sisterly and friendly feeling; no word showing jealousy or envy. Claire afterwards alleged that Fanny had been in love with Shelley. Mr. Kegan Paul states the reverse most strongly. It is not easy to conceive how either should have been sure of the fact. Even Shelley's beautiful verses to her memory do not indicate any special reason for her sadness, as far as he was concerned.

Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed,
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery—oh Misery!
This world is all too wide for thee.

From these lines we see that Fanny was in a very depressed state of mind when her sister left England for her second Continental tour in 1816. This being two years from the time when Mary had first left her home, it does not seem probable that Shelley was to blame, or rather was the indirect cause of Fanny's sadness. She felt herself generally useless and unneeded in the world, and this idea weighed her down.