It’s the 200th anniversary of the publishing of Frankenstein, and recently I read several YA books about the novel to be released this year.
Lita Judge has published 24 children’s books, most with gentle, colorful illustrations, and titles such as Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents (2014) and Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why (2012). In the YA book Mary’s Monster, she uses her own free verse and 300 pages of monochrome watercolors for a moodily Romantic tale that also tries to speak to our time.
“Nearly everyone has some knowledge of [the novel], but few know that its author was a pregnant teenage runaway rejected by her family and spurned by society,” Judge writes. “Together the young couple [Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley] fought against strict social conventions by daring to believe love and human reason could reform a tyrannical world.”
Like the novel, Judge’s book is a frame tale. The creature begins: “They expected girls to be nice / and obey the rules. / They expected girls to be silent / and swallow punishment and pain. / She was cast out from society / because she loved a married man. / Her friends reviled her. / Her father banished her from his home. / But she did not hide. / She was not silenced. / She fought against the cruelty of human nature / by writing.”
The second wife of Mary’s father, William Godwin, serves here as evil stepmother. She is an anti-feminist, drives up debt while getting “fatter,” and is a “green-eyed devil” with a “little life.” Young Mary is shipped off to a family in Scotland, where she explores “the twisted alleys of nearby Dundee” filled with rebels, visits the mound where girls had been burned “by the scores” for witchcraft, and reads the books of her biological mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. It was “As if I have been given a second birth, / her dreams become mine,” young Mary tells us. She too begins to write, and her “words were formed by courage. / Her stories were her victories.” When she is finally called home by her father, “I am no longer a girl / weary with disappointment. / I have become rock / and wind and fiery sea.”
But the young poet Shelley, calling himself a Godwinian for his extreme admiration of Mary’s father, has also arrived at her house. In one striking illustration, background skewing 30 degrees, Shelley poses in frock coat and high collar, hair wild, black birds flying from his mind. He is anguished; his dad wants him to be a soldier; his wife, Harriet, is a drag.
Yet “[T]he entire landscape / of my existence changes,” Mary decides, reversing her empowerment and self-direction. “I want to have strength enough / to beat off the beasts / that dwell within his heart.”
Even more suddenly: “Then Shelley is on top of me / and inside of me, and everything hurts....” Talk about admiration.
He informs her they will run off to Switzerland, in part because a novel by Godwin had a hero “who left his loveless marriage to run away with a sixteen-year-old girl....”
“I am sixteen, just like that girl!” Mary wonders.
But her father disapproves -- the couple seem to expect his free-love philosophy to survive fatherhood—and Shelley bursts in with a vial of opium for Mary and a pistol to his head. He is chased out. The couple runs away, but, “...Shelley was in such a hurry to leave / he forgot to bring much money.” He tells his love: “We don’t need money. / We are poets, / anarchists, / prophets; / our pockets need only be filled / with love for the universe. / We will drink sour milk and eat stale bread. / We will walk over mountains!” One thinks of Jerry Seinfeld’s deflation of the Romantic: Shouldn’t you be out on a ledge somewhere? When Percy Shelley sprains his ankle, he rides the donkey, while Mary and her half-sister, Claire, carry his trunks of books.
They are destitute, and Mary gives birth prematurely. The child dies in ten days. The best of this book sticks to emotions we can share: “I AM SEVENTEEN / Already / I am daughter to a ghost / and mother to bones.”
Judge decides, in the historical debate over Shelley sleeping with Claire, that Mary is abandoned. Mary says, “I can choose to forgive. / I can choose to live again, / broken but breathing, / half lover, half pain.” [...] “I devote myself / to giving him / the kind of love / he needs. / Claire is his sister again. / Only I can soothe / Shelley’s nerves. / Only I can share / in his poetry. / Only I can give him back / his dreams.” Percy accepts the proposition, and Claire exits the scene.
Claire then returns with an intro to Lord Byron. “Don’t worry, she says, / he’s even more scandalous than we.” Mary is ambivalent. “Secretly, I resent that people still invite him into society / even though everyone calls him mad, bad, and dangerous to know. / It’s because he’s a man, / and a man, it seems, can behave very badly, / while a woman must hide herself away if she breaks the rules. / Still, my heart goes out to Byron...I know how hard it is to live life as large as a poem.”
Byron of course invites Shelley, Mary, and Claire to Geneva for the summer. “Byron, mud splattered and foul tempered” shows up in a Napoleonic carriage followed by others and shouts orders “like an emperor.” He has brought eight wolfhounds, cats, monkeys, an eagle and other birds, as well as his own china and silver, a library, trunks of clothes, art, wine, and bones of soldiers he’s picked up on battlefields along the way. Claire flirts with him. Mary seems to have lost her ability to see: “What harm, I ask myself, will come / if she enjoys an innocent crush?”
The grim weather of the summer of 1816 sets in, and Byron is dangerously bored. Percy Shelley slips into “another black mood.” The great men speak of dissections, galvanism, and end-of-the-world volcanic eruptions. Mary mentally takes down men’s presumptions of power. (“What Do Men Know of Creating Life?”) She has her own hypnagogic dream of “a pale student of unhallowed arts / kneeling beside the thing / he has put together. / A hideous phantasm of a man / with watery eyes and blackened lips / stirs with motion.” Judge’s art has profane power showing this abortion, this miscarriage of justice.
Mary begins to write the story, which temporarily draws them all together, “allies, / fighting for literature / instead of against each other.” Then Claire tells Mary she is pregnant with Byron’s child, and that he has not only rejected her but will take the child when it is born. Byron taunts Claire with “stories / of dead mistresses / and discarded lovers...[and] threatens to cast her baby aside / by sending it to a convent / if it is born a girl.” One wishes Lord Byron got it with a candlestick in the library.
News comes that Mary’s other half-sister has killed herself. “Next it is a boatman’s hook / that dredges Harriet’s rotted corpse / from the river Thames.”
“[T]he injustices against women / that my mother wrote about / are still in place,” Mary says bitterly.
The creature, as Mary calls the poor unfortunate in her novel, “calls out to me, / ‘Now, Mary, / You begin to see...I AM the rage and shame / that burn like embers through you.’” “My Creature is me!” Mary says. In the illustration the two stare at us with mad intensity. When the novel is published, in 1818, it is “Anonymous, / because the publisher insists readers will never buy it / if they know a woman wrote it. / Anonymous, / just like my unnamed Creature.”
Mary loses three children, and her husband is lost at sea. When his rotted body washes up, Byron and the boys prevent her from attending the funeral.
She has seen too much: “I am twenty-four, / widowed, / alone.” But Mary returns to England with her last child, young Percy, to find her novel, now a play, an enduring hit. She says, “I feel redeemed. / My creation stands on the threshold / of immortality. / We can affect the lives of generations to come, / if we are brave enough to open the wings of our imagination / and create!” This romantic notion of writing persists to this day. “By creating, I keep faith alive / that we will learn someday / to cast aside cruelty and hatred / and build a just world / filled with love.”
But is this the story Judge has told? Her version makes it seems more as if Mary is victim to those negative things, and in reality her most famous novel freezes out justice and burns up love and connection.
The creature closes Judge’s frame tale: “Mary is dead / nearly two hundred years. / Her corpse rests within her grave, / but her spirit whispers / eternally through me, / her creature. / It is I / who keeps her faith alive.”
This may be many writers’ last best hope, but are we to feel it worthy, ridiculous, or inconsequential? The Romantic veil makes it hard to know, and Judge, in using that device, makes no definitive ruling for our time.