Becoming Mary

mary shelley
Having celebrities for parents is often regarded as an advantage both social and economical, but it cannot be denied that sometimes the load of that popularity is so suffocating to make arduous find the necessary room to develop your true self: expectations are high and the oppressive ghosts of parents’ personalities or even faults shadow your being at the eyes of people. It’s like living unseen under a veil of opinions and prejudices, hence you must be endowed with a great temper if you want to tear it, otherwise the chances of prevailing as an individual in order to determine your fate will be just a few.
“Pray,who is that handsome young lady ?”
“Oh, don’t you know? She is Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft. Her mother is the famous Mary Wollstonecraft . Poor child, she didn’t even know her; she died few days after her birth!”
“And why is she famous?”
“Don’t you know? She wrote a pamphlet or something in support for the rights of women!”
“The rights of women! And which are these rights, pray?”
“Oh, she maintains that girls should have the same education as boys in order to achieve, listen carefully, women’s independence, can you believe it?”
“Women’s independence?”
“Indeed, she dared say that “to marry for a support is legal prostitution“, SHE, talking about prostitution.”
“I know why she pleads for independence: to be free to give public scandal as she always did! The father of the young lady is an anarchist, William Godwin, and…. I’ve been told that he and her mother didn’t even live under the same roof!”
“Indeed, they seem to have shared the same bed at least.”
“Her mother had also had another daughter from an American man. Unmarried!!”
“Poor child, with such a family she will never be admitted in society.”
“No, she won’t, to be sure.”
Women’s independence! AH!”
Despite their flaunted anti-matrimonialism, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin had tried to preserve their daughter’s respectability at the eyes of people resolving upon marrying; nonetheless the shadow of her controversial origin was to be a permanent fault in her life. Yet, even if good society seemed to be proof against the tremendous winds of a revolutionary age, William and Mary had succeeded in inflaming with their radical, outrageous ideals the minds of an entire generation and Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of their most fervent admirer. So when Shelley, who had soon joined Godwin’s circle of intellectuals, met Mary the first time, what exactly did he see? A charming young lady of sixteen or the perfect, fascinating synthesis of the ideals of such incredible reformers? The answer is in his dedicatory stanza to The Revolt to Islam (1817) where he writes : “They saw that thou wert lovely from thy birth, / Of glorious parents, thou aspiring Child” , hence she had been singled out by birth for great literary accomplishments and at the same time had to be the perfect product of her parents’ theories : a free cultivated young girl devoid of that prudery that characterized the customs of the age, therefore emancipated enough to accept him as her lover even he was already married with children. Shelley was so obsessed by the memory of her mother that took Mary almost daily to St. Pancras Church to visit Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave and It’s there that he and Mary, rumors whisper, had their first intimate encounter. When William Godwin, who had become much more conservative in time, discovered the liaison, forbade her to see him and virtually kept her under house arrest (having a teenage daughter meant trouble even in the early nineteenth century). After a lot of drama and also Shelley’s attempt to suicide, she eloped with him and we know well, as dear Jane told us, what were the consequences of an elopement in society and with a married man. In fact the life of these free spirits wasn’t to be that simple. The eight years Mary and Percy spent together were characterized by romance and a lot of melodrama: travels, love, free love  but also poverty, births, miscarriages, deaths, suicides and even matrimony to grant legitimacy to their union and offspring, just like what her parents had done. In the introduction to 1831 edition of Frankenstein Mary Shelley  goes back to those times and in particularly to 1816, when she moved into a chalet on the banks of Lake Geneva, near Villa Diodati, where Byron and his physician, William Polidori, were staying to tell “How (…) a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea” . Indeed, she was a reckless young girl when she conceived her novel, but this introduction was written by mature woman of about forty hardened by the events of life, who could see better the contradictions of her past. She could see how abruptly her choices had turned her world of childish fiction into a harsh reality and in this world Shelley was a husband above all anxious to see her “worthy of (her) parentage” in order to “enrol (her)self on the page of fame”. He had incited her to write “not so much with the idea that (she) could produce any thing worthy of notice, but that he might himself judge how far (she) possessed the promise of better things hereafter“. That’s why she had been unable to produce anything and felt that “blank capability of invention”. She had worshipped his mind, which she believed, was “far more cultivated” than hers and this sense of inferiority surfaces every time she refers to her husband or Byron. They were “noble”, “illustrious”, with a” brilliant imagery” more fit for poetry than prose, therefore she took part to their conversations “as a devout but nearly silent listener“. When they all decided to write a ghost story, she experienced once again the frustration for her husband’s expectations: “Have you thought of a story?”I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.”  But one day the subject of one of those discussions among men, where Mary again was merely a silent spectator, touched her mind: scientific experiments, galvanism, Erasmus Darwin’s success in causing a piece of a vermicello to move voluntarily. That very night she dreamt of a ” pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” ,who had dared “mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” giving “spark of life” to a “hideous corpse”: she had her story, she had her chance to be seen. Her veil in a night had been torn away and Mary the authoress of Frankenstein, ready to gain everlasting fame, had materialized. When she died in 1851, she had established a reputation as a celebrated author independent of her famous husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.


Monstrous beauty


Beauty has always been associated to goodness. Just think about it, whenever we feel the attractive power of somebody’s beauty, we instinctively believe him/her upright, trustworthy, generous and therefore superior. This is because we naturally put to use the paradigms we have been taught when we were children, through fairy tales for instance. The word fairy, in fact, comes from  fair, that is righteous, virtuous, but also beautiful, light, blonde, hence the equation : beauty = good.  All the heroes and heroines of fairy tales have more or less the  same features, and story after story it was very simple to spot the deserving good one to love and stand with.   

Yet, religion warns us against the deception of beauty.  Ezekiel 28 reminds us that Satan, the fallen angel,  was once the “anointed cherub“, that is the most beautiful and wisest creature God had ever created and “perfect in beauty“, the highest being created. But “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your   wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.” (Ezekiel 28:17). Satan fell because his beauty had made him proud. He desired to be God, not to be a servant of God, that’s why he was cast out of heaven. Therefore Satan is perfect in beauty on the outside, yet ugly and grotesque on the inside.

In Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, the monstrous being forged by Victor Frankenstein is exactly the opposite example. The more our modern Prometheus despises his creature’s ugliness on the outside, calling him “monstrous image“, “detested form“,”abhorred monster“, ” wretch devil” etc. the more we see the beauty of his inside and we cannot but sympathize with him.”All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things” he says to Victor. His monstrosity has isolated him from the other human beings who despise him. He is alone and he can only seek for the compassion and help of his creator, but when Victor, rather, threats to kill him, he imparts him a moral lesson remarking: “How dare you sport thus with life?” reminding him that he is not God and that he is acting against the laws of nature. However, differently from Satan, he is determined to respect who gave him life, despite his immense physical strength:  “Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed”. Victor is the responsible for his loneliness and unhappiness and as he is his creature ( as he repeats  twice), something must be done. The deep human understanding of this character can be found in these simple words that sound like a desperate plea :”I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend”. Certainly the creature is talking for himself, but that statement seems to have a more universal meaning: is it so then? We were born good, but unhappiness, prejudice, fear, rejection turn us into monsters and evil creatures? Theologian Vito Mancuso maintains that man naturally tends towards the good – the monster himself is attracted by the goodness of the family who lives near his hut – this is what will save us in the eternal battle of good versus evil. Maybe it will, but not so soon I guess.