Contents Index

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Woman Writer's Fate

Stephen Behrendt

In Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley (Hanover: Univ. Press of New England, 1995), pp. 69-87

{69} Frankenstein is a woman author's tale of almost exclusively male activity, a tale whose various parts are all told by men. Women are conspicuously absent from the main action; they are significantly displaced (Agatha de Lacey, Safie) or entirely eliminated (Justine, Elizabeth, and the Creature's partially constructed mate). The only woman truly present in the tale is paradoxically not "there" at all: the unseen, silent auditor/reader Margaret Walton Saville (MWS), who exists only in Walton's letters. Walton's letters make clear that Margaret figures into his part of the tale as both confidante and confessor, much as Walton himself serves Victor Frankenstein. Indeed, Walton's explanations to Margaret of his own behavior suggest that he casts her in a role as sanctifier, whose province it is to hear, understand, sympathize, and approve (see Letter 2, for instance), rather in the manner of the roles in which Dostoyevsky later casts Liza in Notes from Underground and Sonia Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment. Walton manipulates his sister much as William Wordsworth encircles and silences his sister Dorothy in "Tintern Abbey": the brother's own future viability (which the text explicitly demands) is to be engineered precisely by the resonance of his own words in his sister's consciousness (ll. 134-59).

As "silent bearers of ideology" in Western literature and art, women have traditionally been made "the necessary sacrifice to male secularity," which finds its expression in materialistic public activity in a world that cannot -- indeed will not -- accommodate the woman of action.1 Ellen Moers sees in Ann Radcliffe an alternative to both the intellectual, {70} philosophical woman typified by Mary Wollstonecraft and the super-domesticated image of the submissive wife and mother extolled by earlier eighteenth-century culture. Moers claims that Radcliffe's vision of female selfhood involved neither the wholly intellectual nor the traditionally "loving" nurturant role but rather that of the traveling woman: "the woman who moves, who acts, who copes with vicissitude and adventure."2 This very public role of the woman of action fits authors like Mary Darby Robinson and Helen Maria Williams, as well as the many Gothic heroines who, like Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, cope exceedingly well with continual reversals of fortune and circumstance. It is not, however, the model of experience embraced by Mary Shelley, who, despite her considerable travels and public activity, wrote in pointedly gender-specific terms in 1828 that "my sex has precluded all idea of my fulfilling public employments."3 For modern readers her comment hints painfully both at the enculturated tendency of many women of the time -- and today -- to perpetuate women's oppression by discouraging public roles for women and at a narrowed and more biologically based rationalization of reserve on women's part.

In her important 1982 article, Barbara Johnson examines the troubled relationship among mothering, female authorship, and autobiography in Frankenstein, revealing some of the ways Mary Shelley associated authorship with monstrousness, and the products of authorship with the violent and unpredictable Creature. Anne Mellor has subsequently extended and refined the discussion in terms of Shelley's life and other writings.4 My own reading is informed by their critical insights. I argue further that the initially well-intentioned and humane Creature resembles the idealistic author seeking to benefit her or his society, and so, tragically, does Victor Frankenstein. Both see their desires frustrated, however, as their intentions are first misunderstood and then misrepresented by others. Their interlaced histories thus pose a strong warning to authors -- whether of literary texts or of cultural texts, such as revolutions -- about the dangers of creating that which can destroy even its own author. The author must acknowledge the fact that her or his text's potential for mischief is at least as great as its potential for good. Because Frankenstein's embedded lessons about the hazards of authorship bear particular relevance to the Romantic woman author, I shall here treat the novel as a touchstone as I examine some broader issues.

Although Frankenstein is a novel about acts and actions, it comes to us not in actions but in reports of actions, almost in the manner of classical theater, where much of the offstage action is represented only in verbal reports. The more contemporary parallel lies in Gothic fiction, in which {71} the violence is often kept offstage and thereby rendered powerfully imminent, a menace whose physical manifestations are only barely held in abeyance by a combination of virtue, fortitude, coincidence, and plain good luck. In Frankenstein the reports are in fact frequently multilayered: they are reports of reports. The most heavily layered is Walton's report of Victor's report of the Creature's report of his self-education and experiences. Mary Shelley adds to this layering by beginning her novel in epistolary fashion, with a series of embedded reports that draw our attention to the writing acts of Walton and, by extension, to Shelley herself, both as original anonymous author and as the subsequently public, ex post facto authorial presence in the 1831 Introduction who reports on the novel's genesis. Moreover, in adopting the epistolary form of discourse, Walton adopts a genre long associated with women's writing. Just as he appropriates woman's procreative activity in creating his own "Creature," so does he appropriate the ostensibly uninhibited literary form (the letter form has been called "spontaneity formalized") that women -- otherwise denied voice and hence access to male literary culture -- "could practice without unsexing" themselves.5

To what extent does the nature of Frankenstein as a construct of words, rather than a direct representation of actions, embody the dilemma of the woman writer at the beginning of the nineteenth century? In what ways does the marginalization of women, their activities, and their perceived cultural worth figure in Frankenstein's elimination or destruction of them? And what relation do these questions bear to the circumstances and the literary productions of other women writers of the Romantic period? Inherent in Frankenstein are some telling reflections of the ways in which women figured in the public world. In Mary Shelley's novel, women are occasionally the objects of discourse -- most notably Margaret Saville, who cannot respond (or is at least represented as not responding), but also Justine and Elizabeth, whose responses to discourse aimed at them are in each case truncated by their deaths at the hands (in Elizabeth's case, quite literally) of the violent system of male authority within which the narrative is inscribed. When they are the subjects of discourse, on the other hand, they fare little better, for every woman of any importance who is spoken of in the main narrative is likewise destroyed: Victor's mother, Elizabeth, Justine, and the Creature's mate (who dies before even being "born"). In the public literary world of the time, the story is much the same. As objects of discourse, women were continually reminded of their "proper" and "natural" place in private familial and public extrafamilial interaction. The woman writer (who becomes herself an originator of discourse by publishing) is "repre- {72} sented" within public culture as an object of discourse when her work is reviewed by the (generally male) critic. But she is also translated into the subject of discourse when her literary efforts are indiscriminately interchanged with, or substituted for, her self -- her individual person -- within the public discourse of criticism.

Mary Shelley's first novel demonstrates that men's actions are typically either overtly destructive and therefore disruptive of social bonding or simply so thoroughly counterproductive that they result in paralysis, much as Walton's ship becomes immobilized in the ice. This message is repeated in one form or another in her subsequent novels and tales, and it appears in perhaps its starkest terms in Matilda, where the psychological and sexual oppressions are so powerful that they resist language's capacity to record them at all. The writings of Shelley and others reveal the consequences of the cultural pressures exerted upon the woman author, pressures whose cumulative weight often served either to drive women to misrepresent themselves by adopting the masculinist culture's literary conventions or to silence them altogether.6 In the case of Mary Shelley -- daughter of politically radical philosophers, wife of a particularly notorious radical artist, and member of a glittering literary circle -- the residue of this enculturated sense of inferiority is startling. The terrible cost of her search for personal fulfillment in a permanent, secure relationship based equally upon affection and intellectual equality have been documented by her biographers. Sufficiently telling are two comments from her letters to two women, the first of whom (Frances Wright [Darusmont]) was herself an active political and social reformer transplanted in 1818 to America:

[W]omen are . . . per[pet]ually the victims of their generosity -- & their purer, & more sensitive feelings render them so much less than men capable of battling the selfishness, hardness & ingratitude [which] is so often the return made, for the noblest efforts to benefit others.

In short my belief is -- whether there be sex in souls or not -- that the sex of our material mechanism makes us quite different creatures -- better though weaker but wanting in the higher grades of intellect.7

The second remark, in which "weaker" clearly refers to physical strength and stature, comes from a letter that is unusual even for Mary Shelley in the violence of its self-deprecation. But Dorothy Wordsworth expressed her fear of disappointing Coleridge in much the same terms: "I have not those powers which Coleridge thinks I have -- I know it. My only merits are my devotedness to those I love and I hope a charity towards all mankind."8 John Stuart Mill expressed the nature of the dilemma when {73} he wrote in 1861 that "all the moralities tell [women] that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others, to make complete abnegations of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections."9 Comments like Shelley's and Wordsworth's provide compelling evidence of the validity of Mary Jacobus's much more recent observation that women's attempts to gain access to a male-dominated culture tend often to produce feelings of alienation, repression, and division: "a silencing of the 'feminine,' a loss of woman's inheritance" (27).

Indeed, expressions of self-disgust and self-hatred recur in the personal, private statements of Mary Shelley and other women who indulged their ambition (or, like Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans, and Shelley herself, their plain financial need) to enter the public arena of authorship. Entering explicitly into competition with the dominant caste of male authors, the woman writer seemed to violate not just social decorum but also the nature and constitution of her own sex. Not surprisingly, her efforts generated both anxiety and hostility among the male literary establishment, particularly when the woman dared to venture outside genres such as Gothic fiction that were more or less reserved for the heightened emotionalism expected of women writers.10 It is instructive to remember that when Percy Bysshe Shelley composed a review of Frankenstein in 1818 his language implied that the author was male (perhaps, as was believed, Shelley himself).11 Although this may have been yet another instance of Shelley's exaggerated, chivalric protectiveness toward his wife, the result was nevertheless to strip her of her authorship, even as she had been stripped of her early literary efforts in 1814 when the trunk containing her papers was left behind in Paris and subsequently vanished.12

I do not mean to minimize the growing impact women had on the Romantic literary market, either as authors or as readers.13 But for nearly two centuries their place has been defined largely in terms of their relation to sentimentalism, which has had the effect of stereotyping the majority and effectively silencing the rest. By the later Romantic period it was becoming apparent that men no longer held quite the stranglehold on the literary scene that we have generally assumed. While publishing and criticism remained male-dominated fields, publishers especially were shrewd enough to understand their markets and to cater to the apparent tastes of a growing female readership, in part by employing women authors who addressed that readership. Nevertheless, the literary woman's activity remained circumscribed. Although women were free to write the literature of sentiment and were, in fact, encouraged to do so, the {74} invitation did not customarily extend to the literature of science or, for the most part, of philosophy, political science, or economics. Indeed, the criticism of the would-be intellectual woman typically turned on assumptions about both the proper "nature" of women and the attributes that make them desirable to men, who are still the ultimate "consumers." This comment is typical: "[T]his woman had utterly thrown off her sex; when nature recalled it to her, she felt only distaste and tedium; sentimental love and its sweet emotions came nowhere near the heart of a woman with pretensions to learning, wit, free thought, politics, who has a passion for philosophy and longs for public acclaim. Kind and decent men do not like women of this sort."14 The woman is Charlotte Corday, the famous mall-killer; the account, from a Jacobin newspaper of the time. Such terminology recurs repeatedly in the English press and in the culture it both reflects and molds, and it suggests the extent to which the male establishment feared the "monstrous" advances being made by women. Like other novels (Smith's Desmond or Wollstonecraft's Maria, for example) whose rhetorical and thematic threads include the political, Frankenstein at once trespasses on "forbidden" territory and at the same time comments on the nature and consequences of that incursion.

The Romantic reading public's voracious appetite could consume authors as easily as their works, but their lack of access to the male-dominated, symbiotic twin industries of publishing and criticism made women writers particularly vulnerable. When Joseph Johnson hired Mary Wollstonecraft in 1787, he was taking an unconventional step, even though his decision was undoubtedly rooted more in pragmatic economic reasons than in progressive, gender-sensitive political ones; just back from France, she offered him both a contact (as well as a translator and editor familiar with the Continental literary milieu) and an intelligent author in her own right. Mary Darby Robinson's work for the Morning Post (which placed her squarely in the company of -- and partly in competition with -- Coleridge and Southey) offers another exception to the all-but-universal rule of male dominance. This overall dominance inevitably lent publishers and critics an inordinate power to silence the woman writer by denying her access to an audience or by so characterizing her efforts as to render them wholly unattractive to the inquisitive reader and thus to the prospective publisher of any subsequent efforts. Both of these forces stood poised to strike as soon as the woman writer overstepped the boundaries of propriety; they stood ready to step in "the moment she appeared to them as too palpably a manifestation of that monstrously capricious readership that has given birth to her" (Ross, Contours, 232).

{75} This is not to say, however that women poets (and women writers in general) were not acknowledged. Indeed, women poets seem to have been anthologized more frequently in the nineteenth century than they have been until recently in the twentieth, whereas women novelists like Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Turner Smith, Amelia Opie, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley, who began on the margins, achieved a more immediate and lasting enfranchisement. But the manner of that acknowledgment of women poets and of that anthologization tells its own tale. Let us take one example: Frederic Rowton's 1853 edition of The Female Poets of Great Britain: Chronologically Arranged with Copious Selections and Critical Remarks.15 An enterprising editor and publisher, Rowton was active in such liberal causes as the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. His anthology achieved a wide readership, both in England and in America, and there is no question that the volume called attention to women's contributions to England's poetic heritage. Nevertheless, Rowton's "critical remarks" typify the narrow post-Romantic characterization of women s writing in terms analogous to those in which women's "domestic" work was being characterized at the outset of the Romantic period. Rowton's comments on Felicia Hemans, for example, are illustrative:

She seems to me to represent and unite as purely and completely as any other writer in our literature the peculiar and specific qualities of the female mind. Her works are to my mind a perfect embodiment of woman's soul: -- I would say that they are intensely feminine. The delicacy, the softness, the pureness, the quick observant vision, the ready sensibility, the devotedness, the faith of woman's nature find in Mrs. Hemans their ultra representative. . . . In nothing can one trace her feminine spirit more strikingly than in her domestic home-loving ideas. . . . No where, indeed, can we find a more pure and refined idea of home than that which pervades Mrs. Hemans's writings on the subject. (Pp. 386-87)
The delicacy that Rowton so admires in Hemans is in fact a recessive, deferential attitude that is more a critical overlaying, an interpretive imposition, than an essential quality of Hemans's verse. Just as female subordinates are kept in their "place" at the office by being called by first name (frequently in a diminutive form, at that) by supervisors whom they are expected to call by formal surname, so too is Hemans (and many others) "placed" by Rowton's condescending but nevertheless firmly authoritarian language, shored up by his "selection" of verse which guarantees that the reader will see in Hemans precisely what Rowton intends. Interestingly, when H. T. Tuckerman wrote an introduction for the American edition of Hemans's Poems that appeared in 1853 (the same year as Rowton's anthology), he employed many of the same {76} critical tactics, engaging in a form of "psychic defense" under the guise of critical appraisal. Such tactics, as Marion Ross has demonstrated, "enable the critic to perform the crucial cultural endeavor of putting women in their natural and social place while ostensibly simply going about the mundane task of literary criticism" (Contours, 237).

The deferential, self-deprecating introduction or preface was a familiar literary fixture, whether it was employed by a Wordsworth or a Shelley in offering the world works that were proposed to be somehow "experimental" or adopted by a Mary Tighe (as in Psyche, 1805). But while readers seem to have "seen through" the affected posture when men employed it, they were more likely to regard that disclaimer, when women adopted it, not as a mere convention but rather as a statement of fact. And if the woman author failed to make the expected apologies, others stood ready to do it for her. Thus, the editorial introduction addressed "To the Reader" in later editions of Tighe's Psyche, with Other Poems assigns gender-driven terms to Tighe -- and Tighe to them: "To possess strong feelings and amiable affections, and to express them with a nice discrimination, has been the attribute of many female writers . . . [but Tighe is] a writer intimately acquainted with classical literature, and guided by a taste for real excellence, [who] has delivered in polished language such sentiments as can tend only to encourage and improve the best sensations of the human breast."16 Notice that the praiseworthy features -- nicety, amiability, polish, sentiment -- are intimately associated with such archetypal attributes of the Western female as cleanliness, orderliness, softness, and pliability. Even the exceptional (i.e., unfeminine) attributes -- strong feelings, classical learning -- are tempered by their being assigned to the support of essentially "feminine" concerns, the nurturing of the best sensations of the human heart chief among them. This sort of bracketing commentary is the norm for the period, both for the woman authors themselves and for the (male) interlocutors who felt compelled to speak for them in order to "introduce" them to their audiences.

Ironically, the notions of "home-loving" domesticity that Tighe's publisher, Rowton, and others sought to impose on women's writing have been succinctly summed up a century and a half later in -- of all places -- an anthropological study of dining etiquette:

If "a woman's place is in the home" her place implies all the "female" characteristics: interiority, quietness, a longing to nurture, unwillingness to stand forth, and renunciation of the "male" claims to authority, publicity, loudness, brightness, sharpness. These qualities have a multitude of practical applications; for example, they either make a woman altogether unfit and unwilling to attend feasts, or they influence the way she behaves while participating in them.17
{77} Substitute "publish" for "attend feasts," and the fit is nearly perfect. Indeed, according to traditional Western (especially Anglo-American) etiquette, what could be less womanly, less feminine, than public-ation, which injects the woman into a visible world held to be as thoroughly and exclusively masculine an arena as that to which gentlemen adjourned after dining for cigars and port?

In exercises like Rowton's, ideology is represented as "natural" fact, and begging the question is then passed off as exposition. Elsewhere, Rowton observes of Hemans that "to passion she is well nigh a stranger." Unlike Byron (who is "indeed, of all others the poet of passion"), "affection is with her a serene, radiating principle, mild and ethereal in its nature, gentle in its attributes, pervading and lasting in its effects" (p. 388). And Letitia Landon (Maclean), whom Rowton explicitly compares (favorably) with Byron ("the Byron of our poetesses" [p. 424]) is nevertheless censured for treating materials and attitudes for which Byron was even in 1853 routinely praised -- however cautiously. Rowton remarks of Landon's skill at portraying sorrow:

Persons who knew her intimately say that she was not naturally sad: that she was all gaiety and cheerfulness: but there is a mournfulness of soul which is never to be seen on the cheek or in the eye: and this I believe to have dwelt in Mrs. Maclean's breast more than in most people's. How else are we to understand her poetry? We cannot believe her sadness to have been put on like a player's garb: to have been an affectation, an unreality: it is too earnest for that. We must suppose that she felt what she wrote: and if so, her written sadness was real sadness. (Pp. 426-27)
Rowton's conclusions reveal a built-in ideological inability to credit the female poet with the imaginative capacity to create powerful moods or attitudes, a capacity attributed to a Wordsworth or a Byron without question. The male poet can create, invent; the female poet can only replicate and transcribe. Worse, Rowton extrapolates from his own faulty causal logic a narrowly moralistic (and predictably negative) literary-critical judgment: "This strong tendency towards melancholy frequently led Mrs. Maclean into most erroneous views and sentiments; which, though we may make what excuses we will for them out of consideration for the author, should be heartily and honestly condemned for the sake of moral truth" (p. 429).

We are dealing here with codes of behavior, with manners, considered within the sphere of literary production. Behaviors that are tolerated among male authors -- even when they are disapproved -- are intolerable in female authors. Morally reactionary critical responses to productions like Don Juan, Prometheus Unbound, or Endymion stemmed at least in part from a recognition that their authors were writers of substance and {78} power, whose productions stood to shake up the conservative establishment on whose stability (and capital) the critical industry of the time had already come to depend. Women were writing powerful, socially volatile poetry, too; but rather than launch a comparable frontal attack on women writers like Mary Darby Robinson, Joanna Baillie, Charlotte Turner Smith, Letitia Landon, or even Hannah More, gender-driven criticism adopted the psychologically subtle device of undermining by misrepresentation, of assessing works in terms of their adherence to or deviation from presumed standards of "femininity." The male-dominated publishing industry and its accompanying critical establishment had, of course, a great store in preserving, codifying, and enforcing this construct of "the feminine" in writing, perhaps especially so in the field of poetry, which was, in the Romantic period, still the preeminent vehicle for "high" art. If the membership of the club could not be preserved indefinitely for males only, it could at least be stratified: separate, lesser rooms in the clubhouse could be apportioned to women to keep them out of the way.

Johnson and Mellor have helped us to see that Frankenstein's Creature shares the situation of Romantic women, marginalized and spurned by a society to whose patriarchal schemata they fail to conform. Moreover, the values and sensibilities typically assigned to women during the Romantic period are not unlike those that Shelley assigns the Creature, including instinctive responsiveness to Nature, the impulse toward emotional human bonding (especially apparent in the deLacey episode), and an experiential rather than an abstract empirical way of "knowing" -- all of which are the heritage of eighteenth-century sentimentalism. In the pursuit of all of these impulses the Creature is thwarted, both by his irresponsible creator and by the members of the society that has produced Victor and countless others like him. That the Creature is not "beautiful" -- another attribute stereotypically associated with women -- indicates the seemingly deforming nature of nonconformity as measured by the standards and sensibilities of the dominant majority. Ironically, as the representative of the masculinist culture that places such a premium on physical beauty among women (note especially his descriptions of Elizabeth), Victor Frankenstein creates a being whose hideousness contravenes any proper instinctive and loving parental response on his part to the Creature as "child." He has created that which he abhors, a situation entirely analogous to what the masculinist social and political establishment wrought upon women, writers or otherwise, and with the same consequences: the victim is led to self-deprecation and ultimately self-destructive behavior. Likewise, the author who thinks highly enough {79} of her work to publish it nevertheless compromises herself in publishing with it self-effacing, apologetic, or temporizing prefaces that devalue or even destroy the work that follows. This is a necessary compromise, it would seem, for those who would be heard at all. But the cost in honesty and self-esteem to the author is considerable.

Victor renounces the product of his activities when the creative seeks to usurp the procreative. Hence, physically destroying the Creature's mate is only an emblem of the real act of devastation implicit in Victor's actions: the demolition of those who will not retreat to passive, silent existence on the margins of human experience. Silent neglect, however, is an equally powerful response. This fact lends particular significance to a literary project Mary Shelley proposed in 1830 to John Murray III and to which he apparently turned a (predictably) deaf ear. Suggesting topics on which she might write for publication, she says, "I have thought also of the Lives of Celebrated women -- or a history of Woman -- her position in society & her influence upon it -- historically considered. [sic] and a History of Chivalry."18

Did Murray simply assume that the market-driven "buying public" (despite the very large number of women readers in it) would be uninterested in a volume of prose about women, perhaps especially one about "Woman"? The topic itself was certainly not prohibitively unpopular: Hemans's Records of Woman had appeared in 1828, with a second edition the same year and a third in 1830, as Shelley must have known (although there is no mention of it, nor of Hemans, in her letters or journals of this period). The balance (or imbalance) in Mary Shelley's query between the worthy and promising topic of the position and influence of women in society and the much "safer" "History of Chivalry" (in which women might be expected to figure as ornament rather than as agent) is unintentionally revealing of the cultural bind from which neither Mary Shelley nor any other woman writer of her generation could entirely escape. Certainly, when one considers the sentimental concessions to traditional expectations about gender and genre that mar Records of Woman, one cannot help acknowledging the truth of what Jennifer Breen says about women writers' dilemma of creating in their works a woman's point of view: they were forced by social pressure "to conceal the split between what was expected of them and what they actually felt."19 Hence, most of the women in Records of Woman are, in fact, reflections of male social and cultural expectations only slightly displaced from their customary passive, recessive, nurturant roles to relatively more aggressive ones whose activity is typically generated by default, by the disappearance, death, or incapacitation of the male figure {80} who would otherwise play the active role in the scenario (e.g., "Arabella Stuart," "The Switzer's Wife," or "Gertrude," whose subtitle, "Fidelity till Death," says it all).

One of Frankenstein's lessons is that all creative activity (whether physically procreative or aesthetically/scientifically creative) drives individuals into seclusion and isolation and away from the salutary human interaction that is the proper objective of all human action. Shelley's introduction to the 1831 edition details the countersocializing aspect of her own experience as creative writer. That she chose to include that information and therefore to publicly detail her physical and psychological anxiety and her attempt to compete with the literary men who surrounded her is instructive, for her experience as a woman of words20 ties her to contemporaries like Anna Letitia Barbauld, Jane Taylor, Mary Robinson, Ann Radcliffe, and Charlotte Smith, as well as to Dorothy Wordsworth, whose words were repeatedly appropriated by her brother in poems that for two centuries have blithely been regarded as "his." That still others, like Felicia Browne Hemans, unhesitatingly identified themselves by their married names (e.g., Mrs. Hemans, Mrs. Opie, or Mrs. Montolieu) indicates the extent to which they elected (whether freely or under cultural coercion) to reduce their actions and their identities to mere words (denoting marital status and recessive identity ). What Stuart Curran says specifically of Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon might be said of many of the women who were their contemporaries: In addition to the comfortable domesticity and sentimentality that may be glimpsed in their work, we can see also "darker strains," which include "a focus on exile and failure, a celebration of female genius frustrated, a haunting omnipresence of death."21 This aspect of women's writing is as troubling today as it was two centuries ago, and it should not surprise us that intrusive contemporary commentators, editors, and anthologizers (like Frederic Rowton) attempted to deny the validity or even the meaningful presence of that aspect, either explicitly by branding it as subject matter inappropriate for women, in roundabout fashion by refusing to credit female authors with adequate imagination or intellect, or in slightly more covert fashion by calling their efforts on this front derivative from male models such as Byron.

Writing literature may be a form of communication, but it is decidedly not dialogue. Like Margaret Saville, the reader (or audience) is kept at a distance; functional interactive discourse with the author is precluded by the nature of the literary work of art. The one-sidedness of this arrangement is quite unlike the dialogic nature of the familiar letter (and I stress the adjective), a genre Mary Shelley seems to have much enjoyed.22 The {81} act of literary communication -- the writing act and the production of a public, published text -- distances both the writer and the reader from the subjective substance that the text mediates by means of language. In her preface to Psyche (1805), Mary Tighe presents a view of her work opposite to the one reflected in Shelley's 1831 reference to her "hideous progeny": "The author, who dismisses to the public the darling object of his solitary cares, must be prepared to consider, with some degree of indifference, the various receptions it may then meet."23 Whether "hideous progeny" or "darling object," the fate of the published work is out of its author's hands, as is the author's private self, which soon becomes the property of critics and others who appropriate it by reading it both into and in the literary work, as is evident from this remark about Mary Darby Robinson's poetry:

Of Mrs. Robinson's general character, it can only be added that she possessed a sensibility of heart and tenderness of mind Which very frequently led her to form hasty decisions, while more mature deliberation would have tended to promote her interest and worldly comfort; she was liberal even to a fault: and many of the leading traits of her life will most fully evince that she was the most disinterested of human beings. As to her literary character, the following pages, it may be presumed, will form a sufficient testimony.24
Here again are the terms we have seen applied to Hemans and Tighe; they include the standard catalog of "feminine" virtues of softness, tenderness, and pliability, as well as the converse (and therefore culpable) traits of independence, immaturity, hastiness, and lack of foresight. The concluding sentence of the "Preface" makes perfectly clear the writer's rhetorical strategy: having detailed for the reader a literary life characterized by failures to behave "properly," both in life and in print, the writer injects the works themselves ("the following pages") into this pejorative context. Co-opted into disapproving of the author's life and life-style, the reader is invited to carry along that sense of disapprobation while reading the poetry. It is a classic tactic of reader manipulation and an unusually effective one, as history affords us ample opportunities to observe.

To create literary art is ultimately to falsify both the person and the act -- whether external and immediate or internal and imaginative -- that motivates the verbal text. It is not just a matter of producing fading coals, as Percy Bysshe Shelley suggests in A Defence of Poetry, but rather of burning up the raw material entirely. In the process the individual self gets burned up as well, consumed and extinguished. For the woman writer, no less than for the man, who and what one is gets superseded in the process of publication by the words that may represent -- but more {82} likely misrepresent -- that individual private entity. Fame devours personhood, as Tennyson's Ulysses reminds us later when he ironically announces that "I am become a name." In a "man's world," which is very much what the Romantic era was in England despite the presence of literary women in it, men are better able to overcome this dissolution of the self because they are the principal actors (act-ors) on the public stage, as well as the controllers of language and other cultural determinants. But because of their social, political, and cultural marginalization, women have few resources for countering the extinguishing of the personal self. When they did write, as Susan J. Wolfson observes of Dorothy Wordsworth, their experiences frequently generated in their texts "countertexts and spectres of defeat."25

Wolfson reminds us that in professing to "detest the idea of setting myself up as author" ( p. 140) Dorothy Wordsworth effectively accepted the marginalized and unauthoritative female role assigned her by the masculinist society epitomized in her brother and valorized by his public audiences. As journal keeper and documenter of domestic affairs both personal and public, rather than self-promoting, publishing author, she played out the culturally conditioned expectations of woman as domestic engineer, historical and social housekeeper, and minder of minor details of order and appearance. Nevertheless, Dorothy Wordsworth did write, both in prose and in poetry, and even her characteristic self-deprecating tone cannot entirely hide the clear strain in her writings of ambition and of longing for a more authoritative and self-expressive voice.26 Much the same might be said about Mary Shelley, whose letters are filled with protestations against public visibility: "There is nothing I shrink from more fearfully than publicity -- . . . far from wishing to stand forward to assert myself in any way, now that I am alone in the world, [I] have but the desire to wrap night and the obscurity of insignificance around me."27 Despite her very considerable oeuvre, she often deprecated both her literary talent and her intellectual acuity by referring to her writing, as she once did to John Murray, as "my stupid pen & ink labors."28

Part of the Romantic woman writer's predicament involves what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have called the "anxiety of authorship" -- the woman's radical fear "that she cannot create, that because she can never become a 'precursor' the act of writing will isolate or destroy her."29 This is a potentially and often an actually crippling anxiety. And yet this fear need not be gender-specific to women. Sonia Hofkosh has demonstrated that no less "male" a male writer than Byron exemplifies the author who "dreads, as he desires, being read by others -- a reading that rewrites him and thus compromises his powers of self-creation."30 The problem is {83} particularly acute for the woman writer, however, who in the Romantic period was working with only the bare thread of a literary heritage. Battling the powerful forces that everywhere reminded her of her cultural and intellectual marginality and the impropriety of her artistic aspirations -- forces that fed (and rewarded) timidity and submissiveness -- the woman writer was very like Mary Shelley's Creature. This gender-driven cultural stifling both of experience and of expression lies behind what Mary Jacobus, among others, sees as the themes of "dumbness and utterance" and of the powerful quest to fulfill an impossible desire (Reading Woman, 28).

We do well to catch in the Creature's history a glimpse of the history of the woman artist during the Romantic period -- and indeed during much of the history of Western culture. What is at issue, finally, is the ongoing radical marginalization of the unconventional, a phenomenon as much political as social and cultural. The dominant social milieu severs communication with the Creature because neither its appearance nor its acts conform to the expectations of that majority culture. The society in which Frankenstein and Walton alike opt for the isolation of individual pursuits over the socializing impulses of human interaction proves to be the real agent in redefining the parameters of creative activity. Acts are replaced by words, activity by passivity, responsibility by the irresponsibly ambivalent, and individuality by abstraction. The person is dissolved.

Mary Shelley's first major literary project after Percy's death was The Last Man, which presents itself as a set of fragmentary papers -- Sibylline leaves -- that trace the vanishing of an entire civilization in a prolonged universal cataclysm. Since the indifferent universe of time and history effectively ends in the skeptical intellectual framework of that novel, all that remains to lend meaning to mortal existence are human interaction and human language systems, both of which, being temporal, are themselves inevitably doomed to end. The alternative to this desolate picture lies in Shelley's frequently iterated commitment to "an ethic of cooperation, mutual dependence, and self-sacrifice" as the means for salvaging individual and collective dignity and meaning from the wreckage of temporal human existence. She argued in work after work that civilization can achieve its full promise only when "individuals willingly give up their egotistical desires and ambitions in order to serve the greater good of the community."31 But this situation leaves the writer in a particularly precarious position, with her or his printed words dependent for value on a community of readers to whom the author is nevertheless a stranger, whose language and identity is subject to gross misconstruing over time. Mary Shelley's life of Alfieri offers insight into her view of authorship, {84} which itself seems to echo both Wordsworth's and Percy Bysshe Shelley's views: "The author has something to say. . . . An Author . . . is a human being whose thoughts do not satisfy his mind . . . he requires sympathy, a world to listen, and the echoes of assent. [The author desires] to build up an enduring monument . . . [and] court the notoriety which usually attends those who let the public into the secret of their individual passions or peculiarities."32 But this is risky business, surely, for even if the assenting voice is loud and unified, the author still exposes her or his own autonomous personhood ("individual passions or peculiarities") for public view and public reading -- or misreading. As the daughter of Wollstonecraft and Godwin and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, she would have appreciated more than most that the "sympathy" of which she writes here could be a rare commodity indeed among the early-nineteenth-century English reading public.

At the same time, though, to write is not just to yield authority but also to take it, to exercise it. In the preface composed for the anonymous first edition of Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley claims that the author has gone beyond what Erasmus Darwin and other speculative physiologists have postulated about the nature of life and "the elementary principles of human nature." Indeed, the author is presented as having surpassed not only these scientists but also other culturally ensconced male literary luminaries, including Homer, the Greek dramatists, Shakespeare, and Milton, as well as the two "friends" to whose conversations the story is said to owe. In her own 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, Shelley pointedly reminds us that her story originated with a set of conversations between Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron to which she was essentially a silent auditor. Yet hers is the story that was completed and published and that became sufficiently popular to demand republication. Making her claim of authorship explicit, Mary Shelley in the process claims possession not only of the novel's language but also of the material -- the apparently unremittingly male material -- of its subject matter. Moreover, the new introduction constitutes a gesture of authority by which her own authorial voice supersedes the ventriloquistic voice of her dead husband in the preface. By 1831 she had, after all, survived both Shelley and Byron, and the popularity of her novel had far exceeded that of her husband's works and had rivaled and in some quarters even surpassed that of Byron's.

The Last Man extends some of the issues I have already raised in terms of Frankenstein. Is the author's role (whether the author be female or male) merely to record the real or invented acts of others? That is, after all, what Mary Shelley turned to in her later years when she wrote the {85} lives of eminent men. The historian characteristically steps out of the history she or he writes, functioning as nameless, invisible recorder, although even in the best of cases an element of fiction enters -- or is inserted -- into the writing of history. This ostensibly detached role appears to have become increasingly attractive to Mary Shelley, who in 1834, while working on her contributions to the Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, wrote at length about her imagination's fleeting visitations and suggested that, as Wordsworth wrote in the "Intimations" ode, the years that bring the philosophic mind provide recompense (though not necessarily so "abundant" as the poet regards it in "Tintern Abbey") for the imagination's fading: "I hope nothing & my imagination is dormant -- She awakes by fits & starts; but often I am left alone (fatal word) even by her. My occupation at present somewhat supplies her place -- & my life & reason have been saved by these "Lives" -- Yes -- let the lonely be occupied -- it is the only cure. "33

And yet is not this consuming indulgence in words both the goal and the supermarginalizing consequence of authorship generally -- to be reduced to words, to be captured, "pictured," and read not as person but as textual construct, as a sort of shadow existence, a phantasm of the reader's own distorting imagination?

The author constantly runs the risk of being made into a fiction by the reader who formulates or extrapolates the author from the text. The woman author is "read" within a system of culturally encoded patriarchal authority over which she has virtually no control but within which she is expected to express herself. She is thus deprived at once of subjectivity, creativity, and autonomy. The assessment not just of Romantic women's writing but also of the cultural and intellectual position of the woman writer in general underscores the urgency of Annette Kolodny's observation that what unites and invigorates feminist criticism is neither dogma nor method but rather "an acute and impassioned attentiveness to the ways in which primarily male structures of power are inscribed (or encoded) within our literary inheritance."34 Worst danger of all, one runs the risk of becoming an accomplice to the substitutional fictionalization of the "real" (the actual, autonomous, personal, and historical individual) self by the very act of writing. For the text that results from that act contains the self that the reader may reformulate and reconstruct in a living lie that reflects not the author but the reader, who has, in the act of reading her, appropriated her and torn her to pieces, much as Victor Frankenstein first assembles and then tears to pieces the Creature's mate.

Virginia Woolf suggested that George Eliot's decision to combine {86} womanhood and writing was very costly indeed; as Mary Jacobus observes, it was a mortally significant decision that entailed "the sacrifice not only of happiness, but of life itself" (Reading Woman, 29). Women writers are particularly sensitive to the conflict between the "domesticity" that society expects of them and their own authorial aspirations for public fame, Marlon Ross writes, precisely because "the conflict is so palpable in their private lives and in their poetic careers" (Contours, 289). Mary Shelley understood the personal cost of authorship, writing of it to Trelawny that "I know too well that that excitement is the parent of pain rather than pleasure."35 Writing, especially for publication, is an act of society, of civilization: a surrender of the autonomous self and identity to, and ostensibly on behalf of, the collective public. But as Rousseau had foreseen, the impulse toward formal civilization brings with it a radical reduction of one's options and, for the writer, "an enclosure within the prison-house of language" (Mellor, Mary Shelley, 50). One becomes what one writes, to paraphrase Blake, even as one writes what one is. In this endlessly revolving cycle one becomes imprisoned in temporality and typicality; one is reduced, finally, to a cipher, to a sheaf of papers, to reports of actions -- or to reports of ideas that purport to be actions.

Like her contemporaries, Mary Shelley wrestled with the assault upon the personal ego inherent in the public response to one's formal writing. She wrote -- after 1822 primarily because she had to, to support herself and her son -- and only occasionally did she allow herself to stare back at the potential uselessness of it all: "What folly is it in me to write trash nobody will read -- . . . I am -- But all my many pages -- future waste paper -- surely I am a fool--."36 At more optimistic and self-assured moments she could at least find consolation in the activity of writing, even if it was merely a matter of filling the hours.

That Walton finally redirects his ship toward the south (and symbolically toward warmth and society) at the conclusion of Frankenstein might indicate that he has learned from his experience, were it not that Walton does not choose freely in the matter but rather accedes in the face of a mutiny. I suggest that the practical struggle to be true to oneself and to one's ideals and aspirations -- for the woman writer as for the man Arctic explorer -- inevitably involves compromise and with it the reduction and subjection of one's essential self to a report embedded in words. Literature traditionally introduces us not to authors but to their words, the words by which they represent impressions of their ideas and of the "selves" in which they live their days. Living with the diminished self whose record is the journal of papers that makes up the novel will haunt {87} Walton, even as the Creature haunts the obsessive-compulsive Victor Frankenstein (who is no victor at all but the ultimate cosmic loser). But so too must the writer -- woman or man -- inevitably be haunted by the specter of herself or himself reduced to a cipher, to a construct of words, the work itself becoming a "hideous progeny" that dissolves the author as self, as living, acting entity. Whatever the inherent formal value of the literary product, it nevertheless both mutilates and misrepresents its author. In this sense, among others, it seems to me entirely valid to read in Frankenstein, as in much of Romantic women's writing, the enigmatic warning that creativity may be hazardous to one's health -- indeed to one's entire existence.


1. See Mary Jacobus, Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 28.

2. Ellen Moors, Literary Women: The Great Writers (1963; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985),126.

3. 5 January 1828, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols. (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 2:22.

4. Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982): 2-10; Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York and London: Methuen, 1988).

5. Moers, Literary Women, 163; Virginia Woolf, "Dorothy Osborne's 'Letters,'" in The Second Common Reader, ed. Andrew McNeillie (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 59-70.

6. Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory (New York: St. Martin's, 1985), 161. Mellor writes that "that unique phenomenon envisioned by Mary Wollstonecraft, the wife as the lifelong intellectual equal and companion of her husband, does not exist in the world of nineteenth-century Europe experienced by Mary Shelley" ("Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein," in Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988], 223).

7. Shelley to Frances Wright [Darusmont], 12 September 1827, and to Maria Gisborne, 11 June 1835, Letters 2:4, 246.

8. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt et al., 2nd ed., 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967-93), vol. 1, no. 239.

9. John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, ed. Sue Mansfield (Arlington Heights, Ill.: AHM Publishing, 1980), 15. Mill's essay was written in 1861 and published in 1869.

10. See Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); and Mellor, Mary Shelley, 56.

11. Percy Bysshe Shelley's review may have been intended for Leigh Hunt's Examiner. It did not appear until Thomas Medwin published it in The Atheneum in 1832.

12. See Mellor, Mary Shelley, 22-23, and Emily W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley: {279} Romance and Reality (Boston, Toronto and London: Little, Brown, 1989), 85-86.

13. Stuart Curran, Gaye Tuchman, and Marion Ross have most notably reminded us of women's significant presence in the literary milieu. See Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Gaye Tuchman, with Nina E. Fortin, Edging Women Out: Victorian Novelists, Publishers, and Social Change (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989); Marion Ross, The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). See too Cheryl Turner, Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1992).

14. Quoted in Rupert Christiansen, Romantic Affinities: Portraits from an Age, 1780-1830 (London: Cardinal, 1988), 102.

15. This volume, which is readily available in a facsimile edited by Marilyn Williamson (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981), typifies the woman writer's treatment by the (male) Victorian anthologizer. Parenthetical page citations in this portion of my discussion refer to this facsimile.

16. Mrs. Henry [Mary] Tighe, Psyche, with Other Poems, 5th ed. (London: Longman, 1816), iii-iv.

17. Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), 273.

18. Shelley to John Murray III, 8 September 1830, Letters, 2:115.

19. Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832: An Anthology, ed. Jennifer Breen (London: J. M. Dent, 1992), xix.

20. This is, in fact, the picture often painted of Mary Shelley: "Mary was never a woman of action. Her pursuits were intellectual, her pleasure domestic" (Jane Dunn, Moon in Eclipse: A Life of Mary Shelley [London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978], 278).

21. Stuart Curran, "Romantic Poetry: The 'I' Altered," in Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 189.

22.. As Betty T. Bennett's three volumes of Shelley's letters amply demonstrate, she was an avid letter writer, and the style of those letters is richly interactive, inviting a variety of kinds of response from her correspondents. Even in letters from the years immediately following Percy Bysshe Shelley's death, letters in which postured self-pity mingles with spontaneous expressions of genuine misery, the correspondent is never shut off from communication or from what Shelley clearly structures as an ongoing dialogue.

23. [Mary Tighe], Psyche, or the Legend of Love (London, privately printed, 1805), ii.

24. "Preface," in The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, 3 vols. (London: Jones and Company, 1824), 1:4.

25. Susan J. Wolfson, "Individual in Community: Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William," in Mellor, Romanticism and Feminism, 162.

26. The painful ambivalences about ambition, ability, and gender-related expectations that surface so frequently in what Dorothy Wordsworth's writings tell us about herself, her situation, and the life she led have at last been addressed in a number of sympathetic revisionist studies. See esp. Wolfson, "Individual in {280} Community," Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, and Emily Dickinson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980); and Susan M. Levin, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987).

27. Shelley to Edward J. Trelawny, 1 April 1829, Letters, 2:72.

28. Shelley to John Murray III, 10 February 1835, Letters, 2:223.

29. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1979), 49-50.

30. Sonia Hofkosh, "The Writer's Ravishment: Women and the Romantic Author -- the Example of Byron," in Mellor, Romanticism and Feminism 94.

31. Mellor, "Possessing Nature," 129, and Mary Shelley, 169, 215.

32. Mary Shelley [with James Montgomery], Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, 3 vols. (London: Longman, 1835), 2:351.

33. Shelley, December 1834, The Journals of Mary Shelley: 1814-1844, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 2:543.

34. Annette Kolodny, "Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 162.

35. Shelley to E. J. Trelawny, 27 July 1829, Letters 2:82.

36. Shelley, 30 January 1825, Journals, 2:489.