A valuable lesson for all aspiring novelists
Posted October 26, 2011on:
In 2008 the Mary Shelley scholar Charles E. Robinson prepared a specialist edition of Frankenstein that was published by the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. This edition made it possible, for the first time, to see what Mary Shelley actually wrote and to compare it with what was changed by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Robinson presents both versions of the novel in this edition and adds extensive notes.
One thing I’ll say at the outset is that many aspiring novelists could learn a valuable lesson from this book. Editors aren’t always right!
Mary Shelley’s prose is as vivid and vital as her imagination. I love Percy Shelley the poet, but he wasn’t a good novelist and I prefer the version of the novel without his interference.
The second thing I’ll say is that the weakest part of the novel is perhaps the clue to its endurance as a story that haunts our collective imagination.
Victor Frankenstein’s monster teaches himself language using three books that few English people have read: The Sorrows of Werther by Goethe, Plutarch’s Lives, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Here’s what he says about Paradise Lost.
“I read it as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting — I often referred the several situations as their similarity struck me to my own.”
The last clause is hard to understand. Percy tries to make it clearer by making it a separate sentence with commas:
“I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own.”
The point is clear. The monster identified with the characters in the story. He felt the injustice of being cursed by his creator. He learnt not only to read and to speak, but to feel.
You do not have to read Frankenstein as a true history. But Mary Shelley, through the vividness and urgency of her prose, makes it possible to do so; and it is only by identifying with the characters as real people that you appreciate the story’s mythic power.
I identify very strongly with many situations in the story but this particular passage has a very special resonance for me. I learned this language through reading books, not those books, but many nineteenth century English books. The language I learned was not the one I encountered when I came to England. At first I couldn’t understand anyone. I felt alienated, like Frankenstein. I sometimes cried.
I encountered prejudice and I was patronised. But fortunately I didn’t scare people away or murder anyone so I didn’t have to run away to the vast icy plains of the North Pole, or even Scotland (where the English they speak is even stranger.)
Instead I found refuge in the internet and the other book-reading monsters there.
This is just my most personal point of contact with the story. Many other readers have found their own. I am sure it will go on resonating in different ways with many future readers and this is why, in my humble opinion, it is one of the greatest books ever written.