The Alps, the Arctic and the Creature

Aurora Borealis (WordPress Free Media Library)

John Sutherland: Frankenstein’s Brain,
Puzzles and Conundrums in Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Masterpiece
(including John Crace’s ‘Frankenstein Digested’)
Icon Books 2018

Frankenstein is, despite its iconic status, so full of inconsistencies and plot holes that it’s a wonder it holds together at all. In fact, those weaknesses have meant that subsequent treatments of the narrative — in film, on stage, in comics, in parodies and retellings — have tried to gloss over, patch up or even reconfigure Mary Godwin Shelley’s story, with the result that those reading the novel for the first time are often confused, their expectations confounded. Where is the laboratory? Why are we caught up in Arctic ice? How come the monster isn’t called Frankenstein?

Literary critics of course have the answers, editors give lengthy details of history, chronology, context, differences in text and so on, but usually in academic language buttressed by obscure scholarly papers and archived documents. Up steps John Sutherland, an academic with a light touch making the inaccessible accessible with bite-size chapters, contemporary references and online links, and using humour to demystify a two-centuries-old classic.

Add to that an appendix with one of Guardian writer John Crace’s digested reads, meaning that if you’re still resistant to Mary Shelley’s original you can pretend you know all about it with a handy (and very funny) cheat.

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“A healthy, thoughtless child”

Aurora borealis seen from the island of Kvaløya in Norway 23.01.2011 (credit: Lars Tiede)

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights
Illustrations by Philip Pullman, cover alethiometer illustration by David Scutt
His Dark Materials: Book One
Alethiometer edition, with additional text by the author
Scholastic Press 2007 (1995)

It wasn’t Lyra’s way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasn’t imaginative. No one with much imagination would have thought seriously that it was possible to come all this way and rescue her friend Roger; or, having thought it, an imaginative child would immediately have come up with several ways in which it was impossible. Being a practised liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.

Northern Lights is the first, and in some ways the best, of Pullman’s imaginative and innovative His Dark Materials trilogy. Crammed full of ideas and yet never tripped up by them, this starts in lively fashion with a mystery and a murder attempt, then turns into a rollercoaster ride that gets more and more intense, eventually ending with the enigmatic words “and walked into the sky”. Pullman’s skill is that even a sceptical reader can accept cliff-ghasts, speaking polar bears and a sky full of witches at the same time as scientific terms such as elementary particles and technology such as gas balloons.

In fact, the world that’s described sounds so often like something out of a Victorian steampunk vision that it’s often hard to recall that this is also a world with modern concrete structures and even atomic power stations. It is, in fact, a little like the world the author was himself brought up in: born in 1946, Pullman grew up in a postwar England struggling with rationing (which only ended in 1954), a drear world which saw smog frequently devastate London (until the 1956 Clean Air Act began to tackle it, in the same year as the first civil nuclear power station become operational) and during which a paternalistic Conservative government were to be in power for some thirteen of the nineteen years after peace had been declared.

It is into a world like this, then, that we become aware of Lyra Belacqua, a “healthy, thoughtless child” (according to some Oxford scholars), a girl who unbeknown to herself is destined to initiate great and permanent change. The first indication that this is not our world is the mention of her daemon, Pantalaimon, an alter ego who appears in animal form and speaks.

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Bad and dangerous

Lord Byron (1813) by Thomas Phillips

John Polidori: The Vampyre: a Tale (1819)
and a Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron (1816)
in Three Gothic Novels (edited by E F Bleiler)
Dover 1966

Buttressed by an editor’s introduction, the author’s own introduction, an extract from a later letter to Polidori’s publisher, and Byron’s original vampire tale fragment, this — the first completed modern vampire story in English — already contains many of the clichés now expected from the genre. Here is the pale nobleman with a dark secret, and here the young female victims; not unexpected is the vampire’s resurrection after death and the connection with Eastern Europe and the Levant.

But you can forget any mentions of bats, sinister castles or pointy teeth, though there are allusions to stakes, peasant huts, antiquarian structures and blood all over a victim’s neck and breast. Whether these are enough to summon up a vicarious thrill in the reader will really depend on how much one empathises with the characters depicted and the degree to which one is susceptible or immune to High Gothick style and sensibility.

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Gormenghast reimagined

John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill and its Abbey (1823)

William Beckford (born 1st October 1760, dying in 1844 at Bath) is a truly quixotic character, notorious in the Georgian period and worth more than the brief notice I am giving of him now. I find however that he and I have, in a manner of speaking, crossed paths in the past, and you might be interested in the context of our latest encounter.

I have been making my slow and steady way through Elizabeth Mavor’s The Grand Tour of William Beckford preparatory to reading Beckford’s own novel Vathek (1782). I’ve had the novel in a compendium of three Gothic novels for a while, though had read only Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) up to now.¹

However, with Halloween and Christmas coming up I thought I might tackle at least one of the remaining two complete novels, Vathek of course and John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). This last, as some of you may know, was Polidori’s plagiarising of Lord Byron’s tale which itself had emerged from the ghost story challenge — which had already culminated in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Vathek, however, was different from the other stories, modelled as it was on the tales in the collection we know as The Arabian Nights.

But I also knew that William Beckford was as famous for another enterprise he’d indulged in, and the arrival of the September issue of the magazine Current Archaeology was a timely reminder.

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Altered state alter ego

Houses in Moray Place, Edinburgh (“Auld Reekie”), in 2018. Stevenson lived for nearly three decades in Heriot Row, just off Moray Place

Robert Louis Stevenson:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896, 1885)

My memory of reading this as a teenager focuses almost entirely on the one shockingly violent scene in this novella, the one where Edward Hyde viciously attacks a prominent Parliamentarian in a London street. In my immature haste to get to the action I had clearly bypassed all the diversions — the discussions, the dialogues and the descriptions — as irrelevant waffle. For years I laboured under the impression that Hyde continued to roam the back alleys of the capital after story’s end, causing mayhem and fear. I long wondered if I’d confused elements of this tale with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (which was in fact published five years after this, in 1890) or a title by Arthur Machen concerning flâneurs in London (such as The Hill of Dreams, 1907).

In truth, Jekyll and Hyde plays on the meme of a dismal, foggy London in which dark deeds occur in side streets, a meme which every fin de siècle and early 20th-century novel exhibits, from the Sherlock Holmes stories to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and beyond. It is the epitome of Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, the notion that nature echoes the human spirit when it is actually the reverse: London’s habitual murky darkness is merely a metaphor for human depravity, if anything the cause not the effect.

My younger self then was not in sympathy with how atmosphere was created and developed in a novel; but I hoped the passage of years would allow me now to enjoy the slow build-up to a dénouement that only a reader reared in complete isolation could be in ignorance of.

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“My hideous progeny”

Death mask of William Burke and life mask of William Hare (1828) in Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (March 2018)

“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.

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Monstrous

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.

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