Contents Index

The Civil Servant

Mary Lowe-Evans

Chapter 5 of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's Wedding Guest (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993), 30-40

Continue for the present to write to me. . . . I may receive your letters on some occasions when I need them most to support my spirits.

-- Robert Walton to Margaret Saville (66)
The series of letters that frame the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster come as a surprise to readers who, conditioned by film versions, expect to be immediately confronted with a mad scientist. But these letters, written by Robert Walton, the ambitious young explorer who is the first to hear Frankenstein's full confession, are strategically arranged so as to create a complex social context for the tale they recount. Furthermore, the woman who receives those letters, Walton's sister, is as important as her brother to an understanding of Mary Shelley's novel; for, it is she who "hears" the confessions of both men. The first character to be mentioned in Frankenstein is a married woman: "To Mrs. Saville, England." This initial greeting reads as much like the dedication of a novel as the salutation of a letter that it is actually meant to be. And, as we shall see, both its functions, as dedication and salutation, are important for reinforcing an attitude that, as {31} I see it, is implied throughout Frankenstein: the cultural doctrine that a balanced, civilized society requires the uniquely "feminine" influence of women, especially those who have been legitimately enfranchised through marriage, was promulgated with particular force throughout the nineteenth century. Frankenstein suggests that Mary Shelley succumbed to the force of that argument, but with misgivings (some acknowledged, others implied). Her qualified surrender to the camp of domestic feminism is encoded in the married characters and marriage relationships within her novel.

We get to know the absent married lady to whom Frankenstein is addressed exclusively through her brother, Robert Walton, who writes from various locations on his way to the North Pole. But the first clue to her significance is the prominently placed salutation itself, every aspect of which fits a design Mary Shelley carefully worked out. She saw fit to place this formal greeting immediately before the reader's eye because it is Mrs. Saville, or someone like her, who is meant to pass judgment on the fantastic tale to follow. Discovering what Mrs. Saville is like thus becomes paramount for a "qualified" reading of the text.

Even before we know her first name or her relationship to the correspondent, we know that she is a "Mrs.," a married woman. The prominence of that title almost begs us to assess this woman's position in terms of the laws and controversies about marriage current in Mary Shelley's society. In legal terms, according to Sir William Blackstone's tremendously influential Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69), the married woman's legal existence was "incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection and cover she performs everything."1 In effect, Blackstone declared the married woman's independent being legally nonexistent. Although his interpretation was flawed by not taking into account the various means then available for a married woman to protect her property rights, it was nonetheless widely accepted until the early nineteenth century and is still considered a classic legal text. Reinforcing the biblical notion of the married couple as "one flesh," Blackstone's commentary also tacitly sanctioned the traditional belief that, in return for protection, a woman should promote her husband's economic pro- {32} jects, political institutions, and so on. "Cover" is an appropriate choice of words to describe the husband's right and responsibility: rather than reinforcing the idea of marital union, it highlights the inequality inherent in marriage practices and incorporates the idea of protecting, shutting in, hiding, and preempting a territory.

The patronizing attitude implied in Blackstone's commentary carries tremendous weight even today. But, as outlined in the first chapter of this book, Mary Shelley's childhood was marked by a period of agitation against the marriage laws and against marriage itself. Even before Mary Shelley was born, Jeremy Bentham had criticized Blackstone's Commentaries in A Fragment on Government (1776) for the conservative view of marriage laws (among others) that Blackstone took. Her own father's Political Justice was one of the most frequently cited philosophical texts on the subject of marriage, and Percy Shelley's Queen Mab (1813) was one of the most controversial literary works expressing antimarriage sentiments. Her choice to make Margaret Saville a married woman, then, must be read as an informed decision to enter the controversy about the married woman's role. And considering the respect Mrs. Saville commands, we might assume, at the very least, Mary Shelley's qualified approval of that role.

Besides revealing the important fact that Mrs. Saville is married, her name suggests the idea of citizenship, for sa ville, French for "her town," might also be understood as a homonym for "civil." The extended meaning of Saville could then be construed to include all that pertains to the civilized life, especially as it is lived in France, in whose language Mrs. Saville's name is expressed, and in England, where (the salutation indicates) she resides. The French language, which Mary Shelley knew well, had long been recognized in England as the most civil and cultured of tongues. Furthermore, it was the language of the country where the egalitarian principles of her mother, father, and future husband had been radically advocated. Ironically, though, following the French Revolution the middle-class married woman's place became even more restricted in France than in England. Auguste Comte, the influential French philosopher whose life span closely matches Mary Shelley's, and whose influence was strongest in England and France, "declared that there were radical differences, physical and {33} moral, between male and female which separated them profoundly. . . .["] Femininity was a kind of 'prolonged infancy' that set woman aside from 'the ideal of the race' and enfeebled her mind. He foresaw the total abolition of female labor outside the home. In morality and love woman might be set up as superior, but man acted, while she remained in the home without economic or political rights."2

Judging from the clues her brother provides, Margaret Saville, probably French by marriage if not by birth, has been "set up" according to Comtean guidelines. His separate-sphere philosophy for men and women was widely argued throughout Western culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Margaret Saville, both in name and in function, clearly resides in a sphere of influence separate from that of the men in the novel.

In a study arguing that Mary Shelley meant to promote an androgynous philosophy in Frankenstein, William Veeder also notes Margaret Saville's significance in the novel. Veeder asserts that Margaret Saville has "been seriously undervalued by critics." He further implies that Mary Shelley may have meant us to translate "Margaret" into its original Greek meaning of "pearl" (82); doing so, I would point out, renders her a cultivated adornment to society rather than an active participant in it. On the other hand, Margaret is also a rather common English name, with Middle English roots, and the given name of a famous sixteenth-century woman writer Mary Shelley admired, Queen Margaret of Navarre. Reading Mrs. Saville as a cultured but influential and talented woman philosophically poised among countries believed to be the most advanced civilizations of the Western world, we might conclude that Mary Shelley, her creator, held married women uniquely responsible for maintaining the philosophical balance of society.

Any tenet that holds married women to be in some sense special seems at odds with the facts of Mary Shelley's marital history up until the conception of Frankenstein. Nonetheless, the married woman's role is idealized throughout the novel, beginning with Margaret Walton Saville. Surely it is no accident that Margaret's initials, M.W.S., are the very ones Mary anticipated acquiring for herself when she decided to introduce her story of monstrous creation with a series {34} of letters to a married woman. Attempting to influence her brother's behavior through her writing, Margaret Saville becomes one with Mary Shelley, who similarly intends to influence the reader. Each woman thus assumes the role of civil servant and, in effect, becomes both the ideal reader -- the kind of reader Mary Shelley wished for her novel -- and the shaper of Frankenstein.

We know that Margaret Saville writes, because scattered throughout the opening letters of Frankenstein are her brother's direct responses to what she has said. Those responses disclose much about what Margaret has written, what she previously has taught her brother, and therefore much about her nature. Early on we learn that she has regarded Walton's enterprise with "evil forebodings" (59). Furthermore, Walton seems to expect that she will "contest the inestimable benefit [he] shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole . . . or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet" (60). Clearly, she is not enthusiastic about his latest obsession. Nonetheless, after recalling the various frustrated enthusiasms of his youth -- with which his sister is already acquainted -- Walton asks for Margaret's approval: "Do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose?" he asks (61). But the negative construction of Walton's question prompts us to surmise once again Margaret's judgmental and doubting frame of mind, even as it confirms Walton's respect for her opinion. Walton's second letter further implies Margaret's lack of sympathy with his "romantic" leanings and makes clear his desire for a friend who, unlike Margaret, will share his dreams: "You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend [to] repair the faults of your poor brother . . . who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic" (63-64).

Further along, Walton admits that his "best years" had been spent under her "gentle and feminine fosterage," which "has so refined the groundwork of my character that I cannot overcome an intense distaste for the usual brutality exercised on board ship" (64). This passage did not appear in the original version of Frankenstein; its inclusion in the final version supports the likelihood that Mary Shelley had become increasingly convinced that woman's proper role in a {35} smoothly functioning society was to be the molder of character, taste, and morality. To that end, the ideal woman was to become widely educated and cultivated. Mary Shelley's mother had advocated a similar script in The Rights of Woman, but in 1831 the doctrine that Mary Wollstonecraft had hoped would liberate women was being reinterpreted to keep them in their domestic place. That place was a sphere of influence complementary to but decidedly separate from the public arena that men "naturally" inhabited. Margaret Saville's position in Frankenstein demonstrates the persuasiveness of this latter-day distortion of Mary Wollstonecraft's philosophy, a distortion that Wollstonecraft herself may have invited in assertions like: "Make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives and mothers."3

The separate-sphere philosophy was so seductive and powerful that it retains tremendous appeal even today. It was perfectly articulated in the writings of Catherine Beecher, an internationally respected New England educator of the early nineteenth century. I will quote Beecher at some length so that the reader may experience the seductive rhetoric Mary Shelley herself would have been exposed to. The stand Beecher takes is pertinent not only to Margaret Saville but to all the women in Frankenstein:

Woman is to win everything by peace and 1ove; by making herself so much respected, esteemed and loved, that to yield to her opinions and to gratify her wishes, will be the free-will offering of the heart. But this is to be all accomplished in the domestic and social circle. There let every woman become so cultivated and refined in intellect, that her taste and judgement will be respected; so benevolent in feeling and action; that her motives will be reverenced; -- so unassuming and unambitious, that collision and competition will be banished; -- so "gentle and easy to be entreated," as that every heart will repose in her presence; then, the fathers, the husbands, and the sons, will find an influence thrown around them, to which they will yield not only willingly but proudly. A man is never ashamed to own such influences, but feels dignified and ennobled in acknowledging them. But the moment the woman begins to feel the promptings of ambition, or the thirst for power, her aegis of defence is gone.4
{36} Although Mary Shelley apparently meant to expose the disastrous consequences of Victor Frankenstein's turning his back on the sort of feminine influence Beecher describes, we shall see that the novel -- perhaps inadvertently -- also reproaches women for following Beecher's prescription too closely. While Margaret Saville seems to fare well as civil servant, the fates of Justine and Elizabeth dramatically underscore the failings of the separate-sphere philosophy.

In the letter in which Walton recalls Margaret's "gentle and feminine fosterage" he also recounts the story of a mariner he has recently met who both attracts and repels him. Again, Walton's reaction to the mariner, and his prediction of Margaret's response, reveal much about his teacher and highlight her philosophical kinship with the likes of Catherine Beecher. The mariner in question generously leaves the country and stays away until he hears that the resistant young woman who had been promised him in marriage by her father has instead been "married according to her inclinations": "'What a noble fellow!' you will exclaim. He is so; but then he is wholly uneducated: he is as silent as a Turk, and a kind of ignorant carelessness attends him, which, while it renders his conduct the more astonishing detracts from the interest and sympathy he otherwise would command" (65). The fact that Walton readily anticipates Margaret's response indicates that he knows her preferences well. He knows, for example, that she will approve the mariner's insistence that the young woman be allowed to marry the man of her choice; Margaret thereby takes a stand, in absentia, against the custom of arranged marriages still prevalent in England and France. But, from the phrase "he is wholly uneducated" to the end of the passage, Walton's description of the mariner exposes a simple, quiet, unassuming man of whom he is sure Margaret will not fully approve. Margaret's as well as Walton's prejudice against the uneducated "lower" classes is thus revealed. This passage, added for the final version of the novel, indicates that Mary Shelley's attitude of acceptance of the conventional training and attitudes of a middle-class, civilized woman had become more clearly and precisely formulated by 1831 than it had been in 1818.

We may also learn from Walton's direct references to Margaret's feelings how effective she had been as his early childhood teacher; her gentle fosterage had left its impression on him. Indeed, one of the con- {37} ciliatory gestures to women seeking political equality in the early nineteenth century was excessive emphasis on their function as teachers during children's formative years. One historian of the period, Jane Lewis, sees this emphasis as a major strand in nineteenth-century feminism, which accepted and attempted to expand the idea of "women as the natural guardians of the moral order." The nineteenth-century feminist Josephine Butler summarized the notion by describing the home as the "nursery of all virtue."5 Based on these attitudes to women's formative role in the home, we might assume that whatever virtues Walton ultimately demonstrates are attributable to Margaret's influence.

In spite of minor complaints and his want of a sympathetic friend, Walton vows not to waver in his resolution. However, he continues, "you know me sufficiently to confide in my prudence and considerateness whenever the safety of others is committed to my care" (65). This reassuring promise made to the one person whose judgment still seems most important to him will be honored, but with great difficulty. He will be sorely tempted by the example of Victor Frankenstein to forget his sister's lessons and sacrifice his little shipboard community to the achievement of a rather questionable higher good. In honoring his commitment to the crew, however, Walton will set himself apart from Victor Frankenstein and, "ennobled," as Catherine Beecher would say, by Margaret's early influence, will have served his community well.

Walton's succeeding invocation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner reinforces both the exploratory nature of his quest and the theme of responsibility to the community that Margaret's involvement emphasizes. This second reference to a mariner is historically as well as literarily apt because it focuses attention on myriad issues being debated during the period 1818-31. One questionable issue was England's expanding colonial imperialism. As the century wore on, and more men left home to contribute to the expansion of the empire, it would be increasingly difficult for women to fulfill their circumscribed roles as moral guardians.

Coleridge's poem, so impressive to Mary Shelley when as a child she heard the poet himself recite it, had in the intervening years been {38} overshadowed by the works of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. The Ancient Mariner's ethical, even religious, anti-individualist theme in many ways opposes later romantic ideals. But even though the Ancient Mariner is not specifically about women's roles, it emphasizes a moral that women especially were asked to reinforce with increasing vigor. Ironically, as women responded to demands that they be guardians of the moral order, Mariner-like transgressions of communal taboos among explorers and colonists were being perpetrated and even rewarded in legally sanctioned extensions of the British Empire as, for instance, the East India Company. Incidences of shipboard brutality, such as Walton alludes to, were often reported in connection with these imperialist ventures. Thus the reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, another 1831 addition to Frankenstein, is rendered extraordinarily appropriate in historical terms. It underscores the difficult position of a woman like Margaret, who is expected to oversee the morals of her brother even when she is excluded from his outbound ship.

As Walton moves away from his sister's sphere of influence, his confidence about his mission seems to grow. Again anticipating her corrective admonitions, he first reassures her: "Be assured that for my own sake, as well as yours, I will not rashly encounter danger. I will be cool, persevering, and prudent." But he abruptly takes a different tone, challenging and almost defiant: "But success shall crown my endeavours. . . . What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?" (67-68). Primed for adventure in a world uninhabited by women, he soon meets the sympathetic friend he has 1onged for.

Walton's fourth letter describes his momentous meeting with Victor Frankenstein, who is in many ways Margaret Saville's opposite number. An unmarried man, in pursuit of a "daemon," far from his own country, Victor Frankenstein seems to be the nemesis of civil society as represented by Margaret. Once Walton meets this "brother of [his] heart" (72), the salutations to Margaret cease and his direct responses to her become more condescending. Mary Shelley added a paragraph for the 1831 edition that reinforces this change in Walton's attitude, again calling attention to Margaret's separate sphere of influence and clearly exposing its limitations: "Will you smile at the enthusiasm I express concerning this divine wanderer? You would not if you {39} saw him. You have been tutored and refined by books and retirement from the world, and you are therefore somewhat fastidious; but this only renders you the more fit to appreciate the extraordinary merits of this wonderful man" (74). The inherent contradictions in the arguments of social philosophers like Auguste Comte and Catherine Beecher are obvious here in Walton's letter. Comte, Beecher, and Robert Walton all attempt to elevate middle-class women to the status of civil guardians while keeping them in their domestic places. If, on the one hand, Margaret is tutored, refined, and retired from the world, how can she be "more fit to appreciate" this "divine wanderer" who is decidedly out in the world? This conflict between women's responsibility to maintain the moral order and their limited opportunities to do so is unresolved in the remainder of Frankenstein. But recognition of it is central to an understanding of the antagonisms between Victor Frankenstein, his Creature, and Victor's family.

The final series of letters, recorded in chapter 24, underscores even more dramatically the untenable nature of the separate-sphere doctrine. Walton becomes intoxicated by Victor Frankenstein's rallying cry to the crew: "Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return as heroes who have fought and conquered and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe" (253). This speech is nothing more than a series of powerful, "heroic," but nonetheless empty clichés. Under their control, Walton seems not to consider that there is in fact no "foe," and certainly no disgrace in turning back from a dangerous and rather ambiguous venture. In the throes of a typically masculinist quest for glory, and egged on by Victor Frankenstein, the master quester, Walton resentfully agrees to turn back. "The die is cast: I have consented to return if we are not destroyed. Thus are my hopes blasted by cowardice and indecision; I come back ignorant and disappointed. It requires more philosophy than I possess to bear this injustice with patience" (254). Walton has clearly forgotten his earlier assurances to Margaret. Speaking in her terms, he had referred to his "prudence and considerateness whenever the safety of others" was concerned. But what is deemed prudent and considerate in Margaret's sphere has become "cowardice and indecision" in the quintessentially male sphere of his {40} Arctic expedition. Subsequently, Walton promises to further recount the details of his failed quest to Margaret, "and while I am wafted toward England and towards you I will not despond" (254). It is apparent in this closing letter that only a very thin thread connects Walton to Margaret's world. Her early fosterage has barely rescued him from the seductions of Victor Frankenstein's sphere of influence.

Mary Shelley has thus carefully designed these framing letters between Robert Walton and Margaret Saville, the "civil servant" of the novel and her own surrogate, to establish the complicated ethical problems inherent in a society that advocated separate spheres of influence for men and women.


1. Quoted in Mary R. Beard, Woman as a Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities (New York: Octagon Books, 1976), 89.

2. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 124-25.

3. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1929), 197.

4. Quoted in Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen, eds, Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, vol. 1, 1750-1880. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1983), 182.

5. Quoted in Constance Rover, Love, Morals, and the Feminists (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), 78, 94.