Contents Index

Mary Shelley: Immortality, Gender and the Rosy Cross

Marie Roberts

In Reviewing Romanticism, ed. Philip W. Martin and Robin Jarvis (New York: St. Martin's, 1992), pp. 60-68

{60} Naming the parts of the assembled title, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, signposts the three major influences playing on her life and work: namely that unholy trinity of Shelleyan aesthetics, Wollstonecraftian feminism and Godwinian radicalism, which produced a daughter of the Enlightenment as ideologically hybrid and disparate as the very creature pieced together by Victor Frankenstein. Invoking such an irresistible parallel is not to comply with Aristotle's equation of the female with the monstrous, but instead to give resonance to this amalgam of conflicting elements destined to propagate both the unexpected and the incongruous. Examples of such contradictions abound, as in Mary Shelley's creative urge to beget monsters and conjure up visions of a mad scientist's gargantuan desire to create life which defied male precepts of feminine propriety. The public way in which she defines herself through her novels belies her projected private image of docility and submission, when we consider such denunciations of the novel as William Beckford's verdict that Frankenstein (1818) was 'perhaps the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times' (Gotlieb 61). Likewise her unwillingness to inculcate the feminist radicalism of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is offset by her apparent deployment of a feminist critique of science in Frankenstein. The Gothic Rosicrucian ingredients of this novel, the legacy of her father, William Godwin, are, for want of a more appropriate metaphor, cross-fertilised by the Romanticism of -- among others -- her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley who, according to some critics, provided the author with a model for the monster, even though its hideous appearance is anathema to Romantic aesthetics. De Quincey draws attention to a family resemblance between Godwin (to whom the novel was dedicated) and his daughter's creation by remarking that 'Most people felt of Mr Godwin {61} . . . the same alienation and horror as of a ghoul, or a bloodless vampyre (sic) or the monster created by Frankenstein' (III: 25). Aside from the obvious familial connections uniting the discordant elements in Mary Shelley's life and art, a measure of kinship may be realised by way of a Rosicrucian reading of much of her fiction. Her acquaintance with the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross was probably mediated by Godwin who was to formally introduce his readers to them finally in his biographical Lives of the Necromancers, published in 1834 (35-6). Elusive in the extreme, the Brethren pose a daunting challenge to the researcher, reputed as they are to be invisible as well as immortal! Godwin's fascination with Rosicrucianism led him to father the Rosicrucian novel, a designation employed first by Edith Birkhead when identifying him as the first novelist to 'embody in a romance the ideas of the Rosicrucians' (16). From his seminal work, St Leon (1799), sprang a curious literary progeny starting with the Gothic monstrosity St Irvyne: The Rosicrucian (1810), written this time by Percy Shelley, who, according to Peacock's caricature in Nightmare Abbey, had been so taken with the idea of a Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross that he even began to talk like a Rosicrucian (Peacock 102). Rosicrucian-inspired fiction characteristically explores the artistic possibilities presented by the legendary philosopher's stone and elixir of life which had been added on to the Renaissance tradition of the Rosy Cross.1 Protagonists of these novels invariably become disillusioned with their acquired immortality; for them the elixir vitae transmutes into the taedium vitae. Cast down into a vortex of loneliness and guilt, these immortals are compelled to wander peripatetically in search of spiritual fulfilment. Chamelion-like, a resurrected Faust or Wandering Jew, the Rosicrucian hero is a composite of the heretical and the fallen, seeking out from amongst the arcane repositories of magic and myth forbidden springs of ancient knowledge, Arcadian fountains of perpetual youth and archetypal elixirs of eternal life.

Mary Shelley's most overtly Rosicrucian piece is the short story 'The Mortal Immortal' (1833), in which the hero, Winzy, accidentally drinks the elixir of life, thinking it to be a cure for his unrequited love. Ironically, his ensuing revitalisation and rejuvenation not only gain his beloved Bertha's undying love but also lead to the unexpected side-effect of eternal life. After having outlived all his companions, Winzy diagnoses himself as desirous of death, yet never dying -- a mortal immortal. This is the inescapable paradigm for the {62} Rosicrucian heroes, who resolutely throw themselves into the craters of active volcanoes, along the paths of avalanches, offer themselves as human targets in the front line of battle and beckon the eye of the hurricane to consume them. But Winzy, who admits that he is still a relatively young immortal compared to the eighteen centuries endured by veterans like the Wandering Jew, is not yet willing to accept defeat and is still prepared to 'adopt more resolute means, and, by scattering and annihilating the atoms that compose my frame, set at liberty the life imprisoned within' (Collected Tales 230). Humorous touches in the tale describe how Bertha, tired of being mistaken for his mother, eventually persuades Winzy to wear a grey wig. It is tempting to identify Bertha with the ageing Mary Shelley, who was continually confronted by a spectre of Shelley as a timeless vision of perpetual youth and immortal genius. Addressing the grave as 'that miserable conclave to which the beings I best loved belong' (Journal 193), she mourns for herself as the undead, the last human being living out a solitary existence on a planet littered with the dead. The dramatisation of this desolation takes place in her third full-length novel, The Last Man (1826). It opens in the cavern of the Cumaean Sibyl, where an ancient piece of parchment has been found recording the anguish of the sole survivor of the human race, Verney, who so far has been unable to escape his Todestraum or dream of death.

In Frankenstein, Victor and his monstrous creation form between them another version of the Rosicrucian hero who has transcended death via the forbidden pathways of magic and science. Consuming his way through existence, the Rosicrucian wanderer parasitically steals a life-span to which he is not entitled. A metonymy for alienation, the Rosicrucian, who has been abandoned by death, is left lonely and isolated. In Frankenstein there is displacement in this respect, since it is the monster who pays the penalty by proxy for Victor's pursuit of the philosopher's stone. The dialectic between Victor and the monster may be understood in terms of Marx's theory of alienation, -- part of which concerns mankind's alienation from the product of its labour, seen in the estrangement of the monster from his maker. The creature has the characteristics of both worker and product, having been negated and alienated by capitalist society. Franco Moretti, who regards the monster as a metaphor of the terror of the worker embodied in bourgeois society, argues that it incarnates the dialectic of estranged labour described by Marx: 'The more formed the product the more deformed the worker, the more {63} civilised the product, the more barbaric the worker.'2 The grotesque appearance of the monster may also be seen in terms of this analogy, since alienated labour which generates productivity for the master, as in Frankenstein's scientific achievement, results in deformity for the worker. The potential of the monster as a catalyst for revolution is the quality most noticeably identifiable with Percy Shelley, whose occultist interests and graveyard pursuits may also have inspired Mary Shelley with the model for Victor: at one stage in the narrative he is accused by his tutor, Professor Kempe, of exchanging 'the discoveries of recent enquirers for the dreams of forgotten alchemists' such as Paracelsus and Agrippa.

I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life. But the latter obtained my most undivided attention: wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would be attained by the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death! (35)3
Critics who identified the author as a disciple of Godwin included Walter Scott, who noted that Frankenstein, with its emphasis upon the pursuit of the philosopher's stone, is a novel written on similar lines to St Leon.

Apart from the variations on a Rosicrucian theme represented by the monster, three further examples should suffice to draw attention to those aspects of Mary Shelley's fiction which may be related to the tradition of the Rosy Cross: the visual imprint of Fuseli, the connection of the Rosicrucian Johann Konrad Dippel with Castle Frankenstein, and finally the influence of Erasmus Darwin's botanical poetry.

Adding to the already lengthy list of sources for the novel, it is possible that Mary Shelley may have been inspired with the idea for the monster after seeing Fuseli's painting The Rosicrucian Cavern (1803), which depicts a mechanical being defending from intruders the tomb of Christian Rosencreutz, the legendary founder of the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. Peter Tomary, in his critical biography of Fuseli, suggests that Mary may have seen this painting at an exhibition held at the Royal Academy in 1804. It illustrated an essay by Eustace Budgell which had appeared in The Spectator, describing how a mechanical statue primed to attack intruders while {64} guarding the tomb of Rosencreutz turns out to be no more than a piece of vicious clockwork.4 In retrospect, this automaton may also be seen as a distant relative of the clunking, bolted cinematic version of the monster. Percy Shelley's enthusiasm for the current vogue for automata may have galvanised Mary Shelley's imagination.

Even the title of the novel could be argued as having a Rosicrucian resonance, if we accept that it was named after Castle Frankenstein, allegedly the home of the alchemist, Johann Konrad Dippel.5 The tentative connection between Dippel and the Frankenstein legend, while awaiting conclusive historiographical confirmation, serves to enhance the mystique of the novel. Parallels between Victor and the eighteenth-century alchemist Dippel are much in evidence: both were drawn to the quest for the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life. More compelling still, Dippel even used to sign his name 'Frankenstein' and, again in common with Victor, one of his alleged hobbies was to plunder graves for the purposes of furthering his experiments in the artificial creation of life; an activity which in the eyes of the authorities hardly compensated for the blasphemy of exhuming the dead. Dippel, undeterred, did not separate his necromantic experiments from his researches into the elixir of life, which had led him to suppose that blood as opposed to other vital body fluids held the life-giving property he sought. His distillation of blood and bones, liquidized and conducted through iron tubes, conjures up the crude mechanics of a scene from Victor's laboratory. The end-product, known as Dippel's Oil, far from being the panacea it was heralded as, served most effectively as a nervous stimulant, doubtless guaranteed to expel the most persistent opium dream. But this chemical compound was eclipsed by yet another formula, this time for the elixir of life, which Dippel offered to disclose to the local land-owner, the Landgrave of Hesse, in exchange for Castle Frankenstein. In a pamphlet of 1766, the Rosicrucian divulged that he had discovered the secret of prolonging his own life to the age of 135 up to the year 1801. But unfortunately Dippel died a year after making this claim!

The interplay between magic and science within a Rosicrucian context crops up again, this time in connection with Erasmus Darwin. Attempting to authenticate the foundations of her fiction, Mary Shelley calls upon Darwin's scientific authority to confirm that re-animation was not of 'impossible occurrence' (Frankenstein 6). In her introduction to the novel, she describes a conversation between Byron and Percy Shelley concerning Darwin's experiments with {65} artificial life, which may have triggered off her waking dream. A less well-known Darwinian source for the monster may be found in the poem The Botanic Garden (1791), containing as it does a vivid description of the creation of a monstrous being 'castled in ice' (187) which puts us in mind of the Frankenstein monster cast out on the Arctic wastes. In The Botanic Garden, the first faltering steps of Mary Shelley's creature would seem to be almost anticipated:

IMMORTAL LIFE, her hand extending, courts
The lingering form, his tottering step supports
Leads on to Pluto's realms the dreary way
And gives him trembling to Elysian day. (88)
Like Frankenstein's monster, Darwin's creature inspires terror in all who see it:
His mass enormous to the affrighted South;
Spreads o'er the shuddering line his shadowy limbs,
And frost and famine follow as he swims. (188)
Eventually the being is redeemed, soothed by sylphs and hailed by nations as the 'MONARCH OF THE AIR':
SYLPHS! round his cloud-couch your band array
Charm with soft tones, with tender touches check,
Bend to your golden yoke his willing neck,
With silver curb his yielding teeth restrain. (189)
In The Botanic Garden, Darwin combines magic and science by exploring his interest in the artificial production of life through the allegory and myth of the Rosicrucian tradition. In his other botanic poem, Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life (1794-6), Darwin had noted that environmental conditions could mould monstrosities. Possibly as a response to this, Shelley shows how environment rather than heredity was responsible for poisoning the mental, spiritual and psychic faculties of the Frankenstein monster. Darwin's theory of generation, founded on the belief that gender and other genetic inheritances were determined by the mind of the male parent, may also have had significance in relation to the Frankenstein creation.

{66} Victor Frankenstein is the architect of an immortality independent of women which effectively usurps the female reproductive role. The Frankenstein monster, though literally of woman born, is a dire warning of the dangers of solitary paternal propagation. As a grim parable of Lockean empiricism, the monster is fed on a diet of primarily patriarchal sense-impressions. Maternal deprivation accelerates mental and physical degeneration, moral and spiritual decline. Mary Shelley debunks the masculine myth that woman was born of man by portraying the offspring of a male mother as a monster. Frankenstein's Luciferian folly of pride and failure of the imagination is posited on the belief that men, basking in the illusion of the dispassionate objectivity of so-called scientific rationality rather than relying on the workings of nature, can produce a higher form of life than that brought about by sexual reproduction and nurturing by the female. Although professing to shy away from polemic, Mary Shelley challenges the historically pervasive and culturally validated identification of rational science with masculinity which marginalises instinctual Nature and femininity. Her own procreation of fictional monstrosities, amplifying the monstrous consequences of male narcissism, shows the scientist not only perilously denying the value of domestic relations -- a matter which had preoccupied Godwin in St Leon -- but also striving to subjugate nature. Anne Mellor develops this argument by showing how Mary Shelley deploys a feminist critique of science predicated on the way in which scientific developments sometimes employed metaphor and imagery. Virile male science pitted against a passive and subdued nature for the purposes of violation and penetration was a predominant image of the Scientific Revolution. This is the imperative uttered in Frankenstein when Professor Waldman urges the young Victor to adhere to the model of scientists who penetrate into the recesses of nature and expose how she works in her hiding places. Mellor cites Bacon's famous injunction: 'I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.'6 Regarded generally as the father of the 'scientific method', Bacon does not here explicate his role merely in the prose of paternity but instead resorts to the highly-charged language of the slave trader.

As a system advocating synthesis, the Rosicrucian tradition may have attracted Mary Shelley as an ideological alternative to this bifurcation of magic and science, and this binary opposition between the male and the female principles. This may be illustrated by the {67} central symbolism of Rosicrucianism, the rose on the cross, which is a representation of the unity of the male and female compounding the name of the legendary founder, Christian Rosencreutz. Yet the androgyny of this system of symbolism grounded in the iconography of alchemy may be suspect to present-day thinking, since androgynous compromises invariably end up privileging the male, and as such do not offer a satisfactory alternative to the gendering of male science and female nature.7 The literary tradition of the Rosy Cross enabled Mary Shelley to proclaim the importance of the domestic affections as espoused by her parents, as well as to explore the theme of mortal immortality -- an enduring concern of her work. The spiritual odyssey of the Rosicrucian wanderer had perilously overloaded existing Gothic structures; hence its shift towards the more flexible parameters of Romanticism. Mary Shelley's fiction effectively freed the Rosicrucian preoccupation with immortality from Godwin's Enlightenment materialism and Percy Shelley's Germanic melodrama, thus enabling it to take its rightful place within the Romantic imagination.


Notes 1. For a full discussion, see Roberts.

2. Marx 136. See Franco Moretti, 'The Dialectic of Fear', New Left Review 136 (1982): 67-87.

3. David Ketter[er] argues that

symbolically, the transformation of lead into gold betokens the transmutation of the alchemist from a physical to a presumably eternal spiritual state. To a degree, then, Frankenstein is posing a false dichotomy. No less than the elixir of life, the philosopher's stone promises immortality. The effect is to blur the equation between immortality and transcendence. (83)

4. See The Spectator 15 May 1712, no. 379.

5. See Florescu 86. The account of Dippel has been taken from The History of Johann Konrad Dippel in the Theological Period of his Life (Darmstadt, 1908) 183.

6. Quoted by Anne K. Mellor in 'Frankenstein: A Feminist Critique of Science' (Levine 305).

7. Androgyny has been discredited by, for example, Harris and Secor. See also Veeder.

Works Cited

Birkhead, Edith, The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (London: Constable, 1921).

Darwin, Erasmus, The Botanic Garden (London: J. Johnson, 1789-91).

De Quincey, Thomas, The Collected Works of Thomas de Quincey, ed. David Masson, 6 vols (Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1880).

Florescu, Radu, In Search of Frankenstein (London: New English Library, 1975).

Godwin, William, Lives of the Necromancers or, an account of the most eminent persons in successive ages, who have acclaimed for themselves, or to whom has been imputed by others, the exercise of magical powers (London: Frederick J. Mason, 1834).

Gotlieb, Howard B., William Beckford of Fonthill (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960).

Harris, Daniel A., 'Androgyny: The Sexist Myth in Disguise', Women's Studies 2 (1974): 171-84.

Ketter[er], David, Frankenstein's Creation: The Book, The Monster, and Human Reality (University of Victoria, 1979).

Levine, George (ed.), One Culture: Essays in Science and Literature (Madison, WI and London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

Marx, Karl, Early Texts, ed. David McLellan (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972).

Peacock, Thomas Love, Nightmare Abbey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976).

Roberts, Marie, Gothic Immortals: The Fiction of the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross (London: Routledge, 1990).

Scott, Walter, Rev. of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 12 (1818): 614.

Secor, Cynthia, 'Androgyny: An Early Reappraisal', Women's Studies 2 (1974): 161-9.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Collected Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Richard Garnett (London: William Oaterson & Co., 1891).

-----, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, ed. James Rieger (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974).

-----, Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947).

Veeder, William, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986).