Not long after the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere, three quarters of the way into March — a month in fact featuring two patron saints of Celtic countries — and I’ve missed marking this period in any special way. But anyway, what’s a date but an arbitrary point in the calendar? Measure time in any way other than by the solar year and all our anniversaries, birthdays and feast days count for little.
Still I feel a little bit put out because I failed to celebrate one of my favourite authors. Maybe it’s because I’ve read almost all her books. Maybe it’s because I’ve been too busy celebrating the bicentenary of another author — Mary Shelley, ‘onlie begetter’ of Frankenstein — or was still stupefied after a revisit of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea that I forgot to check in on Kristen’s We Be Reading blog where she hosts March Magics, a celebration of the worlds and works of Terry Pratchett and … Diana Wynne Jones.
Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time Introduction by Julia Eccleshare
Puffin Modern Classics 2007 (1962)
Authors often say they write the books they would have liked to read, and it’s also often said that authors effectively write about themselves, as if in response to the classic writing dictum Write what you know! This seems to be the case with A Wrinkle in Time.
Meg Murry is the classic outsider at the beginning of this science fantasy; at school she is awkward and friendless, she considers herself a plain Jane, she finds lessons torture. As the author herself stated in an interview, “Who would’ve wanted to be like Meg? I made Meg good at math and bad at English, and I was good at English and bad at math. Otherwise, we were very much alike! Meg couldn’t keep her hair nice and she was not a beauty. She was a difficult child. She is a lot like me!” And what would Madeleine L’Engle have liked to read? It’s clear it’s books about what she came across in her twenties and what excited her as a result: Einstein, particle physics and quantum mechanics. What more natural thing than to combine the two subject areas — herself and science? And then not only dedicate her first children’s book to her father and father-in-law but also honour them by calling another key character Charles Wallace after their forenames?
Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End
Pan Books 2017 (1954, 1990)
It was on a beautiful summer evening in 1941 …
Scores — hundreds — of gleaming silver barrage balloons were anchored in the sky above London. As their stubby torpedo-shapes caught the last rays of the sun, it did indeed seem that a fleet of spaceships was poised above the city …
In that instant, perhaps, Childhood’s End was conceived.
— From the author’s foreword to the 1990 edition
Childhood’s End is one of many novels over the years to speculate on the end of humanity. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man appeared in 1826, and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) covered a two billion year span. Attempts to predict what may happen within a few generations include H G Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and while Childhood’s End is no alternate future history it postulates a climactic end to humanity as we know it in the first half of the twenty-first century — in fact, right now.
When I read such fictions (these are all titles I’ve completed over many years, apart from the Mary Shelley) I find I have to suspend critical judgement once these latter-day Cassandras get things so wrong, as subsequent history tends to prove their forward projections increasingly at variance with reality. Instead I need to focus on the themes the authors are trying to get across, generally to do with philosophical approaches to social organisation or else the impact of technological, environmental and genetic developments.
In Childhood’s End Clarke is quite clear: when he conceived the novel in the 1950s he was happy to speculate on two possibilities that were engaging public attention, namely contact with extra-terrestrials and the paranormal. By the end of the 1980s his natural scepticism had intensified, to the extent that it’s unlikely he would have written precisely this book, though it remained a novel he was quite fond of. If, at the end of the 20th century, the author had become less convinced by his themes, would a modern reader therefore now find the narrative preposterous?
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
“His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.
“He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”
— Mary Shelley’s walking dream, from her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein
If Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) can truly be said to concern life and death, the afterlife of the Creature is one that continues to affect us two centuries later. For us moderns the Creature impacts as much as that of that waking dream she was later to describe. She’d been trying to think up a ghost story to rival those of Byron, Shelley and Polidori:
One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.
Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.
I wonder how the young Mary Shelley would have reacted to the knowledge that her novel Frankenstein would still be attracting interest two centuries after its first appearance. Would she have been amused or bemused to see a report like this?
You will remember the social media frenzy after The Sun accused students sympathising with Frankenstein’s Creature as ‘snowflakes’. The paper was rightly ridiculed for its anti-intellectual stance and apparent misunderstanding of Mary Shelley’s intentions. The story refused to be a 24-hour flash in the pan, however, as the paper tried to mount an indefensible rearguard action.
One can never say enough about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was published just two hundred years ago — certainly a short review can never do it justice. Those with an academic background will be in a position to expound at length about the many aspects of this superb Gothic novel. I’m not an academic, however, so I can only talk about what strikes me most after a reading of the first edition of 1818. And what better place to start than the frontispiece to the 1831 edition, an engraving heavily influenced by Gothick sensibilities and based on an illustration by the remarkable Theodor Von Holst.
On March 5th 2018 the so-called newspaper called The Sun made a rare foray into the literary world, only to shoot itself in the foot.
Writers Gary O’Shea and Thea Jacobs quoted a couple of academics who’d suggested — unsurprisingly to anybody who’d read Frankenstein — that the Creature was a victim whose actions could be understood even if not condoned.
According to the journalists (is that the correct description?) students who expressed sympathy for the Creature’s plight were to be dubbed ‘snowflakes’; for anyone not au fait with this term of opprobrium it means anyone who is, frankly, not a rabid gun-toting neoliberal who thinks the poor, the disabled, LGBTI campaigners, women and ethnics have only themselves to blame for being victims.
Sadly, it’s not at all obvious that the writers have read either the 1818 text or the 1831 edition, in which it’s abundantly clear that the Creature is the one who’s been wronged.