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The Anniversary


In Knight's Quarterly Review 3 (Aug. 1824): 195-99.

{195} I do not think I ever was so much disappointed in any book as in Valperga; I had the very highest expectations of the maturing of the genius which could produce such a work as Frankenstein. The faults of Frankenstein were occasional extravagance and overwriting; -- it was, therefore, natural to suppose that the interval of between four and five years would correct this, without impairing its freshness, force, and vigour. But in Valperga there is not the slightest trace of the same hand -- instead of the rapidity and enthusiastic energy which hurries you forward in Frankenstein, every thing is cold, crude, inconsecutive, and wearisome; -- not one flash of imagination, not one spark of passion -- opening it as I did, with eager expectation, it must indeed have been bad for me after toiling a week to send the book back without having finished the first volume. This induced me to read Frankenstein again -- for I thought I must have been strangely mistaken in my original judgment. So far, however, from this, a second reading has confirmed it. I think Frankenstein possesses extreme power, and displays capabilities such as I did hope would have produced far different things from Castruccio.

The circumstances under which Frankenstein was written are well known; -- it is one of three tales agreed to be composed on {196} supernatural subjects by the Shelleys, (Mr. or Mrs., of which more anon,) Dr. Polidori, and Lord Byron. -- Frankenstein is the Shelley work -- the Vampyre Polidori's, -- and that of Lord Byron (I conclude) the fragment published at the end of Mazeppa. I have but a faint recollection of this last -- but I remember perfectly agreeing in a criticism of it which I saw somewhere at the time, namely, that it was in perfect contrariety to the rules of Aristotle, having neither beginning, middle, nor end. The Vampyre made considerable noise on its appearance from its being announced as Lord Byron's; Polidori always denied being a party to this paltry imposition, whether truly or not I cannot say -- but it certainly appears strange that his publishers could have played it off without at least his connivance. The deception, however, could do no more than sell off the first edition, -- for nothing could be more evident than that it was impossible that Lord Byron could be the author of such a thing. I was abroad at the time it came out, and it was brought to me by a friend as a great curiosity, being Lord Byron's only prose composition, and he misled by the name, told me "his blood curdled as he read it." I had not, however, got beyond two pages before I saw that it was the most impudent of all impostures, being one that was sure to be found out, and that immediately. Accordingly, a few days after, arrived the copy of Lord Byron's letter in Galignani's Messenger, disavowing the work, which he said he had not seen, and adding, with his peculiar felicity of sneer --"If it be good, I would not rob any man of his laurels -- if it be bad, I would not bear the burden of any one's dulness but my own."

Polidori was a man whose ruin it was to go abroad with Lord Byron as his physician; he by this means lived much with him and Shelley, and hence from being continually in the company of men of genius he imbibed the preposterous notion that he was a man of genius himself. I have heard a story, which I believe, of his saying to these two, that they had a name, but that he could write poetry as good, if not superior, to theirs. When Polidori became insupportable, and Lord Byron could stand it no longer, he returned to England, and then his story, in despite of his vanity and overweening presumption, becomes melancholy. He was bitterly pinched by poverty, and the gloom which he had, I believe, originally assumed as a foppish token of genius, became in a great degree real, from the misery of his circumstances. He could get no employment in his profession, and began to study the law. After the Vampyre, he wrote two or three things; a tragedy, a novel, and a poem -- but they were all one worse than another -- inveterately dull, and never, by any chance, English; they did not sell, and he became more and more distressed and desponding -- fancying himself a second Otway, -- another Chatterton. {197} His end, poor fellow, was melancholy indeed; yet marked by that self-conceit which was so peculiarly his characteristic. He fancied he had discovered what is termed in the language of gamesters une martingale, i. e., an infallible mode of winning at Rouge et Noir; -- a notion which has misled, ruined, and destroyed as many as ever the philosophers' stone, or the elixir vitae did in the old days of alchemy. The consequence was what might be expected -- he lost a sum utterly beyond what he could ever have any hope of paying, and killed himself.

To return to Frankenstein, it is, I think, the best instance of natural passions applied to supernatural events that I ever met with. Grant that it is possible for one man to create another, and the rest is perfectly natural and in course. I do not allude to the incidents, for they are thrown together with a haste and carelessness so apparent as to be almost confessed; but the sentiments -- both of thought and passion -- are given with a truth which is equal to their extraordinary vigour. I am surprised to see by the preface that Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany supposed the creation of a human being "as not of impossible occurrence." I can understand that it might be possible to put together a human frame -- though with the very greatest difficulty -- both from the intricacy and minuteness of the conformation, the most trifling error in which would be fatal, and from the difficulty of preventing putrescence during the process, without drying up the form like a mummy, which would incapacitate it from all purposes of life. But, granting that a frame could be so constructed, I cannot conceive how Dr. Darwin, who, however over-rated by his friends, was certainly a man of considerable powers of mind, I cannot conceive, I say, how he could contemplate the possibility of infusing the principle of life, when of such principle we are wholly ignorant. Many attempts have been made to say where life dwells -- to prove that such or such a part is infallibly vital; but whoever could say what life itself was? This is one of the most strange of those mysteries which are hidden from human reason. The simplest operations of nature are, in their cause and process, equally inscrutable; -- the whole progress and vegetation from the seed rotting in the earth, to the shoot, the sapling, the tree, the blossom, the fruit -- is as utterly inscrutable by man as are the causes of his own production and existence.

The most unskillful thing in the book is the extreme ugliness of the being whom Frankenstein creates. It is not natural, that to save himself additional trouble from the minuteness of the parts, he should create a giant. He must have known the vast danger of forming one of such bodily power, whose mind it would take a considerable time to mould into humanity. Besides, {198} though it is highly natural that the features which had been chosen individually as perfect, and which appeared so even when conjoined in the lifeless figure, should, on their being vivified, have an incongruous and unearthly aspect; yet, it is not at all probable, that one with Frankenstein's science should have formed a creature of such "appalling hideousness." It is utterly inconceivable also, that he should have let the monster (as he is somewhat unfairly called) escape; -- one of the thoughts which must, one would imagine, have been uppermost in his mind during his labours, would have been the instructing his creature intellectually as he had formed him physically.

In the account which the creature gives of his instruction by means of watching the polished cottagers, the hastiness of the composition is the most apparent. Indeed, nothing would require such extreme trouble and carefulness as a correct representation of the mind of one who had (from whatever circumstances) reached maturity without any acquired knowledge. Those things which, from having been known to us before the period to which our remembrances reach, appear to be part of our innate consciousness, would be perfect novelty to such a being. Not only speech would be non-existent but even sight would be imperfect in him. In short, it would require much thought and some physical knowledge, joined (as I before said) to the greatest care, to render such a description at once full and accurate. In Frankenstein what there is of it is sufficiently interesting in itself, but it suggests so frequently how much more it might be wrought out, that it brings strongly into view its own imperfectness.

For my own part, I confess that my interest in the book is entirely on the side of the monster. His eloquence and persuasion, of which Frankenstein complains, are so because they are truth. The justice is indisputably on his side, and his sufferings are, to me, touching to the last degree. Are there are [sic] any sufferings, indeed, so severe as those which arise from the sensation of dereliction, or, (as in this case) of isolation? Even the slightest tinge of those feelings, arising as they often do from trivial circumstances, as from passing a solitary evening in a lone and distant situation -- even these, are bitter to a severe degree. What it must be, then, -- what is it to feel oneself alone in the world! Fellow-feeling is the deepest of all the needs which Nature has implanted within us. The impulses which lead us to the physical preservation of our life are scarcely stronger than those which impel us to communion with our fellows. Alas! then to have no fellows! -- to be, with feelings of kindliness and beneficence, the object of scorn and hate to every one whose eyes lighted on us! -- to be repaid with blows and wounds for the very benefits we confer! -- The poor monster always, for these reasons, {199} touched me to the heart. Frankenstein ought to have reflected on the means of giving happiness to the being of his creation, before he did create him. Instead of that, he heaps on him all sorts of abuse and contumely for his ugliness, which was directly his work, and for his crimes to which his neglect gave rise.

But whence arises the extreme inferiority of Valperga? I can account for it only by supposing that Shelley wrote the first, though it was attributed to his wife, -- and that she really wrote the last. Still I should not, from internal evidence, suppose Frankenstein to be the work of Shelley. It has much of his poetry and vigour -- but it is wholly free from those philosophical opinions from which scarcely any of his works are free, and for which there are many fair openings in Frankenstein. It is equally to be observed that there are no religious reflections-- and that there are many circumstances in which a mind at all religiously inclined would not have failed to have expressed some sentiments of that nature. It may be, that Mrs. Shelley wrote Frankenstein -- but, knowing that its fault was extravagance, determined to be careful and correct in her next work; and, thence, as so many do from the same cause, became cold and common-place. At all events, the difference of the two books is very remarkable.