Book and theatre review: “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

I had my fill of Frankenstein last week – I read the book, saw the play and listened to Derek Jacobi narrating the audio book! My book club selected it as we were looking to read a classic, and, as it happens to be the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication, it was also showing at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in a new adaptation by April de Angelis.

2018-04-19 11.30.32It is extraordinary to think that this remarkable novel, still as popular and as shocking today as ever, was written when Mary was just 19 years old. The fact that she was such a literary talent is not surprising given that she was the offspring of the two famous intellectuals, Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher and author of the seminal feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, the radical political philosopher. In her lifetime, she was highly regarded as a radical writer and intellectual, as well as being the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she met and fell passionately in love with at the age of 17. Her reputation since her death, however, has been overshadowed by that of her husband’s, with whom she bore four children (three died in infancy), whose affairs and financial troubles she endured, and whose poems she edited both before and after his death. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned at sea in 1822, just six years into their marriage when she was 25. She died at the age of 53 in London from a suspected brain tumour.

Mary ShelleyBy any standards her life was remarkable and in the last few years her reputation has been revived and she has begun to be more widely considered as a formidable talent in her own right, rather than just a ‘one-book author’. Frankenstein has been a staple of English literature GCSE and A level syllabuses for years, but most of her other works have fallen out of print. A new biography, In Search of Mary Shelley: The girl who wrote Frankenstein, by Fiona Sampson was published earlier this year, some of which I caught when it was serialised in Radio 4 recently. What I heard sounded fascinating. Sadly it is not available on the BBC iPlayer at the moment.

Frankenstein is a brilliant book. It’s not particularly long so if you are not accustomed to the classics it is not too daunting. It is extraordinarily sophisticated in the themes it explores, from ideas about religion and creation, the vanity of man (men) and moral relativism. Its structure is also interesting: it is narrated initially by Robert Walton in letters to his sister. Walton is the Captain of a ship which he is sailing to the Arctic in the hopes of making a great discovery about the North Pole. He describes his ambitions, but also his loneliness and need for companionship. He meets an unexpected friend in the form of Victor Frankenstein who is on an unlikely pursuit of a mysterious giant figure which Walton and his crew had previously spotted. Frankenstein takes over the narration and we learn about the terrible events that preceded this chase, from his early family life in Switzerland and tragic death of his mother, his relationship with his cousin Elizabeth, to his university life in Ingolstadt. It was in Ingolstadt that he first felt the pain of academic embarrassment, when his naïve ideas were exposed, and he set out on the extraordinary task of creating a human. Unfortunately for Frankenstein, he did not think it through, and once he realised the horror of what he had done, quite soon after he brought his creation to life, he disowns it and leaves to its own fate while he spends the next few years wringing his hands. Frankenstein’s procrastination is fatal.

For a time there is also narration from the ‘monster’ (relayed by Frankenstein) who manages initially to survive on vegetation whilst concealed in a hovel, from which he is able to spy on a once wealthy but now fallen French family in a small village. From them he learns language and the ways of humans, and hopes that he will be able to become friends with them, as he longs for company. Unfortunately, when he introduces himself to them, his hopes are shattered; they assume from his, presumably horrific appearance, that he means them harm and they beat him and drive him out of the cottage. Disappointed and infuriated, the monster goes in search of Frankenstein, with the intention of demanding that he make him a female companion, with the threat of death and destruction if he refuses.

I will say no more. Though the story is well known, I do not wish to give away any further spoilers for anyone unfamiliar with it. I wanted to finish the book before seeing the play, so I mixed reading it with listening to the audiobook narrated by Derek Jacobi. This was read brilliantly, as you would expect, though I have to say it gives you the impression that both Walton and Frankenstein are older, wiser men when in fact it is their naivety and youthful impetuosity that is partly responsible for the grave decisions both make.

Frankenstein play
Copyright –  Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The play was also wonderful and provided a rewarding extra-curricular outing for the book club! It was visceral, shocking, truly gruesome in parts. I loved the way the complex narrative structure, and the jumping back and forth in time was handled. I also loved the way it was interpreted for a 21st century audience, particularly in drawing out the feminist undertones (Elizabeth is played more strongly than in the book, while Frankenstein is often exposed as foolish). It had thrills, spills and lots of action, and stayed very true to the book, leaving out remarkably little and using some of the really powerful passages (particularly those spoken by the monster) verbatim. It will have been a fantastic bonus for any young people studying it for exams this year.

A thoroughly enjoyable monstrous week!

Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This book was everywhere when it first came out last year, surprising since it was written by a little known author and published by a relatively small independent publisher. It became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award and was the Waterstones Book of the Year. I was very keen to read it but it seemed to take a long time to be issued in paperback, so I’ve been hanging on for a while.

The Essex Serpent imgThe book is set mostly in the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter in the 1890s and the action takes place over the course of a year. The central dynamic of the plot is the relationship between Cora Seaborne, a woman approximately in her late 30s, who at the start of the novel is newly widowed, and William (Will) Ransome, the local minister. Will is happily married to Stella and they have three children, while Cora is happily widowed! It seems hers was a fairly loveless marriage in which she felt constrained and imprisoned and her husband appears to have been somewhat older than her. The lack of intimacy in the marriage is indicated by the fact they had only one child, Francis, and that he is an unusual boy (for Cora “nothing shamed her as much as her son”), who is almost certainly autistic.

Once she becomes widowed, Cora is able to follow her passion for natural science, and she moves out of London to Essex. There she becomes captivated by a local myth, a mysterious serpent that villagers feel is responsible for unnatural happenings, including unexplained deaths, crop failures, madness and distressed livestock. Cora first encounters Will on one of her forest walks, when the two rescue a sheep from a bog. They later meet socially and thereafter strike up an increasingly intimate friendship. The book becomes about the development of their relationship against a backdrop of events connected with the serpent, with the illness of Will’s wife, and Cora’s relationships with other friends, including that of Luke Garrett, a brilliant surgeon who is clearly in love with her.

Whilst the book is essentially about relationships and the nature of love (it is explored in many forms) it is also about a clash of worlds. Firstly, the old versus the modern – it is no coincidence the book is set on the eve of the 20th century – and science versus religion, where Cora and Will have some of their most passionate debates. There is also reason versus superstition; the villagers fear the Essex Serpent, whereas Will finds his parishioners’ fears almost pagan in tone, and Cora wants to prove the existence of the serpent, as some sort of lost creature.

Perry also explores the position of women, from Cora, the scientist, for whom marriage had “so degraded her expectations of happiness” and for whom widowhood and thus the single life had “freed her from the obligation to be beautiful”, to Stella the model dutiful Victorian wife and mother, afflicted by a quintessentially 19th century illness. There is also Martha, Cora’s maid (although her exact position in the household slightly defies definition!), also a political activist who utilises the connections she has made through Cora to further her Marxist leanings. In many ways the themes of the novel are very modern indeed – Martha’s campaigning for suitable social housing for the poor of London is resonant of a very 21st century problem. It’s also a very erotic novel, in the Gothic sense, without being explicit; there are many tensions below the surface and some of these do not get fully resolved, which is actually quite true to life when you think about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly. It gripped me to the end. It’s a novel rich in themes, rich in its descriptive power and rich in its evocation of time and place.

If you have read this much talked-about book, I’d love to know what you thought of it.

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