Contents Index

Bringing the Author Forward: Frankenstein Through Mary Shelley's Letters

James P. Carson

Criticism, 30:4 (Fall 1988), 431-53

In 1829 Mary Shelley described her own character at length in order to justify to Trelawny her refusal of his request for anecdotes of the life of Percy Shelley:
You know me -- or you do not, in which case I will tell you what I am -- a silly goose -- who far from wishing to stand forward to assert myself in any way, now than [sic] I am alone in the world, have but the desire to wrap night and the obscurity of insignificance around me. This is weakness -- but I cannot help it -- to be in print -- the subject of men's observations -- of the bitter hard world's commentaries, to be attacked or defended! -- this ill becomes one who knows how little she possesses worthy to attract attention -- and whose chief merit -- if it be one -- is a love of that privacy which no woman can emerge from without regret -- Shelley's life must be written -- I hope one day to do it myself, but it must not be published now--1
Trelawny refused to believe this "mawkish cant" from his correspondent, finding it "as different from her real character and sentiments as Hell is from Helicon."2 What I find most interesting in this fear of publicity is not whether Shelley is telling the truth or whether she strategically evokes a conventional ideal of femininity in order to justify a refusal that seems inconsistent with friendship and professional generosity. Rather, I am struck by the hope which Mary Shelley expresses in the final sentence, a hope to write Percy Shelley's life herself, a hope which reflects a belief in her own authorial talents that is wholly consistent with her fear of appearing before the public in writing.

A similar tension between the self-effacement of the lady or the scholar and the hopes and desires of the woman or the author appears in the letters that Mary Shelley wrote when she came to use knowledge and the documents she had denied to Trelawny ten years earlier. While preparing her editions of her husband's poems {432} and essays in 1838-1839, Shelley explored the interplay between an assertion of the editorial I and the potential "mutilation" of the author's works. She was slow to determine, and anxious to seek advice, on the editorial excisions that would provide ammunition for the biographers and critics -- "the bitter hard world" of posterity -- who have regretted the decline of the author of Frankenstein into conventionality. Trelawny, a major early exponent of this view, insists that Mary Shelley drew whatever literary power she had by submitting to, not struggling with, her husband's influence: "Her capacity can be judged by the novels she wrote after Shelley's death, more than ordinarily commonplace and conventional. Whilst overshadowed by Shelley's greatness her faculties expanded; but when she had lost him they shrank into their natural littleness."3 Without denying a productive tension between husband and wife, I believe that Mary Shelley's authorial response to Percy Shelley was neither precisely one of expanding beneath a protective shadow nor of an egotistical struggle to bring the self into the light. I would suggest that traces of a tendency to denigrate Mary Shelley for her conventionality linger even in some of the best and most sophisticated recent criticism of her works: hence Sandra Gilbert views Shelley as an "acquiescent" stage on the road to Emily Brontë's "radically corrective 'misreading' of Milton,"4 while Mary Poovey finds that Shelley, once she accepts the doctrine of the proper lady, retreats from both her mother's feminism and her husband's ideal of originality, though traces of unorthodox desire and aggression remain even in her late novels.5 What I propose to question in this essay is the belief Poovey attributes to Mary Shelley that there is a necessary conflict "between the self-denial demanded by domestic activity and the self-assertiveness essential to artistic creation" (p. 138). Precisely by putting into question both "creation" and the self, Shelley denies that the artist need engage in self-assertion.

I shall argue against the view that Shelley is conventional or conservative, by showing how she questions the priority and authenticity of the authorial and female self in the context of a profound awareness of woman's position under patriarchy. . . This interrogation appears in Mary Shelley's resistance to biography; in her relations of influence with other authors, especially her father, mother, and husband; and in her emphasis on the shifting tensions between duty and desire, male and female, within the supposed unity of the first person. Both her relations with other authors and her refusal of self-assertion suggest that Harold Bloom's model of literary influence may {433} be inapplicable to a woman Romantic writer. I intend to proceed in this essay by initially situating the problem of self-assertion in Mary Shelley's letters on the editing of her husband's poems and essays, and then proceeding to an examination of Frankenstein, especially the Introduction of 1831, in the light of Mary Shelley's views on the relation of the female self to the patriarchal authority of father and husband, as these views appear both in her letters and other early novels.

The criticism of Mary Shelley's orthodoxy has been based as much on her editorial work as on her later novels. Yet before she omitted the Dedication to Harriet Shelley and the notes to Queen Mab, as well as the "Essay on the Devil and Devils," Mary Shelley betrayed in a number of letters a considerable struggle as she wavered between self-assertion and self-denial as the guardian of Percy Shelley's works and will. In one of these letters, she underlines the word I precisely in order to deny that personal feelings enter into her editorial decisions: "Except that I do not like the idea of a mutilated edition, I have no scruple of conscience in leaving out the expressions which Shelley would never have printed in after <life Life> I have a great love for Queen Mab. . ." (2:305, 14 Dec. 1838). Similarly, she emphasizes the pronoun me in explaining that it was Percy Shelley's intention to exclude the Dedication to Harriet Shelley: "when Clarke's edition appeared, Shelley rejoiced that it was omitted -- & expressed great satisfaction thereon. It could be nothing to me but matter of pleasure to publish it" (2:309, 11 Feb. 1839). The omission of the Dedication is based on Mary Shelley's knowledge of the author's sentiments, which permits her to speak for her husband after his death.

But when she speaks, it is more as a professional writer than a romantic rebel. Her desire that Percy Shelley's works obtain the popularity they deserve may conflict with her duty: "Remember I do not enter into the question at all. It is my duty to publish every thing of Shelley -- but I want these two volumes to be popular--" (2:326, 6 Oct. 1839). Mary Shelley underlines the pronouns I and my in order to emphasize paradoxically her own self-effacement, but her desire slips in, as if unperceived, in the final unstressed "I want." Her desire for Percy Shelley's popularity justifies an editorial decision that she herself repeatedly characterizes as "mutilation": "I don't like Atheism -- nor does he now. Yet I hate mutilation. . ." (2:304, 12 Dec. 1838). But my reading will not show that radicalism or subversion lie firmly in the realm of desire and adamantly opposed to what Mary Shelley conceives of as duty. For the I which is the subject of desire expresses {434} a wish for what is in some sense socially conventional, whereas the self which is dutifully effaced would permit the printing of atheistical expressions.

Mary Shelley's editorial desire for her husband's popularity prolongs a dispute carried on between husband and wife during Percy Shelley's life. Her stressed and unstressed personal pronouns help to gloss the passive construction that concludes her laudatory note on The Cenci: "often after he was earnestly entreated to write again in a style that commanded popular favour, while it was not less instinct with truth and genius."6 The unexpressed agent here -- she who entreated Percy Shelley to depict human passions instead of the "fantastic creations of his fancy" ("Note on the Cenci," 2:366) -- is evidently the same person who "want[s] these two volumes to be popular." Mary Shelley denies the elitist Romantic contention that truth and genius are inalterably opposed to popularity. The popular success of Frankenstein provides evidence for her position, and, indeed, her novel criticizes elitist claims to the truth, while drawing upon the sympathetic response of a broad audience. The kind of popularity that Mary Shelley seeks for her husband should not be confused with bourgeois conventionality, for her critique of individualism and the autonomous creative self is, at the very least, in tension with bourgeois ideology. Indeed, the problem of the self is forcefully revealed in the unusual kind of desire we are examining -- "I want these two volumes to be popular" -- the desire to bring another author forward. Yet that other is not wholly other, since Mary Shelley has herself worked on the two volumes of her husband's prose works, negotiating as any editor or critic must, between a real respect for the author's will, as she interprets it, and the demands of publisher and audience.

A certain post-Freudian perspective, the object of Foucault's critique in The History of Sexuality,7 has prompted many social and literary critics to associate desire with subversion and the liberation of desire with political freedom; whereas, for liberal reformers in the school of Godwin, self-denying duty and not self-expressive desire tended to be viewed as the mechanism of social change. It may be that, because Mary Shelley's particular kind of radical liberalism came to differ from that of her husband and mother, she has been misunderstood as merely conventional. The work of E. P. Thompson will help us to explain such misunderstandings: Thompson has argued that many reformers of Mary Shelley's generation adopted "a general moral primness," in part because the attacks on them auto- {435} matically associated radicalism with sexual licence.8 The duty of self-effacement, which Mary Shelley indicates through her pronominal play, might recall a sentence from the most notorious passage of her father's most important work. When considering, in the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), a case of conscience in which only one of Fénelon or his chambermaid, who might have "been my wife, my mother," can be saved from a fire, Godwin asks, "What magic is there in the pronoun 'my,' that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?"9 For Godwin, as for his daughter, duty requires the elimination of personal considerations, and once again for him the avoidance of the personal is signalled by an emphasis on personal pronouns.

In editing her husband's works, Mary Shelley is only returning the assistance that Percy offered her prior to the publication of Frankenstein. If mutilation is the female editorial mode, then the male mode may be called ventriloquism. Female editorial work brings recriminations (perhaps deriving from the dread of castration),10 whereas male editorial work elicits praise. As we shall see, there is evidence of such mutilation in Mary Shelley's novels, when the blinding of fathers permits daughters, monstrous sons, and their doctrine of sympathy to be heard. My quarrel is less with the explanatory power of the male fear of mutilation, at least once it has been situated in a social context, than it is with a tradition of literary history which has commended, and overestimated the power of, male ventriloquism. The project of Frankenstein, in which the female author assumes the voices of three male figures (two men and a monster), may be seen as an extended commentary on the problem of the male expropriation of the voice of the conventionally passive female.11 Yet even such a strategy may not serve to create an authorial space free from the authority of the great Romantic poet. Percy Shelley's marginal annotations in the surviving fragments of the manuscript seem to have had the force of law, since virtually all his suggestions were adopted by his wife. These additions by Percy Shelley, as well as his corrections of grammar, spelling, and style in both manuscript and proofs, prompt the modern editor of the 1818 Frankenstein, James Rieger, to accord him "a measure of 'final authority'" for the text.12

In recent years critics have paid increasing attention to the problem of female authority for Mary Shelley. Ellen Moers, who interprets Frankenstein as a birth myth with sources in the author's life, exposes the prejudices on which previous studies of the sources of Shelley's first novel have been based: "Her extreme youth, as well as her sex, {436} have contributed to the generally held opinion that she was not so much an author in her own right as a transparent medium through which passed the ideas of those around her."13 Critics such as Moers have made effective use of biographical evidence, but the recent appearance of an excellent, much expanded collection of Mary Shelley's letters provides new resources for the reader of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley's epistolary statements on authorship and gender should prompt us to change the terms of a recent debate in which the author of Frankenstein has been viewed as either a failure or a success in a Bloomian struggle to affirm her female self against her male predecessors and contemporaries.14 By reading Mary Shelley's novel through her letters, I shall show that self-affirmation was not the primary goal at which she aimed. But her refusal to assert her female self would not necessarily make Shelley a less powerful woman writer, for, according to Peggy Kamuf, "the cult of the individual and the temptation which results to explain to ourselves artistic and intellectual productions as expressions, simple and direct, of individual experience" must be included among "the fundamental assumptions of patriarchy."15 Mary Shelley does not so much compete in a Romantic struggle to assert her creative self as offer an incipient critique of the individualistic notion of originary creativity.

While her unwillingness to bring herself forward is certainly related to specifically female anxieties of authorship, Mary Shelley's self-denial is not a passive gesture but rather both an assertion of ethical value and an indication of the way in which the self is constructed out of unstable social and gender roles. The year before Shelley expressed her fear of publicity to Trelawny, she justified a refusal to become the subject of biography as a legitimate response to a society which confines women to the domestic sphere: "As to a Memoir, as my sex has precluded all idea of my fulfilling public employments, I do not see what the public have to do with me" (Letters 2:22, 5 Jan. 1828). However, the popular success of Frankenstein, combined with the growing interest, in the Romantic period, in biographical interpretation, brought Shelley into public notice, a position she exploited in order to emphasize the lack of unity in the female authorial self.

The dangers of slipping into either the vanity of authorship and biographical intrusiveness or the guilt of parental negligence would be especially threatening for a woman writing in her own name the genetic account of a novel published anonymously thirteen years earlier. In the 1831 Introduction to Frankenstein, Shelley seeks to over- {437} come the danger of forwardness by insisting on a division between the private and public selves, between what is personal and what pertains to her as an author: "It is true that I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print; but as my account will only appear as an appendage to a former production, and as it will be confined to such topics as have connection with my authorship alone, I can scarcely accuse myself of a personal intrusion" [Introduction 1.]16 It is questionable, however, whether a mere declaration of her aversion to literary forwardness would suffice to exclude Shelley from the egotistical, masculine search for glory exemplified in Walton, Frankenstein, and Clerval. But unlike her creator-hero, the maternal author willingly assumes parental responsibility: "And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart. . . . But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations" (p. 10). The potential vanity of authorship is cancelled by declaring what is "my own" to be "hideous" and, as we shall see, by proposing a theory of invention which denies absolute origination, thereby draining the adjective my of most of its possessive force.

Although Mary Shelley did not apparently value female self-assertion, she should not therefore be regarded as simply conventional or as embodying, in advance, a Victorian ideal of self-denying womanhood. The ostentatious self-effacement with which Mary Poovey has recently charged Mary Shelley seems never to have clearly entailed, for Shelley, the belief "that women's behavior must significantly differ from that of men," a belief which characterizes the ideology of the "proper lady" (Proper Lady, xvii, 4). Mary Shelley advocates duty and self-denial not just as feminine but as human ideals. In a letter she wrote to Robert Dale Owen, the son of the author of A New View of Society (1813), prior to the departure of both father and son for the model American community of Nashoba, Shelley participates in the endeavor, promoted by sentimentalism, to create a new, sympathetic male subject.17 She commends the self-reliant social reformer Frances Wright to Owen's care. She advises him to be very attentive to Wright's situation, for if Wright does not communicate her problems and her need for assistance it will be less on account of secretiveness than of the existing social relations between the sexes:

we must all be sure of sympathy before we confide at all -- & a woman must very highly esteem & love a man before she {438} can tell any of her heart's secrets to him. We have no very excessive opinion of men's sympathetic and self-sacrificing qualities -- make yourself an exception.

(2:17, 9 Nov. 1827)

Mary Shelley clearly recognized not only that women more fully embodied the qualities of sympathy and self-denial, but that their very success in attaining these ideals would very likely operate to their disadvantage in the current state of society. Hence, in writing to Frances Wright, she tempers her praise with a warning:
You do honour to our species & what perhaps is dearer to me, to the feminine part of it. -- and that thought, while it makes me doubly interested in you, makes me tremble for you -- women are so 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 wh is so often the return made, for the noblest efforts to benefit others.

(2:4, 12 Sep. 1827)

The greater purity of women's than men's efforts to efface the self in doing their duty to humanity and in making those around them happy, as well as the deprivation endured by women because of such self-sacrifice, forms one of the subjects of Mary Shelley's first novel. That Shelley should maintain the human ideal of self-sacrifice, in full awareness of its threat to her sex, suggests that we ought to reassess Gilbert and Gubar's unfavorable comparison of Mary Shelley with Emily Bronte; for their evaluation is based on the thesis that self-discovery or affirmation of the female self is the telos of nineteenth-century women's writing. Mary Shelley, on the contrary, found it morally reprehensible or merely tiresome to have the self brought forward in writing: "I have tried to read Mme de Genlis' memoirs, but they are one large capital I from beginning to end. . ." (2:48, 20 June 1828).18 Although Mary Shelley values self-sacrifice over self-affirmation, she does so with a complex awareness of the social implications of her position.

Through its connection with authorship, Mary Shelley's self-effacement raises simultaneously a question of ethics and of the nature of subjectivity in narrative. Shelley's dissatisfaction with the insistence of the first person appears again in her description in the 1831 Introduction to Frankenstein of her youthful imaginative flights: "I did not make myself the heroine of my tales. Life appeared to me {439} too common-place an affair as regarded myself. I could not figure to myself that romantic woes or wonderful events would ever be my lot; but I was not confined to my own identity" (p. 6). In fact, Shelley's claim that she has escaped from her own identity alludes to one of her mother's statements of intention as an autobiographical author. In the Advertisement prefacing her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), Mary Wollstonecraft remarks that she "could not avoid being the first person -- 'the little hero of each tale.'"19 It is as if Shelley's escape from her own identity is assisted by literary borrowing, especially a borrowing that alludes to the preoedipal inseparability of mother and child, an inseparability that Shelley can only imagine given her mother's death twelve days after having given birth to her. But while this instance of literary influence appears to depart from the Bloomian model, Mary Shelley does not borrow from her mother simply in order to identify with her. Instead her rejection of the role of heroine in her juvenile tales contradicts her mother's description of her authorial practice.

But this opposition between mother and daughter would not be sustained by a reading of the Letters from Sweden themselves, for within Wollstonecraft's work the I as hero of the tale is threatened by something very like Mary Shelley's "hideous progeny." In St. Mary's church in Tönsberg, Norway, Wollstonecraft is appalled by a recess full of embalmed corpses, of which the teeth, nails, and skin have been wholly preserved: "The grandeur of the active principle is never more strongly felt than at such a sight; for nothing is so ugly as the human form when deprived of life, and thus dried into stone, merely to preserve the most disgusting image of death" (p. 71). These hideous products of an attempt to deny mortality raise the question, for Wollstonecraft, of the ultimate fate of the I: "Where goes this breath? this I, so much alive?" (p. 71). Wollstonecraft's italics imply what her daughter explicitly states, that the I may not preserve its own identity, irrespective of whether sympathetic identification permits a true escape from the self.

In Frankenstein the integrity of the self is threatened by the artificial manufacture of a creature capable of saying I. Mary Shelley identifies with the monster, not least by employing him as one of her first-person narrators. The confinement of the self to an identity is questioned by the female author's identification with the male hero of the tale. Like Shelley, the monster is reluctant to bring himself forward. He requires a linguistic apprenticeship before he introduces himself to the idealized De Lacey family: "although I eagerly longed to dis- {440} cover myself to the cottagers, I ought not to make the attempt until I had first become master of their language; which knowledge might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure" (pp. 113-14). While the fear that Shelley expresses in her Introduction is that of bringing herself forward in print, the fear in the novel is that of bringing oneself forward in person without the linguistic supplement.

That the monster is unwilling to bring his person forward derives from a correct understanding of his own nature, an understanding that he is capable of receiving only vicarious sympathy. No one who sees the monster in person can sympathize with him; he has been far more successful in obtaining the sympathy of those who encounter him only through the medium of print. The monster engages in a peculiar kind of self-denial, applying his whole mind to the acquisition of language, precisely in order to efface himself as visible object. The conventional hierarchical scheme of signification -- in which writing is less immediate than speech, which is in turn less immediate than visible objects or conceptions -- is disrupted by this attempt at self-effacement. The monster believes that verbal language may compensate for his incapacity for engaging in the language of the countenance, his inability to reply sympathetically to anyone with his "dull yellow eye" (p. 57). But verbal language sometimes serves as another instrument for blinding rather than as an alternative means of being seen or understood. The monster, in his "father's" view, does not even seek to make his language transparent. Frankenstein's fear for his own life on his wedding night arises from a misinterpretation of his monster's threat -- "I shall be with you on your wedding-night" (p. 168). Once his bride of a few hours has been strangled, Frankenstein attributes his misinterpretation to the ambiguities of language or to the power of a speaker intentionally to blind one to his intended meaning: "as if possessed of magic powers, the monster had blinded me to his real intentions" (p. 191).

An earlier instance of blinding occurs when the monster demands a mate, suggesting that it is, in fact, the female behind his creature which the father fears. When Frankenstein encounters his monstrous son on the Mer de Glace, he commands: "Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form" (p. 101). In response the monster takes advantage of the magic of language so as to act in accordance with the letter but not the spirit of his father's command. "'Thus I relieve thee, my creator,' he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes, which I flung from me with violence; 'thus I take from thee {441} a sight which you abhor'" (p. 101). Part of what is at stake in filial insubordination is the appropriation of meaning for one's own ends -- the end of blinding the father or rendering him impotent. In order for the child to force the father to listen, he or she must perform the operation of symbolic, upwardly displaced, castration. The monster serves as Mary Shelley's surrogate within the novel for the female linguistic strategy that she will later term mutilation. Still, the monster's temporary blinding of his father is a far less violent act than Frankenstein's destruction of the female body. In fact, such blinding may be necessary to transform the paternal figure in the patriarchal order into a new, feminized male subject.

The monster forces his father to listen, so that he may argue in favor of a whole new set of values -- values represented by Elizabeth Lavenza and, perhaps, by the monster's female mate, whom the elitist creator tears apart with his own hands. In fact, it is the emphasis on the female position that removes Shelley's use of images of upwardly displaced castration from containment in the Oedipal model of a power struggle between son and father. Shelley emphasizes the female position in order to indicate that power and mastery are not the only or even primary objects of the struggle between father and child. As in sentimental literature generally, power and sexual potency are placed under suspicion. The blinded father and the castrated male are compensated for their losses by a new moral stature. Such men of feeling become the representatives of the value of self-sacrifice, as well as the recipients of their children's care. In this respect, Godwin's Gothic novel St. Leon (1799) stands behind his daughter's first novel. While St. Leon is squandering his patrimony in gambling, his son is reading the "story of Zaleucus the Locrian, who put out one of his own eyes, that he might preserve eye-sight to his son."20 When Mary Shelley borrows the figure of the blinded father, in the character of De Lacey, from her father, acknowledged indebtedness, a desire to become her father's nurse, and the implicit wish to see this great enlightenment figure reduced to dependence all take priority over the aim of authorial self-assertion.

The ideological conflict between the paternal scientist and his sentimental child is fought in part with philosophical tools -- for example, Mary Shelley's and her monster's subversion of the hierarchy that conventionally places the self and the visible object above language. The monster is fortunately able to present himself to the father of Felix and Agatha De Lacey by means of his voice alone, because of the old man's blindness.21 The operation of De Lacey's sym- {442} pathy is cut short, however, by the return of the children who serve as his eyes. The blinded father both arouses sympathy and is himself capable of greater sympathy than a man who is entire, seamless, and potent, with no need for the care of others and no inclination to hear their voices. Deprived of the male prerogative, the "mutilated" man lacks the pride of man. But this disability has its compensations, as it appears from Mary Shelley's defence of the castrato Giovanni-Battista Velluti: "If he has not all the boasted energy of that vain creature man he has what is far better, a strength all his own, rounded on the tenderness & sympathy he irrisistibly excites" (1:522, 23 June 1826). The uncanny mutilation which deprives the father of the pride of the eyes gives children more vital roles in the patriarchal family. The scenes of daughters caring for their blinded fathers in Frankenstein, in Valperga (1823), and in The Last Man (1826) perhaps betray a wish for the father's blindness but are much more nearly concerned with opportunities for the exertion of the feminine duty of caring for another.

The situation in Valperga is characteristic in showing how adoption of this conventional feminine role provides a justification for female education. In the course of caring for her scholarly father "and serving as eyes to his blinded sense,"22 Euthanasia dei Adimari derives from her classical reading a new sense of history, a love of liberty, and a place in the fourteenth-century Italian revival of learning. There is no simple reinscription here of the subservient role of Milton's daughters, even if such young women in Shelley waste away,23 perhaps from the guilt of having desired to overturn hierarchy by assuming the role of parent to one's own father. Nor, however, can these situations be explained by Oedipal self-assertion, since the children do not aspire to the paternal position of power, in which the self can be confidently affirmed.

We have already seen a similarity between Shelley and her "hideous progeny" in their shared aversion to bringing themselves forward, until they possess linguistic mastery. In the course of the novel, however, the possibility of such mastery is questioned, and it appears more likely that language masters (wo)man than vice versa. We have now seen a shared desire for the blinding of father figures, linguistically or otherwise. Another analogy between Shelley and her monster is situated in the opposition between reality and representation. This opposition is reinscribed in several subordinate ones: those between origination and reflection, sun and moon, male and female. Just as the monster appears almost invariably by the light of the {443} moon, so Mary Shelley more than once identified herself with "moonshine," though, according to Betty Bennett, "not in a self-deprecating way but rather as a metaphor for her reflection of Shelley's sunshine and her commitment to 'endeavour to consider my self a continuation of his being'" (1:285, n. 5). Such a metaphor certainly sounds self-deprecating, and indeed self-deprecation might have been prompted by Mary Shelley's ethics of self-denial even while it would have been resisted by her special love of the feminine and her criticism of the male prerogative. The slippage here from the child-father relationship to that of the wife and husband under patriarchy is more Mary Shelley's than mine; for, in a letter written shortly after the journal entry about her striving to continue Percy Shelley's being, she informs Jane Williams that, "Until I knew Shelley I may justly say that [Godwin] was my God. . ." (1:296, 5 Dec. 1822). Both of these nearly contemporaneous statements are the product of the period of grief in the months following Percy Shelley's death.

Prior to his death, however, Mary Shelley's resistance to (self-)representations as a subordinate part of her husband appears through a slip of the pen (indicated within angle brackets) even in her passionate defence of him in the face of rumors that he conceived a child by her step-sister, Claire Clairmont: "Need I say that the union between my husband and <hims> myself has ever been undisturbed" (1:207, 10 Aug. 1821). Mary Shelley begins to write of a "union between my husband and hims[elf]," but corrects herself in the middle of the word, leaving "hims" under erasure in the text. Shelley's pen refuses to allow writing to remain a transparent medium for the communication of thought, questioning once again the conventional hierarchical scheme of signification.

Another gender-based self-correction occurs in an earlier letter, one written shortly before the publication of Frankenstein about Claire Clairmont's seven-month-old daughter: "Miss Alba is perfectly well & thriving -- she crows like a little cock although (as Shelley bids me say --) she is a hen --" (1:39, 6 Aug. 1817). A cross-gender metaphor is used to describe the assertive voice of a healthy female infant, but as soon as the metaphor is suggested it is censored and the confusion of genders corrected. The agent of this censorship is, characteristically, male authority -- the husband and great Romantic poet. By the anal clause -- "she is a hen" -- the voice of the female letter-writer has been expropriated and the male author speaks through her in the manner of a ventriloquist. Mary Shelley playfully protests against a double denial of the female voice (Miss Alba's and her own). Another {444} such epistolary self-correction occurs when Mary Shelley writes of her early favorable assessment of Trelawny: "& Shelley agreed with me, as he always did, or rather I with him" (1:253, 27 Aug. 1822). Mary Shelley's subordination to her husband always comes only on second thought.

Given this history of self-correction in her union with her husband, we cannot treat the crossed-out "hims" in her defence of Percy Shelley as if it were not there. Does this grapheme constitute an indictment of his egotism? Does the "hims" which must be erased hint at Mary Shelley's feelings that the "myself" has been erased in this union? Or is it a question of Percy Shelley's self-division? Mary Shelley's letters record certain of her husband's out-of-body experiences, which suggest that a union between him and himself might have been a happy prospect. But the content of one of these visions serves to collapse the distinction between the two readings of the crossed-out "hims": as either Percy's self-division or the erasure of Mary's self. For Mary Shelley tells how her husband in a visionary moment "saw the figure of himself strangling me" (1:245, 15 Aug. 1822).24 Thus a Percy who is split into two selves -- actor and visionary spectator-threatens to extinguish Mary's self. The mode of the visionary attempted murder is significant, for the husband's dream may be less that of killing the wife than of silencing her.

The doubling of Percy Shelley's self and the potential erasure of Mary Shelley's, discovered here in her letters, have their counterpart in a novel in which the female author's perspective is relinquished to a series of male doubles. The epistolary form of Frankenstein is simultaneously an attempt to obtain whatever immediacy is available in novel writing and an interrogation of the status of the self. The fictional epistle and fictional memoir have always been seen as instruments for self-analysis, for the investigation of motives. I believe that the status of the self is questioned in another way, as well, in novels in which the "I" speaks as a result of impersonation across gender. The "I" can no longer be seen as the product of an originary, unified, and gendered self.

In her second most famous novel, Mary Shelley uses italicized first-person pronouns to recreate imaginatively an inverse situation from the one we have just analysed in her letters: now, not her own self-correction, but the possibility of Percy Shelley's self-correction. In The Last Man, the male first-person narrator, Lionel Verney -- who serves, at least in part, as a self-portrait by Mary Shelley -- tells how Adrian, the Percy Shelley figure, intends to nominate Lord Raymond as Lord {445} Protector of England: "If I -- that is, if we propose him, he will assuredly be elected. . ." (p. 68). In parliamentary matters, Adrian's inclusion of the non-aristocratic Verney comes belatedly, evidence of a certain egotism or elitism. A subsequent italicization of a first-person pronoun appears not in the context of exerting political power but of sharing sympathetic tears. Lionel consoles his wife, Idris, as they prepare to leave Windsor Forest forever: "she hid her face in my bosom, and we -- yes, my masculine firmness dissolved -- we wept together consolatory tears" (p. 239). The non-assertive "we" -- a pronoun which here includes not men of different classes but persons of different genders -- requires the dissolution of the firm boundaries of the male self. Dissolving in tears is a female privilege which Verney often wishes were permitted to men. Male tears, according to Verney, represent the "natural" rebellion of a softness within men which a certain social construction of gender has denied (pp. 125, 259). The dissolution of male firmness and Lionel's yielding to softness indicate that, while an apocalyptic plague may be necessary for the levelling of distinctions of age and class and property, the ordinary operations of human sympathy and love are sufficient to threaten social constructions of gender. Indeed, patriotism ana disappointed love lead the character Evadne to become a female warrior. While dressed in male guise, "her limbs had lost the roundness of youth and womanhood" (132). In a novel in which Mary Shelley portrays herself as, and writes in the narrative voice of, a man, she draws characters whose transformations question stereotyped gender roles: the loss of masculine firmness and feminine roundness. Her italicization of pronouns signals the gender divisions which mark the first-person singular as other than self-identical. The male I in whose voice she speaks recognizes the desirability of male and female eyes dissolving together in sympathetic tears.

In Frankenstein, as I have suggested above, the pronoun my is similarly deprived of much of its possessive force -- since, that is, one should accept responsibility for what is one's own without claiming absolute property in it. A theory of invention that denies origination thus provides an appropriate introduction to Shelley's story of creation:

Every thing must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase; and that beginning must be linked to something that went before. . . . Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the mate- {446} rials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. (p. 8)
Within Shelley's genetic account of her novel, she points to the folly of seeking origins. Her account here suggests an infinite regression, while the parody of Genesis in the body of the work implies that new creation is always prompted by and modelled on prior texts. Hence Shelley can only speak of origins "in Sanchean phrase." Paradoxically, however, "to speak in Sanchean phrase" -- which refers in Shelley to textual mediation -- means in Cervantes to speak proverbially, like the illiterate Sancho Panza. Speaking in Sanchean phrase, though the product of literary borrowing, would thus align Mary Shelley with the traditional village culture which is opposed by the enlightened projects of Walton and Frankenstein.

Shelley's humble admission concerning invention becomes even more humble, problematically so, in the course of the Introduction. For, when Shelley comes to discuss her husband's contribution to the work, she limits his influence to matters of formal presentation: "I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world" (p. 10). But invention has just been defined as the capacity of "giv[ing] form to dark, shapeless substances." The waking dream which Mary Shelley recounts in explaining the genesis of her work would seem to be more on the level of dark substance than of literary form. Does Mary Shelley herself, then, license us to consider Percy Shelley the inventor or author of Frankenstein?

Mary Shelley's non-originary and non-assertive authorship would certainly not prompt her to exclude Percy Shelley's writing from the text, but it might lead as well to the recognition that if he is entitled to a share of "final authority," then so perhaps are other authors, living and dead, such as Godwin and Milton. Literary influence in Frankenstein reinforces the splitting of the narrative I and the emptying out of the possessive my. The character Frankenstein, on the contrary, engages in Titanic self-assertion. He seeks through his creative project to exceed the human, to take his place among the immortals. Robert Walton shares this ambition to go beyond. He only conceived of a voyage through barren wastes after having aspired to a place in the already crowded poetic mansion: "I also became a poet, and for one year lived in a Paradise of my own creation; I imagined that I also {447} might obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated" (p. 17). Outside the novel, the humble genre of (women's) terror fiction does not enter into competition with the works of such poetic fathers. Instead, the novelistic activity of exceeding the human through forays into the supernatural can be justified by invoking these consecrated names: The Iliad, The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream, and Paradise Lost (p. 13) are all called in to sanction the imaginative procedures of Frankenstein. I use the passive in the last sentence, since it is not the "author" of Frankenstein who calls upon Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton. That is to say, it is Percy rather than Mary Shelley who wrote the Preface which contains the defence of supernatural fiction with its attendant appeal to poetic authority.

Yet Mary Shelley is not without ambitions of joining the immortals, however much she may attempt to reconcile these ambitions with the conventional role of the faithful wife, the romantic image of love beyond the grave, and her own ideal of self-denying sympathy:

But were it not for the steady hope I entertain of joining him what a mockery all this would be. Without that hope I could not study or write, for fame & usefulness (except as far as regards my child) are nullities to me -- Yet I shall be happy if any thing I ever produce may exalt & soften sorrow, as the writings of the divinities of our race have mine. But how can I aspire to that?

(1:254, 27 Aug. 1822)

Shelley aspires to the condition of "the divinities of our race," while at the same time denying her own aspirations. She declares that "fame" is empty for her and that "usefulness" has value only in the maternal sphere. Just as with Euthanasia in Valperga, Mary Shelley uses a conventional feminine role to justify unfeminine ambitions, such as that of mastering classical languages and literature. The study and the exertion of genius that it would take to achieve fame and usefulness are justified by Shelley on the basis of fidelity to her husband, a fidelity which extends to a desire to join him beyond the grave. It is only by not, like Frankenstein and Walton, seeing fame and usefulness as ends in themselves that Mary Shelley may be able to escape from making her own life a "mockery." Indeed, for her, divine authors fulfill the feminine function of softening others' sorrows: hence, the God that she made of her father and husband is transformed into a divine being more suitable to her own aspirations, a {448} being who would not wish to supplant her father and wrest away his authority but would hope rather to soften his sorrows in his necessarily dependent human condition. Shelley animates the conventional social roles of daughter, wife, and mother with more than conventional electricity in order both to justify her ambitions and to escape the egotistical endeavors which merely mock divine works.

But James Rieger does not raise the question of "final authority" for the text of Frankenstein in terms of theories of literary influence or of Mary Shelley's self-denying authorship. Rieger bases his claim for Percy Shelley's share of final authority, in large part, on such manuscript evidence as that which shows that Percy Shelley composed a passage of realistic description of social context in the republic of Geneva (p. 60, n. 2). The passage is especially important since ideological commitment and relevance to a social context are commonly viewed as a new development in the Gothic genre in the early nineteenth century.25 Hence, that Percy wrote the following political observations might seem to support the contention that Mary Shelley's political interests were merely a passive reflection of her husband's and that whatever is most innovative in Frankenstein is probably owing to Percy Shelley's contribution:

The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it. Hence there is less distinction between the several classes of its inhabitants; and the lower orders, being neither so poor nor so despised, their manners are more refined and moral. A servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England.

(Frankenstein, ed. Joseph, p. 65)

The matter of Percy Shelley's authorship is, however, complicated by the resemblance of this passage to one in a letter Mary Shelley wrote from Lake Geneva:
There is more equality of classes here than in England. This occasions a greater freedom and refinement of manners among the lower orders than we meet with in our own country. I fancy the haughty English ladies are greatly disgusted with this consequence of republican institutions. . . .

(1:21, 1 June 1816)

While it may well be impossible to determine what influence Percy had on the sentiments Mary Shelley expresses in this letter, pub- {449} lished prior to Frankenstein in Mary and Percy Shelley's History of a Six Weeks' Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland (1817), nevertheless we now have some basis for speculations different from Rieger's on the nature of Percy Shelley's "final authority" for such significant developments of the Frankenstein text as the realistic description of Genevese society. In this and other additions to Frankenstein, Percy Shelley may be writing as he thinks his wife would (or should) write. What better way of writing like Mary Shelley than elaborating upon a passage from one of her own letters?

The notion of cross-gender narration supplies another way of stating my argument about this instance of Percy Shelley's authorship. Mary Shelley wrote her first novel in the narrative voice of three male characters, leaving the female voice largely unheard. But in making this addition to Frankenstein, Percy Shelley is required to write as a woman, since this passage is contained in a letter by Elizabeth Lavenza. What better way of writing as a woman would write a letter than by adapting a passage from a woman's letter? Percy Shelley engages in a double "female impersonation," assuming the mask of his wife in order to write as Elizabeth. His authority in this case would be better described as "derived" than "final." But perhaps even a sincere and sympathetic effort to write as a woman would not eliminate the irony and the pathos of this male production of the female voice, given a tradition of literary history in which Percy Shelley's ventriloquism in Frankenstein has been praised while Mary Shelley has been maligned for the "mutilation" of her husband's works. Given the structure of inequality within which the male Romantic poet or male literary critic speaks, he cannot escape his complicity with patriarchy and is doomed, at best, to assume the paternal role for which, as Mary Shelley notes, Godwin was not fitted: "My Father, from age and domestic circumstances, could not 'me faire valoir.'"26

Mary Shelley, then, overturns a tradition of male ventriloquism in part by her editorial and fictional strategy of mutilation, which, as we have seen, cannot be wholly comprehended in the Oedipal scheme since it aims at the creation of a new, sympathetic male subject. She also opposes ventriloquism by writing her novels Frankenstein and The Last Man in the male voice. The function of her cross-gender narration, with its vestigial reminders of carnivalesque cross-dressing,27 might be that it provides Shelley with one means of indicating that she locates truth in the beliefs and feelings of her audience rather than in isolated opposition to them. Cross-gender narration would be {450} associated with the sympathy her readers extend to the monster instead of with the community violence of the villagers who, resembling Frankenstein, pursue the monster with stones (p. 106). Frankenstein indicates the similarity of popular superstition and elitist enlightenment in their eradication of the alien. Shelley's "male impersonation," on the contrary, highlights the value of sympathetic identification with the other, just as her theory of authorship would privilege quotation as the sign of otherness within the text. Such identification does not serve as a guarantor of the identity of the authorial self but rather depends on sympathetic dissolution and insists on the changing social constructions of the first person. Mary Shelley's rejection of the "me" and her embrace of non-originary authorship are signs of the antielitist, "popular" nature of her work.28 Frankenstein aspires to a place in oral culture -- which it has in a sense attained-even while it riots in its literariness.


I would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for generously supporting my research.

1. "To Edward John Trelawny," Apr. 1829, Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980-88), 2:72.

2. Quoted in R. Glynn Grylls, Mary Shelley: A Biography (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1938), 217.

3. Edward John Trelawny, Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author, 2 vols. (London, 1878; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968), 2:229.

4. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 189.

5. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. xvi, 116, 158-60.

6. John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley: Complete Poetical Works, 2 vols. in 1 (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), 2:366.

7. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (1978; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1980), p. 131.

8. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1966), p. 740.

9. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. F. E. L. Priestley, 3 vols. (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1946), 1:128.

10. The pun on mutilation as "castration" would have been available in Shelley's circle, where sentiments might be emasculated and books castrated.

In a letter to Godwin, Thomas Holcroft expresses his pleasure at finding nothing censored in J. S. Jordan's publication of the first part of Paine's Rights of Man: "Not a single castration (Laud be unto God and J. S. Jordan!) can I discover -- " (quoted in Peter H. Marshall, William Godwin [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984], p. 80).

11. For U. C. Knoepflmacher, the significance of a young woman's adoption of three male personae is primarily psychological rather than social ("Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," The Endurance of "Frankenstein": Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979], pp. 105-06). In considering Mary Shelley's use of male narrative voices, I have been influenced by Nancy K. Miller's work on the opposite narrative situation of "female impersonation." See Nancy K. Miller, "'I's' in Drag: The Sex of Recollection," Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 22 (1981), 47-57.

12. James Rieger, ed., Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (The 1818 Text), by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974), p. xviii. In "Shelley's Contribution to Mary's Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin, 29 (1978), E. B. Murray presents ample evidence for the balanced view "that at times [Percy Shelley's] creative impulse added its own initiative to the novel's effect, though always in keeping with Mary's conception and with her implicit sanction" (67). Murray is, however, insufficiently troubled by the idea that at the time of the composition of Frankenstein "Mary and Shelley were effectively two bodies with but one soul" (56).

13. Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic." Literary Women (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), p. 94.

14. See Gilbert and Gubar, pp. 187-247. Disputing Gilbert and Gubar's position, Fred V. Randel argues that Mary Shelley engages in the Bloomian struggle and wins, "outperforming an illustrious male tradition at its. own game" ("Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of Mountains," Studies in Romanticism, 24 [1985], 529). William Veeder, in a psychobiographical critique of the conventional Oedipal model, regards the artistic productions of the Shelleys as negotiating strategies, or ways of dealing with their psychical investment in personal and literary relationships; see Mary Shelley & Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986). My own attempt to place Mary Shelley's authorial struggles within the context of an incipient critique of individualism follows the general lines of, while it draws on different evidence from, the argument of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," Critical Inquiry, 12 (1985), 243-61.

15. Peggy Kamuf, "Writing Like a Woman," Women and Language in Literature and Society, ed. Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Furman (New York: Praeger, 1980), p. 286. In her critique of Anglo-American feminism, Toril Moi makes a similar point about how the notion of the integrated self is part of patriarchal ideology: "In this humanist ideology the self is the sole author of history and of the literary text: the humanist creator is potent, phallic and male -- God in relation to his world, the author in relation to his text" (Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory [London: Methuen, 1985], p. 8).

16. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph and James Kinsley (1969; rpt. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press 1980), 5.

17. For the late eighteenth-century "feminization of discourse" or even "feminization of human nature itself," see Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), pp. 13, 95; and Terry Castle, "The Female Thermometer," Representations, 17 (1987), 13-15.

18. One is reminded here of Virginia Woolf's reaction to a new novel by "Mr. A.": "after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter 'I'. . . . One began to be tired of 'I'" (A Room of One's Own [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975], p. 98). Dissatisfaction with the insistence of the first-person singular has not, however, been exclusively a concern of woman writers, as David Marshall's reading of Shaftesbury in The Figure of Theater: Shaftesbury, Defoe, Adam Smith, and George Eliot (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986) amply demonstrates: "In his notes for the Second Characters, or The Language of Forms, Shaftesbury plans a strategy for dealing with the grammatical persons of his text. 'The use of the ego banished in all but the epistolary kind' (SC: 12), he instructs himself, conspiring to 'speak always (without once failing) in the style of we, us, and our, for I, me, and mine'" (pp. 28-29).

19. Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, ed. Carol H. Poston (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1976), p. 5.

20. William Godwin, St. Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (New York: Arno Press, 1972), p. 58.

21. Barbara Freeman cites the figure of the blind De Lacey in support of her contention that Frankenstein "shows . . . that metaphysics' faith in vision as an adequate index to the truth is misplaced" ("Frankenstein with Kant: A Theory of Monstrosity, or the Monstrosity of Theory," SubStance, 52 [1987], 25).

22. Mary W. Shelley, Valperga: Or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, 3 vols. (London: Printed for G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1823), 1:167.

23. Such is the fate of the twenty-year-old German woman, who dies in the Alps in The Last Man; see Mary Shelley, The Last Man, ed. Hugh J. Luke, Jr. (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1965), pp. 306-07.

24. Discussing this encounter of Percy Shelley with a double in the context of numerous doublings in Shelley's life and works, Kelvin Everest argues persuasively that such incidents are an index of Shelley's paradoxical position as a radical thinker, a sophisticated and difficult poet, and a polished representative of the British ruling class ("Shelley's Doubles: An Approach to 'Julian and Maddalo,"' in Shelley Revalued: Essays from the Gregnog Conference, ed. Kelvin Everest [Leicester: Leicester Univ. Press, 1983], pp. 63-88).

25. According to Marilyn Butler, it is only with the appearance of Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer "that an ideological hatred of oppression and value for the person can be read into a sustained English Gothic tale" (Jane Austen and the War of Ideas [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975], pp. 50-51).

26. 21 Oct. 1838, Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1947), 204.

27. For the classic account of the significance of carnivalesque cross-dressing, see Natalie Davis, "Women on Top," Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 149-50.

28. "The [oral] performer is aware of his debt to tradition, hence, perhaps the impersonality of traditional songs or stories, the lack of reference to 'me,' the narrator himself" (Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe [London: Temple Smith, 1978], p. 115).