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The background to a seminal myth @BodPublishing #frankenstein

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The Making of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Daisy Hay

Although 2018 is being touted as the centenary of the end of the First World War, this year also sees a very notable bicentenary – that of the publication of Mary Shelley’s seminal work of Gothic literature, “Frankenstein”, which was of course first published in 1818. There have been a number of new publications to mark that anniversary, but Bodleian Library Publishing have rather taken the prize, in my view, with a beautifully produced and thought-provoking volume which takes a look at the genesis of Shelley’s great work.

Mary Shelley, of course, came from literary stock: her mother was the great feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was author William Godwin. Tragically, Mary junior’s mother died after giving birth to her, an event which informed the daughter’s life and work. And indeed, Mary Shelley’s life was anything but tranquil and dull, being punctuated by regular drama and tragedy. The loss of her children by miscarriage or death and the drowning of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, informed her life and work; she was indeed a remarkably strong woman to survive such blows.

Daisy Hay’s excellent book takes a look at the forces that formed the Frankenstein myth, and pivotal to that is the fact that it is a mythology of birth; a weird sort of birth, at that, with a creature constructed rather than born naturally, but still it is a birth. Hay’s five chapters focus on different angles of that genesis, taking in Time, People, Place, Paper and Relic to delve into what caused Shelley to write her book. Certainly, the context is vital to understanding why “Frankenstein” is what it is, and Hay does a wonderful job of placing Mary Shelley firmly into her landscape, with the events of the first French Revolution still fresh in people’s minds; as well as showing the maelstrom of scientific experimentation and discovery that was taking place.

“Frankenstein” in its turn constructs an allegory for the French Revolution in which first the potential and then the vainglorious corruption of Revolutionary ambition is laid bare. The novel reacts too to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, and to its unlooked-for impact on labouring communities.

The people in Mary’s life were of course important to the development of the book. Being surrounded by Percy, Lord Byron, John Polidori et al, in creative and atmospheric settings, is going to stimulate the brain. It’s clear from Hay’s writing here that it was a complex interaction of external forces (world events, inventions, science) and internal (family) dynamics which formed the final story. She also clearly delineates the effects of childbearing and loss on the narrative, and it’s hardly surprising that Shelley ended up creating a birth myth like no other.

Hay takes things further by exploring the manuscripts left behind; not only of “Frankenstein” itself, but letters, diaries and works of art, all of which tell their own story, adding to the greater tale. Poignantly, we also see images of the relics Mary kept during her life: locks of hair from Shelley and their son, as well as her own; Shelley’s watch and seals; and his pen. These bring home the reality of what she lost, and although she lived on to produce more work, she felt more in touch with the past than the future, leaving her legacy to be taken care of by her loving daughter-in-law, Jane Shelley.

“Making….” is of course a beautifully produced book, lavishly stuffed with colour pictures on glossy paper, which I’ve come to expect from Bodleian. Many of the striking images are drawn from the Bodleian Library’s extensive collections and they enhance the narrative wonderfully, bringing Mary and the story of her creation to life. However, the narrative itself is fascinating and erudite, and I found it really enhanced my understanding of the achievements of the book as well as its meaning. I read “Frankenstein” back in the day, as well as Stoker’s “Dracula” and was struck by just how powerful and damn good the books were. Up until that time I’d known them through Hollywood cliché; well, the book is always better and that was certainly the case with these too. The excitement and suspense, as well as the exploration of ideas, with which these books were filled was miles away from Karloff and co.

Mary Shelley was a fascinating, inspiring woman, and her work left an immense, influential and lasting legacy. As Hay reminds us, the word ‘Frankenstein’ is in common currency, used for everything from Cold War symbolism to GM crops. The mainstream popular imagery surrounding her most famous book doesn’t do it justice, and “Making..” has made me not only keen to reread “Frankenstein” but also to explore Shelley’s life and work further; fortunately, as you can see from the image above, I have just the books on my shelves to do that…

(Review copy kindly supplied by Bodleian Library Publishing, for which many thanks)

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Imps and Immortals – treats from an independent publisher @AmpersandPubLtd

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Tree-based publishing has had something of a resurgence recently, despite rumours of its demise at the hands of e-reading; and much of this, to my mind, is down to the increase in smaller, independent publishers. They excel in producing unusual, innovative and unexpected works, and many of these are classics – lost or forgotten ones, previously untranslated ones, or just plain unusual ones. Needless to say, I’m a fan; I blog regularly on books from the indies, so I was excited to see a name new to me on Simon’s blog recently – Ampersand Press.

Aren’t they cute?????

Ampersand are truly independent, in that they have their own printing press (shades of the Hogarth Press there!) and it was their classics imprint which particularly caught my eye. They have an intriguing range of short works available and were kind enough to provide two titles for me to have a look at – both of which turned out to be excellent reads! The books are dinky little editions, about 5 inches square, and with striking cover illustrations; and I particularly like the colour of the paper they use; it’s off-white so easier for my slight astigmatism! So here are some thoughts on the two I’ve read.

Fagu Malaia by Robert Louis Stevenson

You might have noticed that I’ve developed a thing about RLS recently (not helped by my visit to Edinburgh) and I have several of his works on the shelves that I’m intending to read. However, this short work really hit the spot! “Fagu Malaia” is more commonly known as “The Bottle Imp” and it’s one of Stevenson’s best-loved tales (as well as the name of an online Scottish literary magazine). As the introduction reveals, though, the story was written in Samoa and originally published in the Samoan language. The Samoan title given here is most directly translated as “The Cursed Bottle” and this little edition is complemented by two Hawaiian folk songs.

RLS image c. the lovely National Library of Scotland

So what of the story? Well, it’s a gripping and intense read: the tale is of Keawe, a man with no money but who craves a beautiful house. He buys the titular bottle, and the imp it contains who will grant his every wish. He does indeed get the luxurious lifestyle he wanted, as well as a beautiful wife he adores. However, the bottle comes with a catch – if the owner dies in possession of the bottle, they will burn eternally in hell, and the bottle can only be sold on at a price less than was paid for it. The scene is set for an emotional tale of love and loss, the bottle changing hands hither and thither, and a race against time to see who will actually possess the bottle when the value is so low that it can’t be sold on any more…

Stevenson was a hell of a storyteller, that’s for sure! “Fagu Malaia” is dark, entertaining and exciting and made compelling reading – ideal for something enjoyable to be read in one sitting. Now I *really* want to read more RLS!!

The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley

As with RLS and his wonderful “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, I’ve read Shelley’s most famous work – “Frankenstein”. However, despite having other works by her on the shelves I’ve never picked them up (do you sense a pattern here?) So this collection of three short pieces was just the ticket.

The collection is introduced by Dr. Tabitha Kan, who is fierce in her defence of Shelley as actual author of “Frankenstein” (I had obviously missed that there was any kind of controversy…) and interestingly, all of the stories featured have a common thread with that work – the concept of life after death. Not for nothing is the book subtitled “and other tales of monstrous animation”. The title story deals with a mortal man who has drunk a mysterious elixir which extends his life; “The Reanimated Englishman” has apparently been frozen in suspended animation for a century and a half; and we never find out how “Valerius: The Reanimated Roman” came back to life; but like all of these characters, he’s not that happy…

Because although we might all dream of living forever, Shelley takes on the realities behind that dream and shows how it would become a nightmare. Our loved ones would age and die while we wouldn’t; we would age mentally and be out of keeping with our times; or we would come back to a world that had changed beyond all recognition, to spend our time lamenting the loss of the life we once knew.

Death! Mysterious, ill-visaged friend of weak humanity! Why alone of all mortals have you cast me from your sheltering fold? O, for the peace of the grave! the deep silence of the iron-bound tomb! that thought would cease to work in my brain, and my heart beat no more with emotions varied only by new forms of sadness!

All of these dark, haunting and yet beautiful stories prove how unsuitable humankind is for immortality; and they also prove that Mary Shelley was not just a one trick pony and that I really *should* get one of her other books down off the shelves…

I seem to have developed a tendency for reading short works lately (which may be as much to do with being in the middle of a hideously busy phase at work as anything else); and despite their brevity, these little classics have much to say about human beings and the human condition, as well as being exceptionally pretty and very entertaining. I can see that there may well be future Ampersand Classics featuring on the Ramblings and there is serious risk of another collection building up…

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