Contents Index

"An Issue of Monstrous Desire": Frankenstein and Obstetrics

Alan Bewell

Yale Journal of Criticism, 2:1 (Fall 1988), 105-28

The amount of attention Mary Shelley gives to the process of creating human being and to the "duties of a creator towards his creature"1 makes Frankenstein quite unusual. Prior to the twentieth century, writers -- though they seem to have found no end to the ways of describing, both literally and metaphorically, how children are made and brought into the world -- have had very little to say about pregnancy or pregnant women. The nine-month period between conception and birth, when the child is formed in the womb of the mother, has been relatively ignored, especially given that pregnancy was the condition of a major portion of women's lives in those days before birth control.

Ellen Moers was first to argue that Mary Shelley's novel should be read as "a birth myth," expressing its author's painful experience as a young woman pregnant three times between her elopement with Percy Bysshe, in 1814. and the conclusion of the novel three years later. "Nothing so sets her apart from the generality of writers of her own time, and before, and for long afterward," Moers writes "than her early and chaotic experience, at the very time she became an author, with motherhood. Pregnant at sixteen, and almost constantly pregnant throughout the following five years; yet not a secure mother, for she lost most of her babies soon after they were born; and not a lawful mother, for she was not married -- not at least when, at the age of eighteen, Mary Godwin began to write Frankenstein. So are monsters born."2 Treating the novel as a displaced autobiography, Moers reads the birth of the monster as a metaphor, as a distraught young, middle-class woman's anxiety-ridden personal statement about the horrors of failed motherhood.

Perhaps because of the importance of Moers's essay for feminist studies, it has lately been much criticized. From what we know of the importance that Mary Shelley gave to the idea of domestic life, Moers's argument that the novel expresses a "revulsion against newborn life, and the drama of guilt, dread, and flight surrounding birth and its consequences," would seem to be less a description of the author's attitudes toward children, than those of her husband Percy Bysshe.3 Recent feminists, interested less in female experience than in female authorship, have also been critical of Moers's reduction of the text to biology. "To insist," writes Mary Jacobus, "that Frankenstein reflects Mary Shelley's experience of the trauma of parturition and postpartum depression may tell us about {106} women's lives, but it reduces the text itself to a monstrous symptom."4 Critics such as Barbara Johnson continue to interpret the novel as autobiography, but in their flight from biological determinations of femaleness, they tend to translate the "monster-in-the-text" and the "monstrous text" into abstract metaphors, into the figure of woman-as-monster or the "theory of autobiography as monstrosity." Ironically, despite her concern with the absence of mothers in the novel, Johnson seems equally intent on enacting her own form of interpretive violence against mothers, as she seeks to rid Frankenstein of Mary Shelley the silent, and somewhat scandalous, pregnant mother, to replace her with a speaking female author. Johnson's claim that for Mary Shelley to give birth to herself on the page, she needed first to "figuratively repeat the matricide that her physical birth all too literally entailed"5 may also be said to describe her own interpretive practice.

In her survey of recent feminist criticism and theory, Margaret Homans has noted a major problem with Moers's criticism in its tendency to present women's experiences as if they were universal, requiring only representation; consequently, it rarely attends to the ways in which these experiences have been historically and discursively constructed.6 This is certainly the case when Moers reads the creation of the monster -- "So are monsters born" -- as a natural product of Mary Shelley's chaotic youth, her frequent pregnancies, her lack of domestic security, and her unmarried status. Moers unselfconsciously applies her own sexual mores to the creation of the novel in assuming that Mary Shelley shares her beliefs. Johnson's account of the novel, on the other hand, as a "textual dramatization" of "the monstrousness of selfhood,"7 is equally ahistorical and abstract in its claims concerning the nature of male and female autobiography. Both critics rightly recognize the centrality of the question of the genesis of monsters to understanding Frankenstein, but neither makes any attempt to understand what Mary Shelley actually might have thought about these matters. Consequently, they leave unclear, except as analogy, the connection between biology and writing, monstrous texts and monstrous babies, Mary Shelley as pregnant woman and as female author. Mary Poovey and William Veeder do attempt to rethink in historical terms these relationships, and I would like here to develop this line of thinking further to argue that Mary Shelley's experience of pregnancy and loss was not simply a biological matter, but also a social and discursive event, which made her familiar, in ways that critics have not been, with the language of obstetrics and its extensive and long-standing discourse on the causes of monsters and abortions. Moers takes the presence of this language in Frankenstein as a sign that the novel is autobiographical; I would argue in addition that it represents Mary Shelley's deliberate {107} attempt to introduce an ambiguously female-based theory of creation into the Romantic discourse on the imagination. Using sexual reproduction as a model for all modes of creation, she made obstetrics the master-code of her aesthetics and applied its concrete arguments, about the creative power of a mother's psyche upon the fetus and the proper environment for human reproduction, to criticize and to curb the excesses of male Romantic imaginations, particularly her husband's.

The period between 1650 and 1800 saw a massive increase in the publication of books on midwifery. This spate of books is largely attributable to the appearance of man-midwives, who asserted their dominance over traditional midwives, first, by claiming that the profession required extensive medical expertise, and second, through their exclusive right to use surgical instruments, such as hooks, crotchets, extractors, and crutches, in delivery. Leaving this issue aside for the moment, I would note that the books generally follow a fairly standardized pattern. They all stress the importance of a knowledge of anatomy and physiology, so the structure and function of the organs of generation receive a good deal of attention. By the middle of the eighteenth century, artists and engravers such as George Stubbs were commissioned to do high-quality anatomical plates. Most of these books also give advice on the symptoms and diagnosis of pregnancy, the disorders peculiar to pregnant women, and various ways to determine the sex of an unborn child. Delivery methods are frequently dealt with in detail, often with plate illustrations of the different kinds of births that a midwife may confront. Remarks on the lying-in period and on the diseases that women and newborn infants are subject to during this period sometimes appear as well, and earlier books often include advice on choosing a midwife.

For my present purposes, I want to stress that these books tend to be very much concerned with discipline, with establishing rules of conduct for pregnant women who wished to be delivered of healthy and well-formed children. They are explicitly books on the "management" or "government" of pregnant wives. Where normally a woman's behavior was guided by moral, religious, familial, and economic restraints, pregnant women found themselves -- then, as now -- the subject of intensive medical scrutiny and advice. A brief mention of the titles of a few of these books will suffice to indicate their disciplinary character. The seventeenth century midwife Jane Sharp wrote The Midwives Book. Or the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered. Directing Childbearing Women how to behave themselves; In their Conception, Breeding, Bearing, and Nursing of Children. James Guillemeau's is entitled Child-birth; or, The Happy Deliverie of Women. Wherein is set downe the Government of Women. In the Time: Of their Breeding Childe: Of their Travaile, both Naturall, and Contrary to Nature: And {108} Of their Lying in. The book includes two chapters, one entitled, "What dyet and order a woman with child ought to keepe," and another, "How a woman must governe her self the nine moneths she goeth with child." One of the most popular handbooks of the eighteenth century, Aristotle's Compleat Master-Piece, In Three Parts; Displaying the Secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man (1694?), includes a chapter on "How a woman should order herself that desires to conceive, and what she ought to do after conception," and another on "How child bearing women ought to govern themselves during the time of their pregnancy." The London physician John Clarke, who was summoned when Mary Wollstonecraft developed complications at the birth of her daughter, and who also arrived five minutes late for the birth of Mary's first child (in 1815), was famous for Practical Essays on the Management of Pregnancy and Labour, published by the radical bookseller Joseph Johnson.

This antenatal regimen generally revolved around the right use of the classical six "non-naturals": air, meat and drink, exercise and rest, sleeping and waking, fulness and emptiness, and the passions of the mind. Alexander Hamilton, in Outlines of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, in the section entitled "Management during Pregnancy," sets down a typical list of rules of conduct. "The strictest temperance and regularity in diet, sleeping, exercise, and amusement," he argues, "are necessary to be observed by those who have reason to dread abortions." "Overheating, irregular passions, and costiveness" are also to be avoided, as are "the hazards of shocks, from falls in walking or riding, from bruises in crowds, or frights from bustle."8 No extreme cures or actions regarding complaints are to be taken. The dress is to be loose and easy. Women are advised to frequent places where the air is pure and tempered. For this reason, as Hamilton argues in a later book, The Family Female Physician, they "should be strictly prohibited from crowded companies and public places. The impurity of the air, on such occasions, is sufficient, in the irritable state of pregnant women, to induce many very disagreeable complaints." Nevertheless, he stresses the equal importance of their avoiding being alone, because in solitary situations "they are apt to become melancholy; and it is well known that the depressing passions sometimes prove the source of the most dangerous disease which can occur during pregnancy."9 The proper psychological environment for pregnant women, then, is neither public, nor private, but a domestic one, in which, through "cheerful company and variety of objects . . . their minds may be always composed and happy."10 Eighteenth-century obstetric theory did not simply reflect the emerging ideological importance of the idea of domestic family life. It helped to shape it. It was a major element in the {109} "entire medico-sexual regime" that, in Michel Foucault's words, "took hold of the family milieu."11

There remains another aspect of the obstetric management of pregnant wives, which is of major importance to Frankenstein: the striking emphasis placed on the power of a pregnant woman's imagination and desires to mark or deform a developing fetus. The midwifery books constituted an important early discourse on the female imagination, one that accorded it extraordinary powers. Central to this theory was the notion that a woman's imagination functioned mimetically: an image placed before her eyes and strongly impressed on her imagination would be reproduced on the body of the child. "The strong Attention of the Mother's Mind to a Determined Object." James Augustus Blondel comments, in summarizing this tradition, "can cause a Determined Impression upon the Body of the Child: As for Instance . . . her strong Desire of a Peach, or of an Apricock can cause the Colour and shape of a Peach, or of an Apricock upon a Determined part of the Child's Body."12 This idea had a long-standing tradition, and can be traced back to classical medicine, notably to the work of Soranus, Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, and to the works of some of Victor Frankenstein's favorite authors -- Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Pliny. It was also favored by the early Church Fathers, notably Saint Jerome, who saw a precedent in the story of Jacob and the rods:

And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chestnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods.

And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink. that they should conceive when they came to drink.

And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ring-straked, speckled. and spotted.

(Gen 30:37-39)

Ambroise Paré, in his account of the origin of monsters, supplies two other famous examples, in which an image brought before the eyes of a conceiving woman is transferred directly to the fetus:
The Ancients having diligently sought into all the secrets of Nature, have marked and observed other causes of the generation of Monsters: for, understanding the force of imagination to be so powerful in us, as for the most part, it may alter the body of them that imagine, they soon persuaded themselves that the faculty which formeth the Infant may be led and governed by the firm and strong cogitation of the Parents begetting them (often deluded by nocturnal and deceitful apparitions) or by the mother conceiving them; and so that which is strongly conceived in the mind, imprints the force into the Infant conceived in the wombe. . . . We have read in Heliodorus, that Persia {110: illus.}

['Two figures, one of a furry
girl, and the other of a child that was black because of the imagination
of their parents']
{111} Queen of Aethiopia, by her Husband Hidustes, being also an Ethiope, had a daughter of a white complexion, because in the embraces of her husband, by which she proved with child, she earnestly fixed her eye and mind upon the picture of the faire Andromeda standing opposite unto her. Damascene reports, that he saw a Maid hairy like a Bear, which had that deformity by no other cause or occasion than that her Mother earnestly beheld in the very instant of receiving and conceiving the seed, the image of St. John covered with a Camels skin, hanging upon the posts of the bed.13
In both these instances (and in the case of Jacob's sheep), monsters are produced at the moment of conception when a mother's ardent gaze on an image overpowers the form-making power of the seed, which, from Aristotle's De generatione animalium onward, was usually believed to originate in the male. In these texts, sexual possession and conception ("in the embraces of her husband") are linked to mental possession and conception ("she earnestly fixed her eye and mind," "her Mother earnestly beheld") because the sexual act was not viewed simply as a biological event, but one in which volition was linked to pleasure through the womb's active grasping of the seed. As the ambiguous description of St. John "hanging upon the posts of the bed" suggests, monsters are conceived when an image usurps the place of the biological father, if not in the bed, at least in the mind of his wife.14 Traditional obstetric theory may have often allotted women a secondary or subordinate role in biological reproduction, their purpose frequently being that of a tabula rasa for the male seed, the "nutriment" for the developing "form" of the child. But a contrary, more feminist position, also developed, that reasserted the importance of the mother by admitting that the mother's imagination, if not fully satisfied with this arrangement, might intervene in this process, when not carefully regulated, to mar or deface the form provided by the father.

Though there was some controversy concerning whether "the firme and strong cogitation" of both parents, or only the mother, could mark the child at conception, few disagreed that during the subsequent nine months the fetus was particularly vulnerable to the dangerous force of a mother's imagination. Daniel Turner summarizes how this maternal "revision" was understood to take place. "We shall take Notice," he writes, "of some monstrous Births, or other ways deform'd and blemish'd by Marks from the strong Imagination or disappointed Longings of the Mother; which have had not only Power sufficient to pervert and disturb what the Ancients called the Plastick, or formative Faculty, in drawing forth the prima Stamina, or first Lines from the then ductile and pliable Matter, but to stamp its Characters, to dismember and dislocate, and to {112} make large and bloody Wounds upon the Body of the Foetus, conceiv'd long since and formed compleatly."15 An idea of bodily inscription is implied in these discussions: a mother's "strong Imagination" and "disappointed Longings" can "pervert" or "disturb" the proper form of the child, not only by erasing or "draw[ing] forth" the original "first Lines" of the child, "conceiv'd long since and formed compleatly," but also by actually impressing or stamping their own "Characters" on the living fetus. Monsters and monstrous marks thus represent the destructive intervention of female imagination and desire in the transference and reproduction of the human image. These monstrous features constituted the inscribed traces of a conflict, sometimes a life-and-death struggle, between female passion and the form-making powers of the male seed. They could thus be read as a history of a woman's imaginative life during those nine months, of the balance of power worked out between the male and the female, written out in living characters on the body of the child.

Among the many examples given of the power of a pregnant woman's imagination to revise the features of a child, two famous cases, recounted by Nicolas Malebranche in The Search after Truth, deserve mention. The first was of a woman who, "having attended too carefully to the portrait of Saint Pius on the feast of his canonization, gave birth to a child who looked exactly like the representation of the saint." Malebranche goes on to describe him:

He had the face of an old man, as far as is possible for a beardless child; his arms were crossed upon his chest, with his eyes turned toward the heavens; and he had very little forehead, because the image of the saint being raised toward the vault of the church, gazing toward heaven, had almost no forehead. He had a kind of inverted miter on his shoulders, with many round marks in the places where miters are covered with gems. In short, this child strongly resembled the tableau after which its mother had formed it by the power of her imagination. This is something that all Paris has been able to see as well as me, because the body was preserved for a considerable time in alcohol.
Again we see how the mother, by looking too carefully and too long at an image, produces confusion, as her body impresses the image that she sees on the already established features of the fetus. The second case was of a child Malebranche had seen at the hospital for Incurables, "whose body," he said, "was broken in the same places in which those of criminals are broken. He had remained nearly twenty years in this state." The cause of this disastrous accident, Malebranche declared,
was that his mother, having known that a criminal was to be broken, went to see the execution. All the blows given to this miserable creature forcefully struck the imagination of this mother and, by a sort of counterblow, the tender and delicate brain of her child . . . sweeping away the soft and tender parts of the child's bones.16
{113} Here the mother's imagination re-enacts, "by a sort of counterblow," the terrible spectacle enacted before her eyes.

It may appear from the above cases that a woman's imagination is essentially passive in its attempt to reproduce what the mother sees. It should be stressed, however, that the major force behind this active attempt to refashion the features of the fetus is female passion. Women's longings and imaginings were generally considered dangerous, and this was especially true of pregnant women, because it was believed that pregnancy was an abnormal condition that gave rise not only to great bellies, but also to "great Loathings and . . . many different Longings."17 As Jane Sharp noted, a sure sign of conception was that a woman would suddenly develop "a preternatural desire to something not fit to eat nor drink, as some women with child have longed to bite off a piece of their Husbands Buttocks."18 This abnormal intensity and irregularity of imagination was seen as a major threat to the child, for it suggested that "the Marks and Deformities, Children bring into the World" were not only attributable to what a woman might have seen, but also were expressions of her unnatural desires, "the sad Effect of the Mother's irregular Fancy and Imagination." In short, pregnant women can and "do breed Monsters by the Wantonness of their Imagination."19

Concerned about the assumed intensity and abnormality of a pregnant woman's imagination as well as the enormous effect that her unsatisfied desires and inexplicable loathings might have on the child, the authors of midwifery books developed an extensive discourse on the nature and functioning of her imagination, aimed at regulating and normalizing not only what she did, but what she looked at, thought about, and desired while pregnant. In addition to advice about proper physical activities, they also developed a psychic regimen that sought to curb her imagination and desires from excessive or unusual activity. Blondel in his criticism of what he calls "the imaginationists" summarizes what a woman in this condition should avoid:

I. A strong Longing for something in particular, in which Desire the Mother is either gratified, or disappointed. 2. A sudden Surprise. 3. The Sight and Abhorrence of an ugly and frightful Object. 4. The Pleasure of Looking on, and Contemplating, even for a long Time, a Picture, or whatsoever is delightful to the Fancy. 5. Fear, and Consternation, and great Apprehension of Dangers. 6. And lastly, An Excess of Anger, of Grief, or of Joy.20
This is a discipline that focuses on excesses. It matters little whether a desire is gratified or disappointed. And the indulgence in pleasurable sights or in the delights of Fancy can be just as damaging as the experience of horror. All sustained emotional or intellectual activities and any situation that might impress a woman in any way are to be avoided; pregnant {114} women are "to take great care, that their imagination be pure and clear, that their children may be well formed."21 Sheltered, yet limited by these rules of conduct, a woman's spiritual and physical life found its apt culminating expression in her literal "confinement" during the ninth month of pregnancy. Little wonder, then, that pregnant women appear so rarely in early literature, except as a subject of comic or satiric control.

James Guillemeau, in Child-birth; or, The Happy Deliverie of Women, gives a summary of the ideal environment for a pregnant woman:

Now concerning the passions of the minde, a woman with child must be pleasant and merrie, shunning all melancholike and troublesome things that may vexe or molest her mind: for as Aristotle saith, A woman with child must have a setled and quiet mind, which Avicen also counselleth, that those which have conceived, ought to be preserved from all feare, sadnesse, and disquietnes of mind, without speaking or doing any thing that may offend or vexe them; so that discreet women, and such as desire to have children, will not give eare unto lamentable and fearefull tales or storyes, nor cast their eyes upon pictures or persons which are uglie or deformed, least the imagination imprint on the child the similitude of the said person or picture, which doing, women shall be sure to be well and happily delivered, and that (with the help of God) they shall be are their burthen to the full terme, which shall be sent into the world without much paine, promising them a happie and speedie deliverie."22
The midwifery handbooks provide a very powerful argument supporting the institution of marriage and the ideal of a domestic environment in which the woman is secure from "all feare, sadnesse, and disquietnes of mind." Her mind is to be "setled and quiet," and only the most foolhardy of women would give "eare unto lamentable and fearefull tales or storyes."

In most cultures, pregnant women are a marginalized population, dependent on others and frequently set apart from society. It should not surprise us then that they were subject to increased discursive and social control. And then, as now, it would have been hard for them to ignore medical advice, even when it had no experimental basis. It is difficult, then, to think of a more androcentric discourse, one more interested in the control of women's bodies and minds. One way of critically appraising this discourse might be to seek out female authors who were resistant to its dictates or who struggled to articulate a different sense of what it means to be pregnant. This approach, in this instance, is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it was not men alone who promulgated these obstetric ideas, but also women. In fact, one might argue that one significant reason why the discourse on the power of a female imagination largely disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century was that male-midwives, who at that time took control of the field from midwives, {115} made it disappear. Further, to the extent that these ideas have continued beyond the eighteenth century, they have done so, not in the sphere of medicine, but in the stories that mothers pass on to their daughters. Another reason why this should not be seen as a univocal male discourse is a theoretical one: though languages, viewed abstractly, can limit the horizon of what can be said, no language is the exclusive property of any group or gender. Masters may dream of languages that would force servants to agree with them, but no language cannot be bent to a servant's needs. If viewed in concrete historical terms, all languages embody an ongoing struggle for power and meaning among social groups. From this perspective, though there can be little doubt that this obstetric theory was a language aimed at controlling a marginalized group of individuals, the manner in which this discourse talks about pregnant women -- as it allots them enormous powers of imagination and dangerous desires -- manifests a specific historical distribution of power between genders. The subsequent historical disappearance of these pregnant women from literature and medical discourse, rather than suggesting the disappearance of that gender conflict, suggests the emergence of new deployments of power.

When James Augustus Blondel first set out to criticize this theory, he was astonished that when "the sole and absolute Power of Imagination is settled upon the Mother . . . Women, to my great Surprise, are so weak, as to plead guilty to such an Accusation, groundless and contrary to their Interests."23 Blondel's only explanation for why women were willing to accept this "groundless" theory, so opposed to "their Interests," was that they were "weak." If, instead, we view the female willingness to promote this discourse as a trade-off of one form of power for another, one interest for another, we can recognize that despite their social confinement, pregnant women did derive from this discourse a certain form of limited power. First, it reasserted, if only by negative example. the tacit cooperation of the female in reproduction, a creative role that was denied her by Aristotelian embryology. Ironically, the discourse on monsters provided women with a means of asserting their importance in the process of reproduction. Second, the pregnant mother, possessed by a despotic and diseased imagination, yet also possessing and seeking to protect a prospective male heir, could act as both hostage-taker and negotiator, working out suitable arrangements, over the course of her pregnancy, aimed at satisfying the two warring factions within herself. For instance, Win Littlewit, in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, claims that she is suffering "a natural disease of woman, called 'A longing to eat pig'" ( in order to force others to allow her to attend the Fair. Mrs. Pickle, in Smollett's Peregrine Pickle, also uses longing as a strata- {116} gem, first to rid herself of the attentions of Mrs. Grizzle, but later as playful diversion.24 There is also evidence that women, who did not need to be pregnant to be socially confined, were at least partially amenable to a discourse that justified the demands of appetite, that insisted on the satisfaction of desires, and that allowed them to express an imaginative wantonness ("longings" and "loathings"), that would have been difficult to admit in other situations.25 Rabelais's description of how Gargamelle, having carried Gargantua for eleven months, could not refrain from gorging herself on "sixteen quarters, two bushels, and six pecks" of tripe, may speak of the necessity for pregnant women to regulate their "immodest" desires.26 Yet at the same time, we are given one of the most powerful of literary images of the demands and fulfillment of female bodily desire. In Rabelais's carnivalesque world, great bellies, as they emblematize the power of life, fertility and death, assert their own kind of order, even as they threaten conventional modes of control. From this perspective, the rejection of this obstetric theory by the end of the eighteenth century may have been an advance for science, but it also significantly diminished the sexual power of women, already eroded by the medical assertion that there was no link between conception and desire.27 No wonder, then, that even though these ideas lost their medical authority, they remained popular among women throughout the nineteenth century.

Given the complex issues surrounding the employment of obstetric theory at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the simplest way of approaching a discussion of its role in Frankenstein is to analyze first its function in the novel, and then its significance in Mary Shelley's 1831 preface. As a cautionary obstetric tale that recounts how an individual who pays scant heed to either the biological or imaginative conditions of human reproduction gives birth to a monster, Frankenstein draws extensively on this discourse. Many readers have noted that Victor goes to great lengths, in Margaret Homans's words, "to circumvent the normal channels of procreation."28 It should be added, however, that he also ignores the antenatal regimen proffered by midwifery handbooks. Irregular in diet, caring little for sleep as he engages in his "midnight labours . . . with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness" (49), taking in the dank and poisonous airs of graveyards, dissecting-rooms, and slaughter-houses, increasingly avoiding all contact with others because, as he says, "Company was irksome to me" (155), Victor shows by negative example what one should not do if one wants to create a healthy child. "My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement," Victor declares, as he unconsciously identifies himself with a woman in confinement (49). "Every night I was oppressed by a slow {117} fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; my voice became broken. my trembling hands almost refused to accomplish their task; I became as timid as a love-sick girl, and alternate tremor and passionate ardour took the place of wholesome sensation and regulated ambition."29 In the 1831 edition, Victor's nervous condition increases his susceptibility to "shocks" and "frights": "the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellow-creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime."30 Yet, ever a procrastinator, Victor believes that this melancholy will be short-lived: "exercise and amusement would soon drive away such symptoms; and I promised myself both of these, when my creation should be complete" (51). Any person with even a moderate knowledge of contemporary obstetric theory might have told him that by then it would be too late.31

Shelley not only draws on obstetric recommendations regarding diet, sleep, exercise, and pure air, but also focuses explicitly on regulating the imagination in creation. Since monsters and monstrous markings constituted a document of the embryological conflicts caused by a mother's wanton or abnormal passion, Victor's monster can be read as the objectification of his own unregulated and contradictory desires. Victor Frankenstein draws our attention to this question when he attempts to recount the events that led up to the creation of the monster. Interestingly, he links the onset of this passion with the onset of puberty, when, at the age of thirteen, while "confined" to an inn, he discovered a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa:

When I would account to myself for the birth of that passion, which afterwards ruled my destiny, I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys. Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate. [32]
Victor would claim that his imagination was "regulated," that natural philosophy was "the genius," or deity of generation and birth, governing his actions. Yet his description of the "birth" of this passion is of a "swelling" that leads to an abortion, a "torrent" sweeping away his "hopes and joys." Just as in Paré's account of how the image of St. John interposed itself between the conceiving mother and her proper object of desire, Cornelius Agrippa comes to stand between Victor and Elizabeth: "she did not interest herself in the subject, and I was left by her to pursue my studies alone" (34). In his "ardour" to create, a word emphasized repeatedly throughout the novel, Victor shows little concern for a regimen of the imagination. "I had worked hard for nearly two years," he confesses, "for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an {118} ardour that far exceeded moderation" (52). Equally clear is his inability to turn his eyes away from this object of desire. "I was . . . forced," he says, "to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings" (47, my emphasis). He describes how his "eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment," and yet how, with the strange mixture of "loathing" and "eagerness" -- so much a part of the discourse on pregnant women -- he sought to bring his "work near to a conclusion." "I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, but which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination," he declares. Obsessed with this single desire, he even begins to lose "all soul or sensation" in his body. He becomes "insensible to the charms of nature" and forgets "those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time" (50).

Because Western culture has traditionally understood sexual reproduction as a mode of representation -- the transmission of the image of the father to his children -- obstetric theory, in its emphasis on and attempt to limit the powers of women's imaginations, implicitly constituted a theory of representation, dealing with the conception and production, the expression and revision, of living (rather than sculptural or literary) forms. Frankenstein distinctively appropriates and extends this discourse on bodily creation to all aspects of human knowledge, and especially to literary creation. Where Wordsworth speaks of the imagination as passing through an educative discipline that socializes it and leads it to see itself in the calm and enduring forms of external nature, Mary Shelley achieves a similar goal by applying the laws of biological creation to human thought, claiming (through Victor) that "a human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind" (51). The link between literary activity and sexual reproduction among the male characters is quite clear. Frankenstein is ostensibly the published manuscript, "the tale which I have recorded" (216), of the failed poet cum explorer Robert Walton. Because this narrative is composed over a nine-month period, between December 11, the date of his first letter to his sister Margaret Saville, and September 12th of the following year, it can thus be seen as the monstrous product of his own isolation, of his inability to find what he claims he greatly needs at the very beginning of his journey -- a friend with "affection enough for {119} me to endeavour to regulate my mind" (14). Victor also knows quite well that he is not only the creator of a monster, but also the author of "the strangest tale that ever imagination formed" (207). Through the monster, we learn that he recorded in detail the events leading up to the creation of the monster. "You minutely described in these papers every step you took in the progress of your work," comments the monster (126). Further, when Victor discovers that Robert Walton is making notes concerning this history, "he asked to see them, and then himself corrected and augmented them in many places; but principally in giving the life and spirit to the conversations he held with his enemy." For readers who may have missed the analogy between Victor's endeavor to reanimate these dead conversations (that is, Robert Walton's already aborted record of them) and his earlier efforts at "bestowing animation upon lifeless matter" (47), Mary Shelley adds the following comment. "'Since you have preserved my narration,' said he, 'I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity"' (207).

Mary Shelley's decision to write a novel in which creation takes the form of a birth myth should not be seen, then, as simply a form of personal therapy, a way of representing, as Moers first argued, maternal horror; nor is it simply an autobiographical depiction of the abstract notion of the self as monster. By drawing out the analogy between bodily and artistic reproduction, Shelley also found a way to argue for the importance of a domestic environment and a discipline of imagination in the creation of art. Agreeing with her mother that it was not women, but men who suffered most from excessive imaginations, from moral weakness, and from "appetites . . . more depraved by unbridled indulgence and the fastidious contrivances of satiety," Mary Shelley turns the discourse on the management of pregnant women back upon men, to argue that it is they who must learn to regulate their bodies and idealizing fantasies.32 As William Veeder has suggested, Mary Shelley shares with nineteenth-century "domestic" feminists the ideal of extending "feminine virtues," such as modesty, to men, in order to "curb masculine excesses."33 By making Victor "pregnant" with an idea, she is able to apply this complex discourse on the biological creation of monsters, one that had focused on female creation, to Romantic aesthetics. She was thus able to counter the prevailing idea of the poet, set forth by her husband in Alastor, as an asolated genius whose fixation on the ideal necessarily leads him into conflict with nature and society. By abrogating the laws of nature and reproduction, Victor destroys nature and himself.

I have so far restricted my comments to the manner in which Mary Shelley applied obstetric discourse to others, to the physical and psychic management of male Romantic conceptions. This still leaves the question {120} of her own attitude toward this discourse unclear. To the extent that we read Frankenstein as an autobiography, we might see it as the expression of a contradictory sense of guilt on her own part and a reproach against her husband for his outright disregard of the emotional and physical needs of a pregnant woman. It is well known that the novel is closely bound up with Mary Shelley's intense anguish at the death of her first child, an unnamed daughter, born prematurely, who died shortly thereafter. It should be added, however, that it would have been difficult for any woman, having faced this painful loss, not to have also wondered whether her inability to carry this child for its full term was not caused by the physical, emotional, and financial strains that she had suffered from the moment she first eloped with Shelley. The death of this child, combined with the events surrounding the death of Clara in 1818, not only suggest that her husband gave little thought to the needs of pregnant women and children, but also make it clear that Mary's insistence on the importance of a domestic environment for the delivery of healthy children was not for her a set of abstract principles, but was deeply rooted in personal experience.

In the preface of 1831, a more complex idea of the relationship between Mary Shelley's aesthetics and obstetric theory emerges. Though ostensibly written to provide biographical facts concerning the creation of Frankenstein, the preface is actually largely a fiction, explicitly addressing the question of literary authority. From the moment that Shelley, punning on the word "dilate," announces that she will answer the frequently asked question, "How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?," we are given notice that the preface will equate, as Marc Rubenstein has observed, conceiving or "thinking of a story . . . with producing a baby."34 Obstetric theory reappears as the language with which she explains, often using double-entendres, the birth of this monstrous text. Having recounted the events surrounding the ghost-story contest (and we should remember that pregnant women, as James Guillemeau observed, were not to "give eare unto lamentable and fearefull tales or storyes"), she inserts what may, in fact, be her own fictional version of Polidori's tale:

Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole -- what to see I forget -- something very shocking and wrong of course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned Tom of Coventry, he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted. [225]
In this story, it is the woman, rather than the child, who is turned into {121} a monster by what she sees -- "something very shocking and wrong of course." Nevertheless, it shares with obstetric tales the emphasis on the need for a moral regimen, the pernicious effect of shocking sights, and the dangerous powers, which can only be alluded to obliquely, of sexual activity and desire.35

The reproductive metaphors structuring Mary Shelley's account of how she conceived the idea of Frankenstein are but thinly veiled. She describes how, like Victor, she initially set out to create the story single-handedly. But she confronted a "blank incapability of invention," and when asked each morning, "Have you thought of a story?," was forced "to reply with a mortifying negative" (226). At this point, drawing explicitly on embryological metaphors, she addresses the question of aesthetic invention:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void. but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it. [226]
In a very suggestive interpretation of the preface, with which I plan to disagree, Marc Rubenstein has argued that Mary Shelley accepts the traditional Classical notion that the female is passive in procreation and that this passage (along with others in the preface) shows the "great pains" that she took, in her aversion to bringing herself forward in print, "to disclaim any role for her own imagination" in the creation of Frankenstein. He goes on to argue that in the next paragraph, when she tells how she a "nearly silent listener," overheard Shelley and Byron discussing Erasmus Darwin's experiments in bestowing life on a piece of vermicelli, "she is trying to draw for us a picture of her imagination as a passive womb, inseminated by those titans of romantic poetry, Byron and Shelley."36 As further support, Rubenstein has insight fully noted that in Zoonomia Darwin had also taken up a radically male-oriented obstetric position by arguing "that the world has long been mistaken in ascribing great power to the imagination of the female, whereas . . . the real power of imagination, in the act of generation, belongs solely to the male." "Monstrous births" are to be attributed solely to "the imagination of the male parent."37 Drawing on an essentially false analogy between reproduction in humans and in plant and birds, Darwin argues that since "the eggs in pullets, like the seeds in vegetables, are produced gradually, long before they are impregnated, it does not appear how any sudden effect of imag- {122} ination of the mother at the time of impregnation can produce any considerable change in the nutriment already thus laid up for the expected or desired embryon. And that hence any changes of the embryon, except those uniform ones in the production of mules and mulattoes, more probably depend on the imagination of the male parent." Like his predecessors, Darwin was able to supply medical cases to support his position. One such example involved a man who had a child with dark hair and dark eyes, despite the fact that he and his wife were of light complexion:
On observing this dissimilarity of one child to the others he assured me, that he believed it was his own imagination, that produced the difference; and related to me the following story. He said, that when his lady lay in of her third child, he became attached to a daughter of one of his inferior tenants, and offered her a bribe for her favours in vain; and afterwards a greater bribe, and was equally unsuccessful; that the form of this girl dwelt much in his mind for some weeks, and that the next child, which was the dark-ey'd young lady above mentioned, was exceedingly like, in both features and colour, to the young woman who refused his addresses.
Darwin thus felt confident that the form, and even the sex, of a child was determined by "the imagination of the male at the time of copulation, or at the time of the secretion of the semen . . . as the motions of the chissel of the turner imitate or correspond with those of the ideas of the artist. Males could be said to be the product of men who were thinking primarily about themselves and their own organs during sexual intercourse, while females were a likely result of men who were thinking about a female form, and her organs, during the sexual act. Darwin consequently concluded that callipaedia, the art of begetting beautiful children and of procreating either males or females could, indeed, be taught, though the subject could not "be unfolded with sufficient delicacy for the public eye." He nevertheless does hint that "the phalli, which were hung round the necks of the Roman ladies, or worn in their hair, might have effect in producing a greater proportion of male children."38

Darwin's theory of generation led a somewhat eccentric and short-lived life in medical history. It was nevertheless the kind of theory that would have interested Shelley and Byron, as it foregrounded the powers of the male imagination. Thus, it may also have been a topic of discussion at the Villa Diodati. If such was the case, then we can recognize the extent to which Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein and the preface, despite her assumption of the mask of a Proper Lady, actually resists this male usurpation of the powers of imagination traditionally reserved for women. If we return to the previously cited passage concerning Columbus's egg, it is clear that even as she evokes the Aristotelian idea of the male (Columbus) fashioning the "dark, shapeless substances" of the female (egg), the {123} point of the passage is to reverse this relationship. Rather than presenting the female as passive, it insists that even if the male may provide the "incitement" (229) to create, the female does the inventing, because "invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it" (226). It is also hard to miss the slightly risqué satire operating in her description of the two men talking about Darwin's having "preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion." Since vermicelli is the diminutive form of verme, or "worm," a word whose phallic meaning was conventional, it is not difficult to see in Mary Shelley's comment, "Not thus, after all, would life be given" (227), an outright rejection of Darwin's theory of generation as much as of his theory of life.39

Rubenstein rightly argues that Mary Shelley's account of how she overheard the two poets talking about creation is an account of verbal insemination. But when she describes the conception of the monster, she reasserts the power of the female imagination to create monsters:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw -- with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, -- 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. [227-28]
Here, as Mary Shelley, "possessed and guided" by her imagination, engenders, at the "witching hour," her own "hideous phantasm," which comes between her and her husband (who ostensibly sleeps beside her), there is no suggestion of passivity in the female imagination. Even the sexual metaphors tend to reassert the generative powers of the female, for what distinguishes the vermicelli that began "to move with voluntary motion" from the "powerful engine" that engenders on "a man stretched out . . . an uneasy, half vital motion" is the intervention of a woman's imagination.

Margaret Homans, in her recent study of nineteenth-century literature, has suggestively argued that women during the nineteenth century were viewed as the bearers of words as well as of children. Frankenstein suggests that the very question of whether women could be the true authors of these letters or could, through the power of their imaginations, revise and deface the words and children that they bore, was an issue fought {124} out not only in the aesthetic sphere, but also in the theories of biological generation that it employs. Frankenstein provides a paradigm of the manner in which a female author could invert a disciplinary discourse to assert her own power and authority while also limiting the power and authority of others. In this sense, her willingness to "bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper," constitutes, by its admission that the novel is her monster alone (which "did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband" [229]) an assertion of her own imaginative authority, one that strangely was forced to proceed through the figure of a monstrous text. Yet it should equally be said that this criticism also implicitly extends to Mary Shelley herself, and indicates a conflict between her imaginative needs and her conception of her duty as a mother.

Since Mary Shelley, to assert this contradictory power, needed to appropriate an obsolescent medical discourse, we should also recognize that the novel stands in a somewhat ambivalent relationship to the obstetric theory of her time, which had become, by the 1820s, almost exclusively a male science. This ambivalence is part of the novel's criticism of the scientific and medical takeover of the sphere of human reproduction, the increasing control that obstetrics had taken over the workshop of creation through its claim, phrased in a typically masculine manner, that it could "penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places" (42). To place Mary Shelley's critique of obstetric theory in context, we should recognize that she was not the first woman to be critical of the rising power of this new science: for almost two centuries, women, for more reasons than simply modesty, had expressed concern about the views and practices of man-midwives. Tristram Shandy captures this controversy at its most strident phase, during the third quarter of the eighteenth century.40 Certainly the most influential female voice was that of the midwife Elizabeth Nihell, whose Treatise on the Art of Midwifery (1760) constitutes a concerted polemic, generally against the male "usurpation" of the field, through scientific knowledge and instruments, and particularly against William Smellie. In this work of extraordinary rhetorical power, one of her best-known images has striking affinities with the story of Frankenstein:

As to the reproach which Mr. Smellie makes to us of being interested, I can, for myself, prove that I have delivered gratuitously, and in pure charity, above nine hundred women. I doubt much, whether our critic can say as much, unless he reckons it for a charity, that which he exercised on his automaton or machine, which served him for a model of instruction to his pupils. This was a wooden statue, representing a woman with child, whose belly was of leather, in which a bladder full, perhaps, of small beer, represented the uterus. {125} This bladder was stopped with a cork, to which was fastened a string of pack thread to tap it, occasionally, and demonstrate in a palpable manner the flowing of the red-colored waters. In short, in the middle of the bladder was a wax-doll, to which were given various positions.

By this admirably ingenious piece of machinery, were formed and started up an innumerable and formidable swarm of men-midwives, spread over the town and country. . . . Does it become a doctor to call us interested who himself, for three guineas in nine less ons, made you a man-midwife, or a female one, by means of this most curious machine, this mock-woman?41

In this image of William Smellie "exercis[ing] on his automaton," his mock-woman," with its leather belly, its bladder-uterus filled with beer, yet stopped with a cork, there is much that anticipates (and ironically undercuts) nineteenth-century male fantasies about the scientific elimination of the biological need for women.42 Much too that suggests the ambiguous sexual and maternal bonding between Victor and his monster. The parallel is even more emphatic when one recalls the female monster that Victor decides to destroy, in fear that "a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror" (163). Yet what makes Mary Shelley's story of monstrous creation different from Nihell's is that Mary Shelley could not take up Nihell's cause without also recognizing that modern science had made this discourse, with its continuing assertion of the power of female imagination, obsolescent. "You have burdened your memory with exploded systems, and useless names. . . . These fancies, which you have so greedily imbibed, are a thousand years old, and as musty as they are ancient," declares squat Mr. Kempe, as he criticizes Victor's interest in occult science and gives him a bibliography of new books to read. In Frankenstein, if we listen carefully, we can hear the names and voices of this superseded female tradition, which Mary Shelley, like Victor, drew upon in order to assert her own ambiguous power as an author.


1. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, edited by James Rieger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 97. All future citations to this edition will be incorporated in the text.

2. Ellen Moers, 'Female Gothic," in Literary Women (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), 92.

3. Moers, "Female Gothic," 81.

4. Mary Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in This Text?," New Literary History 14 (1982): 138.

5. Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982): 10, 4.

6. Margaret Homans, "Feminist Criticism and Theory. The Ghost of Creusa," Yale Journal of Criticism I (1987): 167.

7. Johnson, "My Monster/My Self," 3.

8. Alexander Hamilton, Outlines of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, new ed. (Edinburgh: Charles Elliot, 1787), 188.

9. Alexander Hamilton, The Family Female Physician: or, a Treatise on the Management of Complaints, and of Children in Early Infancy (Worcester, Mass.: Isaiah Thomas, 1793), 161-62.

10. Hamilton, Theory and Practice of Midwifery, 189.

11. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 42.

12. James Augustus Blondel, The Strength of Imagination in Pregnant Women Examin'd: And the Opinion that Marks and Deformations in Children Arise from Thence, Demonstrated to be a Vulgar Error (London: J. Peele, 1727), 1O-11.

13. Ambroise Pareacute;, Of the Generation of Man, in The Works of that Famous Chirugeon Ambrose Parey, translated by Thomas Johnson (London: Mary Clark, 1678), 596.

14. The implicit rivalry between the father and these surrogate images is indicated in the story, attributed to Saint Jerome, of how Hippocrates saved a noblewoman from being punished as an adulteress, for giving birth to a child of dark complexion when she and her husband were both white. It is said that he had observed a picture hanging in the woman's chamber, "exactly resembling the Infant, and which he found she had been often very intently viewing" (Daniel Turner, De Morbis Cutaneis. A Treatise of Diseases Incident to the Skin. In Two Parts [London: R. Bonwicke, J. Walthoe, R. Wilkin, T. Ward, and S. Tooke, 1723], 169).

15. Turner, De Morbis Cutaneis, 169.

16. Nicolas Malebranche, The Search after Truth, translated by Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, 1980), 115-16.

17. Aristotle [pseud.], Aristotle's Compleat and Experienc'd Midwife: In Two Parts, 7th ed. (London, 1740?), 28.

18. Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book. Or the Whole art of Midwifry Discovered. Directing Child-bearing Women how to behave themselves; In their Conception, Breeding, Bearing, and Nursing of Children (1671; rpt. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985), 103.

19. Blondel, The Strength of Imagination in Pregnant Women Examin'd, i; Blondel, The Power of the Mother's Imagination over the Foetus Examin'd (London: John Brotherton, 1729), xi.

20. Blondel, The Power of the Mother's Imagination over the Foetus Examin'd, 2.

21. Aristotle [pseud.], Aristotle's Compleat Master-Piece, In Three Parts; Displaying the Secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man, 13th ed. (London: Zechariah Felding, 1766), 40.

22. James Guillemeau, Child-birth; or, The Happy Deliverie of Women. Wherein is set downe the Government of Women. In the Time: Of their Breeding Childe: Of their Travaile, both Naturall, and Contrary to Nature: And Of their Lying in (London: A. Hatfield, 1612), 26.

23. Blondel, The Power of the Mother's Imagination over the Foetus Examin'd, 8.

24. Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, edited by Eugene M. Waith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963). For an excellent discussion of obstetric theories of the imagination and eighteenth-century literature, see G. S. Rousseau, "Pineapples, Pregnancy, and Peregrine Pickle," in Tobias Smollett: Bicentennial Essays Presented to Lewis M. Knapp, edited by G.S. Rousseau and P.-G. Boucé (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 79-1O9.

25. For a perceptive study of what eighteenth-century women thought about their sexuality and the ways in which they sought to deny, repress, or control their passion, see Patricia Meyer Spacks, "Ev'ry Woman is at Heart a Rake," Eighteenth Century Studies 8 (1974): 27-46. In pointing out that "imagination is -- or is understood by these woman writers to be -- actually the source of sexual feeling," Spacks cites Mrs. Thrale's comments on the relationship between obsession and sexual passion: "'Tis this Avarice of mental Enjoyment, this Hoarded Folly; which now & then so blazes out of a sudden under the Name of Love; & I think the Reason of that Furor being more violent among the Female Sex is chiefly because being less tolerated to declare their Passion, it preys upon the Mind till it burst all Reserve, & makes itself amends for their long Concealment" (38). Obstetric discourse, in its admission of the violence of female imagination and in its fear of the effect that the repression of desire might have on the child, explicitly addressed concerns that were otherwise generally left unspoken.

26. Francois Rabelais, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1955; rpt. Great Britain: Penguin, 1983), 48.

27. Thomas Laqueur, "Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology," Representations 14 (1986): 1-41.

28. Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 103.

29. Shelley, Frankenstein, 51; the citation includes autograph variants from the Thomas copy of 1823.

30. Shelley, Frankenstein, 242. In a more extensive study of the medical discourse on sexuality informing Frankenstein, it would be valuable to explore, as William Veeder has insightfully suggested, the ways in which contemporary descriptions of the physiological effects of masturbation provide an additional explanation for Victor's increasing nervousness and possible insanity. The major works in this area are the frequently reprinted anonymous book Onania; or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in Both Sexes, Considered (1707-8) and S.A. Tissot's Onanism (London, 1766). For secondary literature on this subject, see E.H. Hare, "Masturbatory Insanity: The History of an Idea," Journal of the History of Medical Science 108 (1962): 1-25; R.H. MacDonald, "The Frightful Consequences of Onanism," Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (1967): 423-31; and G.S. Rousseau, "Nymphomania, Bienville and the Rise of Erotic Sensibility," in Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain, edited by Paul-Gabriel Boucé (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1982), 95-119.

31. It is worth noting that during the eighteenth century accounts of monstrous births began to appear with greater frequency in the proceedings of the Royal Academy. The subject matter of this genre of medical discourse, which G.S. Rousseau has discussed in illuminating detail (93-94), can be gleaned from a listing of the titles of some of these cases: "A Foetus of Thirteen Years"; "Fatal Accident: Woman Carry'd a Child Sixteen Years; "Account of a Monstrous Boy"; "Account of a monstrous child born of a woman under sentence of transportation"; "An account of a monstrous foetus resembling an hooded monkey"; "Case of a child turned upside down"; "A remarkable conformation, or lusus naturae in a child"; "Part of a letter concerning a child of monstrous size"; "Account of a Child's being taken out of the abdomen after having lain there upwards of 16 years"; "A Letter concerning a child born with an extraordinary tumor near the anus, containing some rudiments of an embryo in it"; "An account of a praeternatural conjunction of two female children"; "Part of a letter concerning a child born with the jaundice upon it, received from its father's imagination, and of the mother taking the same distemper from her husband the next time of being with child"; or "An Account of a double child born at Hebus, near Middletown in Lancashire." It is clear that when Victor Frankenstein decided so give a scientific account of his own "monstrous birth," a child that took two years to create, he was not writing in a vacuum, but was contributing to an already well-established genre of scientific inquiry.

32. Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, edited by Miriam Brody (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1975), 247.

33. William Veeder, Mary Shelley and "Frankenstein". The Fate of Androgyny (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 31. This argument was originally made by Mary Poovey, who suggests that the development of Mary Shelley's career reveals "the way that a certain kind of literary self-expression could accommodate a woman's unorthodox desires to the paradigm of the Proper Lady" ( The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], 116).

34. Marc Rubenstein, "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism 15 (1976): 179.

35. One of the more popular of obstetric cases, drawn from Fienus' de viribus Imaginationis, was that of the sister of Philip Meurs, Apostolical Pronotar and Canon of St. Peter's in Louvain, whose sister was in every way normal, except that she was without a head, "instead of which was joyned to her Neck the Likeness of a Shell Fish, having two Valves which shut and open'd; and by which, from a Spoon, she took her Nourishment" (Daniel Turner, De Morbis Cutaneis, 175). It seems that the mother had a strong desire for mussels, which she was unable to procure at that instant. This girl lived to the age of eleven, when in a fit of anger, she angrily bit down upon the spoon that fed her, which broke these valves, and she died shortly thereafter.

36. Rubenstein, "My Accursed Origin," 178-81. Mary Poovey also argues that in the preface and in her 1831 revisions to the novel, Mary Shelley rejects the imagination in favor of notions of female passivity and propriety.

37. Erasmus Darwin, Zoönomia; or, the Laws of Organic Life, 2 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1794-96), I:520, I:516.

38. Zoönomia, I:515-24.

39. U. C. Knoepflmacher sees "a faint note of resentment" in Mary Shelley's recital of "the two 'illustrious poets' who, 'annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinguished their uncongenial task.' The seed they have so carelessly implanted in Mary (and 'poor Polidori') becomes a burden that is hers alone. It is she who has to give birth to a "hideous progeny," because she can better understand the pains of abandonment. Like the Monster, the author has been deserted" ("Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, edited by George Levine and U. C. Knoeflmacher [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979], 100).

40. For a useful overview of the debate between Elizabeth Nihell and William Smellie, see I.H. Flack (pseud. Harvey Graham), Eternal Eve; the History of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951), 269-305. For the obstetric context of Tristram Shandy, see Arthur H. Cash, "The Birth of Tristram Shandy: Sterne and Dr. Burton," in Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain, edited by Paul-Gabriel Boucé, 198-224.

41. Elizabeth Nihell, A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery, Setting Forth various Abuses therein, especially as to the Practice with Instruments: the Whole Serving to put all Rational Inquirers in a fair Way of very safely forming their own Judgment upon the Question; Which is it best to employ, in Cases of Pregnancy and Lying-in, a Man-Midwife or, a Midwife (London: A. Morley, 1760), 50-52.

42. Mary Jacobus, in her exploration of the role of mimetic desire and rivalry in theoretical discourse, in "Is There a Woman in This Text?," examines in greater detail scientists' efforts to eliminate women from their creation myths.

My thanks to Margaret Homans, Patricia Meyer Spacks, and William Veeder for their valuable criticism of this paper.