A nightmare induced by galvanism? Undoubtedly. But then came the long process of composing the novel and a different question arises, namely: When Mary first came to breathe galvanic life into her accursed Promethean creature, was Britain’s greatest naval hero its true inspiration?
A challenging claim, yes, but when the two lines of my enquiry are closely examined it may be observed that, where the Shelleyan and Nelsonian strands intermesh, a startling picture begins to emerge to reveal Admiral Nelson in a new guise as, in actuality, the true father of the high Gothic novel, and, moreover, the maimed hero whose death of recent memory is sublimated in Frankenstein as an unsuspected Nelson resurrection myth.
‘The world expects every being to do its duty,’ paraphrased the teenaged Percy Bysshe Shelley in defence of his callow egalitarianism, and it was this defiant personal motto that would become the rallying cry of a literary triumvirate, with Nelson’s words transfigured as their English Romantic Credo.
Yet that transfiguration had a darker meaning . . . because, for Shelley, Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, mindful of the perfectibility of man travestied by a hero’s mutilated corpse, the wounds of the late admiral still very much possessed their thoughts.
Galvanic Augury.Remarkably, within hours of Shelley’s eighteenth birthday, an augury of this galvanic fusion of classicised Heroism and metascientific Romanticism could be said to have appeared in the sky when, on Sunday August 5th 1810, the heavens split to hurl a lightning-bolt at the first civic monument in Britain to commemorate Nelson’s victories, searing the obelisk with numberless millions of zeitgeist-animating volts. At that precise moment there was ignited a drama that would unite the Hero of Trafalgar with the two greatest Romantic poets of their age and the eighteen-year-old progenitress of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.
|The Nelson Monument struck by lightning,|
Sunday 5th August 1810. Print from an oil painting by John Knox
in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow.
For I claim a synchronicity was announced by that electric charge, insofar as Lord Byron on that August day, having just heroically swum the Hellespont, and carousing in the distant lands of the Levant, was yet in the same breath still fretting in a letter home for news of his idealised oil portrait; an iconic image in which he had famously personified himself as Nelson in an attitude struck for the painter, Sanders, the previous year.
And, while Byron continued to refine his heroic posturing in emulation of the Great Admiral, his young rival, Shelley, too, was in thrall to the ‘Immortal Memory’ of Nelson and – as a proselytiser of egalitarianism and the liberty of Everyman – was formulating his own life’s motto in homage to the naval commander’s celebrated signal: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’
So, in the summer of 1810, the imaginations of the two future co-inspirators of Frankenstein, were both evidently coloured by the vividness of the Nelsonian myth. Moreover, in the case of Shelley who had sculled at Eton, the sailoring ambitions had taken palpable shape in the eighteen-year-old poet’s improvised boats he launched on his father’s country estate in Sussex, and in his designs for the steam-yachts he would later attempt to build in Tuscany at Livorno, the location of his drowning.
Kindred Souls in the Age of Galvanic Fluid.Shelley, more than any other poet of the brief reign of George IV, recognised the Dawn of the Age of Electricity (albeit, in Shelley’s philosophising, an age of alchemistical ‘Transcendental Technology’, according to a contemporary satirist), and even as a prankish pupil at Eton had experimented with the ‘galvanic fluid’; a highly-charged Leyden Jar in his rooms had delivered a severe shock to one of his tutors.
However, in August 1810, that lightning bolt was but a portent of the classic tale that would be engendered six years later. The dawn of electricity could not be said to have risen in its full splendour, for only in 1810 did Michael Faraday begin his studies that would lead to his discovery and formalisation of the principle underlying the generation of electricity two decades later. In fact, it was not until 1816 that Faraday published the first of his many scientific papers.
1816 was significant date in the history of the New Science for another reason; two kindred souls were conjoined. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley were married in 1816.
|‘The world expects every being to do its duty,’|
paraphrased the teenaged Percy Bysshe Shelley.
A Year Without Summer.Devoted students of the legend of Frankenstein will know this novel was born in 1816, and will be aware that the events which prompted its creation took place in the year following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and the tenth anniversary of Nelson’s funeral . . . the funeral of an archetype who was to enter the collective psyche.
So the mythopoeic origin of Frankenstein stems from a period in which a world-spirit of triumphalism took wing over war-torn Europe, stimulating the thoughts and emotions of three great English Romantics, confined in fate-favoured conjunction in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland: the authoress herself, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Shelley and Lord Byron, together with Byron’s personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, author of that first vampiric bestseller, The Vampyre.
|The Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland.|
(1816 was known as ‘the year without a summer’ owing to the cataclysmic eruption of the Tambora Volcano in Indonesia, the most powerful eruption in recorded history. Global temperatures were lowered by as much as 3 degrees C. Even a year after the eruption, most of the northern hemisphere experienced sharply cooler temperatures during the summer months. Byron wrote in the same year, 1816, in Darkness: ‘The world was void . . . Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless . . .’)
|‘The year without a summer’ . . . |
the cataclysmic eruption of the Tambora Volcano
in Indonesia in 1816.
‘The world was void . . .
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless . . .’
Yet, until now, no scholar it would seem has attributed Mary’s inspiration for the monstrous apparition of her High Gothic novel to the iconic corpse of Lord Nelson, then but a decade cold.
Our Hero Quietly Inurned?Academic methodologies continue to evolve, and recent changes in practical and theoretical approaches to historicisation can now provide Shelleyan scholars with new insights into the socio-cultural contextualisation of Mary’s classic text, enabling Frankenstein to be contemporaneously revisited from the standpoint of a vast corpus of Nelsonian studies.
To judge the textual basis for this re-evaluation, we should first revisit Mary’s nightmare vision which inspired Frankenstein, recorded in her novel’s exegetical preface, to learn how her troubled recollections hint at the true interpretation of events:
. . . I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think . . . I saw with . . . acute mental vision . . . the pale student of unhallowed arts standing before the thing he had put together, I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion . . . frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror stricken . . . but he is awakened [to] behold, the horrid thing . . . looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.Unremarked by biographers, these words I believe reflect the temperament of a brilliant young woman, still in her late teens, who had sought to impress upon Byron the force of her own personality by exhibiting to him, in a coded narrative, their shared affinity with Lord Nelson through the ghoulish fascination their hero’s mutilations held for them, a belief borne out by reference to their own writings and favoured authors.
Lord Byron boasted of the fact that his cousin, Captain Bettesworth, who had brought home despatches from Nelson at Antigua, was notable for having ‘. . . received four and twenty wounds in different places, and at this moment possesses a letter from the late Lord Nelson, stating Bettesworth as the only officer in the navy who had more wounds than himself.’ Similarly, Shelley’s uncle and benefactor, Captain John Pilfold, was the heroic commander of a ship in Nelson’s division at the battle of Trafalgar.
Likewise Mary, in the two years prior to that momentous glacial summer of 1816, was no stranger to the Nelson legend. She had read widely, encouraged by Shelley, pursuing a programme encompassing the great poets, including Coleridge, Milton, Petronius, Shakespeare, Spenser, and, significantly, Robert Southey, who had become Poet Laureate in the year of the first publication of his greatest prose work, The Life of Nelson, which was hailed at once as a masterwork.
As Southey wrote in his moving final passages of the second volume, referring to the autopsy performed on Nelson and the condition of the corpse:
There was reason to suppose, from the appearances upon opening the body, that in the course of nature he might have attained, like his father, to a good old age.Southey’s profound sense of loss, the mourning for a fallen hero, recalls not only the emotional impact the memory of Nelson’s death had on the writers of those times, but the powerful influence exerted on their imaginations both by Southey’s personality and his other literary works. (It’s fascinating to reflect on the fact that without Robert Southey’s urgings, his fellow poet Shelley would not have so soon become acquainted with William Godwin, Mary’s father, in 1812.)
In Frankenstein, for example, it is from Southey, due probably to the promptings of Shelley, that a name of one character derives. The ur-text of Frankenstein first accords the name of ‘Maimouna’ to ‘Safie’, in the De Laceys’ episode concerning the history of the cottagers (Chapter 15), a name that can be traced to Southey’s Thalaba, a work Mary records reading in 1814, two years before her own book’s genesis.
The common connection of Nelson’s first biographer to the Shelley/Byron literary circle, of course, is more memorably summoned when we recall Southey as the alleged scandal-monger whom Byron asserted spread rumours about the Shelleys and Mary’s step-sister, Byron’s lover Claire Claremont, slandering them as the ‘League of Incest’.
Yet, Southey it may be believed figures in their literary lives far more prominently than their love affairs. In 1813, for example, Byron could record in his journal that Southey’s ‘appearance is Epic; and he is the only existing entire man of letters.’ And, Byron affirms, ‘His prose is perfect . . . The life of Nelson is beautiful.’ This was the diarist who would five years later pillory ‘Bob’ Southey, in the dedication to Don Juan, as a pretentious sterile poet who posterity would see ‘. . . fall, for lack of moisture, quite adry, Bob!’ (A dry bob was Regency slang for intercourse without ejaculation.)
So here we can see that Byron’s veneration for Nelson could clearly coexist with a robust revilement of his biographer. As Byron wrote in Don Juan, more than a dozen years after Trafalgar:
Nelson was once Britannia’s God of War,
And still should be so, but the tide is turned;
There’s no more to be said of Trafalgar,
’Tis with our Hero quietly inurned . . .
That Mary, like Byron, was conversant with the life of Nelson, and that her imagination, too, was stirred and stimulated by his exploits, was adduced in an article in the Keats-Shelley Journal written over a quarter of a century ago.
Considering the chronology of the novel, the author, A. D. Harvey, proposes that the climax of Frankenstein, the ice-locked ship of the polar expedition from Archangel, aboard which Frankenstein seeks refuge, was suggested by a ship on an earlier voyage whose crew included the young Nelson.
It is possible . . . Mary Shelley had in mind [a] man of the 1770s, Captain the Honourable Constantine Phipps, who in 1773 led an expedition to try to find the Northeast Passage to India. The fact that [Frankenstein’s ship] departs from Archangel indicates that [the ship] too is sailing east . . . to find a polar route to India . . . Phipps’s attempt to go east was however still remembered in Mary Shelley’s day if only because one of the then popular Baron Munchhausen stories  is set on board Phipps’s ship, and because the young Horatio Nelson, who was still fresh in all Britons’ minds as a naval hero, had accompanied Phipps as a coxswain and had had an adventure with a bear that had become famous as one of the earliest incidents of his legend.Southey recounts young Nelson’s voyage to the polar wastes with a gusto only matched by Mary’s. Southey writes:
They sawed through pieces of ice twelve feet thick; and this labour continued the whole day, during which their utmost efforts did not move the ships above three hundred yards . . . One night, during the mid-watch, he [Nelson] stole from the ship with one of his comrades, taking advantage of a rising fog, and set off over the ice in pursuit of a bear. It was not long before they were missed. The fog thickened . . . Between three and four in the morning the weather cleared, and the two adventurers were seen, at a considerable distance from the ship, attacking a huge bear.So, both Munchhausenian and Nelsonian myth-making are seemingly interwoven into the themes threaded through Mary’s text. And both Mary and Byron, then, judging by their predilection for stories that, according to Mary in her introduction to Frankenstein, would ‘awaken thrilling horror’ and ‘curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart’, gloried in the gory, as though St. Sebastian were their patron saint; and both expatriated writers, ten years after Nelson’s interment, would, no doubt, have continued to lament the disfigurement of Nelson as though he were a Horatian dismembered poet, ‘disiecti membra poetae’.
Indeed, in that early romantic portrait, Byron aged 21, on preparing to embark for the Mediterranean, paradoxically affirms his allegiance to ‘Britannia’s God of War’, despite espousing the ideologies of a revolution which Nelson, the defender of reactionaryism, had routed.
Triumphalist Nelsoniana.By contrast, in the year of Byron’s first poetic success in 1812, Mary, aged fourteen and motherless since birth, embarked on a more prosaic voyage on a packet boat bound for Dundee, in the charge of a passenger, a Mrs Nelson, who was journeying to be reunited with her invalid husband. At this most impressionable age, therefore, Fortune chose as Mary’s custodian, the wife of a surrogate Nelson, as she ventured out to sea alone for the first time in her young life, borne by the fair tides of Britain’s newly liberated oceans. (Her life, like those of her countrymen at that time, was suffused with triumphalist Nelsoniana; in November 1814, for instance, she moved, with Percy and Claire, to 2 Nelson Square, Blackfriars Road.)
In Scotland, as Mary writes, in her introduction to Frankenstein:
‘I made occasional visits to the more picturesque parts . . . the eyrie of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy . . . It was . . . on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.’This voyage to Scotland with the petticoated Nelson, and the solitariness of her surroundings, are very likely to have prompted the passage in Chapter 19, in which Mary dispatches Frankenstein to the Orkney Islands to create a second creature as companion to the monster.
I determined to visit some remote spot of Scotland and finish my work in solitude. I did not doubt but that the monster followed me and would discover himself to me when I should have finished, that he might receive his companion. With this resolution I traversed the northern highlands and fixed on one of the remotest of the Orkneys as the scene of my labours.That Byron profoundly venerated Nelson is also attested by the fact that he named his beautifully formed, exceptionally ferocious, bull-mastiff after Nelson.
Byron fought with this canine Nelson, according to one account: ‘The bull-dog, Nelson, always wore a muzzle, and was occasionally sent for into our private room, when the muzzle was taken off, much to my annoyance, and he and his master amused themselves with throwing the room into disorder . . . But, one day, Nelson unfortunately escaped out of the room without his muzzle, and going into the stable-yard fastened upon the throat of a horse from which he could not be disengaged.’ Those in pursuit, took a loaded pistol and ‘. . . shot poor Nelson through the head, to the great regret of Byron.’
Indeed, Byron’s remorse must have been redoubled to learn his anthropomorphised Nelson had been shot, since the lame Byron, with his club foot, identified himself very closely with the maimed Admiral who perished, too, by ball shot. Byron was self-conscious about his disablement and sought in Horatio Nelson, I believe, a contemporary model of heroism which overcame his own failure to match the perfections of ancient Greek classical statuary then the vogue as the ideal of human beauty. Byron’s weight was variable and he was a cranky martyr to the fad of extreme dieting.
Mary Shelley in her encounters with Lord Byron, then, must have been aware of the poet’s powerful identification with his naval hero, and regarded the poet as virtually the alter ego of her first lover and husband, the poet Shelley, for she writes that when Byron ‘. . . speaks & Shelley does not answer, it is as thunder without rain.’
In pursuing her protagonist Victor Frankenstein’s noble theory on the perfectability of man, therefore, whose aim is to create life in an idealised image from the disinterred body parts of the dead, did Mary Shelley attempt to conciliate Byron and win his approval by creating a model for empathic identification?
In short, was Frankenstein’s creation perceived within Mary Shelley’s most intimate circle of readers as a hybrid of Byron and Nelson, restored to life as Perfected Man, unmaimed? (A perfectability in marked contrast to Frankenstein himself who, at length, admits his own imperfection, as one who exists like ‘unfashioned creatures, but half made up’ unless aided to ‘perfectionate [their] weak and faulty natures.’) At the time of its writing, Shelley and Byron discussed ‘the principle of life and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered.’
A New Species of the Undead.Was, then, Mary’s ‘new species’ of undead both a wish-fulfilling resurrection of Nelson and an artful tribute to Byron whose complex split personality she recognised? In other words, can Frankenstein be regarded in one aspect as a Nelson resurrection myth, proposing the possibilities of a new science for the rebirth of a nation’s hero.
Consider the moment of Frankenstein’s creation of the Ideal Man whom Frankenstein delineates, amazed that such should be the phantasm that . . . .
. . . with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! — Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.Note Mary’s emphasis on limbs of perfect proportion (redeeming Byron’s deformity); and Frankenstein observes one ‘eye of the creature open’ no longer blinded in its socket (remedying the one armed-Nelson’s monocular vision). Is this not an image of Nelson resurrected? (Many paintings of Nelson’s death, incidentally, depict him in the manner of Christ’s deposition from the Cross. See also the 1831 frontispiece to Frankenstein for a similar disposition of limbs, a disposition which also closely resembles Samuel Drummond’s classic painting, The Death of Nelson, 21 October 1805’ painted in 1807.)
|A Deposition of an Immortal?|
Well, in my own view, the legend of Frankenstein has prospered and grown large in the imaginations of countless millions, with few suspecting Admiral Lord Nelson as the source of the image which holds them in thrall.
The closest any scholar has approached this exegesis of Frankenstein (so far as I am aware) is Simon Bainbridge in his From Nelson to Childe Harold: The Transformations of the Byronic Image. Focusing principally on George Sanders’ 1809 portrait of Byron, Bainbridge contends that most accounts of the Byron iconography have missed the fact that
Byron has himself represented in terms of the pre-eminent and already mythical hero of the hour, Horatio Nelson, an astonishing act of heroic self-conception and self-presentation that anticipates his more famous and ambiguous identification with the major world historic figure of the age, Napoleon Bonaparte.Mary Shelley knew, too, of Byron’s complex divided self, this split personality which, in composite, embraced both Nelson and Napoleon. Remember, too, the year of Frankenstein’s composition was the year that followed Napoleon’s exile to the island of St. Helena – a barren, wind-swept rock located in the South Atlantic Ocean. Frankenstein literally means ‘the rock of the Franks’ (i.e. the rock of the French) and is it too fanciful to suppose that Napoleon, the man described by Chateaubriand as the ‘mightiest breath of life which ever animated human clay’, is also a Byronic co-model for Frankenstein’s creation?
As to the continuing evolution of Byronic iconography, Bainbridge argues that Byron’s initial heroic and very public image was transformed in later portraits into the figure of an ‘isolated and a-historical romantic wanderer.’
Yet, the idealisation of Byron (a.k.a Nelson) as a Romantic wanderer is not neglected in Frankenstein, whose chapters are consumed by the Creature’s wanderings.
Romantic Wanderer.In Frankenstein’s voyagings to the polar icecaps in search of the wandering Fiend, the ‘tremendous being’ who by galvanic black arts had been created, Mary evokes the resoluteness of Nelson when the ship’s sailors threaten mutiny. Frankenstein exhorts: ‘Oh! Be men, or be more than men . . . Return as heroes who have fought and conquered and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe.’
The onboard catastrophe of Frankenstein’s death, in a ship’s cabin, at the hands of the daemonical monster also recalls the death of Nelson. At Frankenstein’s death, there looms over him ‘a form . . . gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions. As he hung over the coffin, his face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair; but one vast hand was extended, in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy . . .’
Certainly Mary’s description of the ghastly mummified hand, and of the coffin, reminds us of Nelson’s morbid humour, and of a dead hero bereft of one arm. In the final passages of Mary Shelley’s epic novel her Monster and Creator are seemingly united in death, a gothic horror which Horatio Nelson had anticipated by almost two decades.
After the battle of the Nile, a coffin was made for Nelson from part of the wreck of L’Orient, burnt at the Battle of the Nile, as a reminder of his own mortality, and Nelson had it placed upright, with the lid on, against his cabin’s bulkhead on his flagship.
Nelson, seeing his officers looking at it appalled, said one day: ‘You may look upon it, gentlemen, as long as you please; but, depend on it, none of you shall have it.’ However, despite the provision of a coffin, it is popularly known that Nelson’s corpse was shipped home in a barrel filled with alcohol as a preservative. Legend has it that when sailors learned of this, they drank the liquor, thenceforth known as ‘Nelson’s Blood’, as though he would, Redeemer-like, inspirit them.
Correspondingly, Mary describes her ghoulish excitement at the scientific probability of animating a lifeless subject ‘preserved’ in a ‘case, till by some extraordinary means’ it should begin ‘to move with voluntary motion.’ Hence, as Mary suggests in her Preface to Frankenstein, she could not escape the new science of galvanism as a primary stimulus to her powerful imagination.
However, though it is possible to detect the product of Nelson’s morbid humour prefiguring the climactic scene of Frankenstein, it must be recorded that the Admiral of ‘Immortal Memory’ never anticipated the immortality of his own resurrection by galvanism, a topic of which he could not have been unaware.
As Professor George Rosie has written, when describing the genesis of his book, Death’s Enemy: The Pilgrimage Of Victor Frankenstein:
It is intriguing that Shelley made Geneva the home town of Dr Frankenstein. During her sojourn in that under-rated city, she may have heard of Jean Jallabert, a professor at the University of Geneva who spent much of 1747 sending jolts of electricity into the semi-paralysed body of a locksmith called Jacques Chaumier. It seems that the treatment worked. After more than a decade of helplessness, Chaumier had the use of his limbs back.Jallabert’s detailed account of the procedure he had devised was soon the talk of Europe’s salons. So, for Nelson, in the 18th century, the facts of galvanism were undoubtedly known; due, extraordinarily enough, to his liaison with Lady Hamilton.
According to Prof. Rosie, the newfound fascination that surrounded the science of electricity in the Romantic epoch of Mary Shelley sparked her powerful imagination to create one of the great myths of the last two centuries.
Mary Shelley was articulating the Romantic (in the literary sense of the word) fear that science is running out of control and is outstripping the bonds of religion, morality or even common sense.As Prof. Rosie writes: ‘By the 1770s, there were “electric clinics” in just about every city in Europe . . . The most notorious was probably the Temple of Health in London, which a medical showman called James Graham ran with the help of a glamorous assistant called Emma Lyon.’ Emma, scantily-clad, was one of many beautiful young women who posed as classical statues in a salon which exhibited a curious medico-electrical apparatus, ‘The Celestial Bed’, across whose headboard electricity crackled, filling the air with a magnetic fluid ‘calculated to give the necessary degree of strength and exertion to the nerves.’
Who was Emma Lyon?
Emma Lyon later married the Duke of Hamilton, and earned renown as the mistress of Horatio Nelson, and brought him the notoriety of L’affaire Hamilton.
Today, Napoleon’s arch-nemesis Nelson is condemned by revisionists for the colour of his reactionary political instincts, and for his unquestioning anti-republicanism, despite being remembered as the anti-authoritarian spirit who rebelliously raised his telescope to his blind eye to disregard a flag signal commanding him to retreat.
Similarly, in the writings of Byron, who described himself as ‘the Napoleon of rhyme’, we can detect antithetical statements in which there sounds the clash of his two conflicting natures . . . Reactionaryism and Romanticism.
As Karl Marx wrote, it was fortunate that Byron had died so young, ‘. . . for he would have become a reactionary bourgeois had he lived longer . . .’
For Byron, his emulation of Nelson extended not only to the abandonment of a wife but to duplicitous affairs and to sharing the advocacy of Free Love with Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary (as daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, authoress of A Vindication of The Rights of Women) and Shelley, faithful acolyte of Byron, both subscribed to the ‘Otaheite’ philosophy within their own circle, a reference to Tahiti, the mythical home of free love. So in this respect, if in no other, the empathic link of the early 19th Century Romantics with Nelson cannot be broken. (Significantly, Mary was born in 1797, the year of Nelson’s knighthood following the battle of Cape St Vincent.)
The Nelson Touch.
It is my intention, in proposing Admiral Nelson as the true Father of the Gothic Novel, springing as it does from the Trafalgar bicentennial, that my studies will in time induce further scholarly observations of the ‘Nelson Touch’, revealed to be palpably evident in the Shelleyan narrative. The existing evidence is strong. Not least is the connection that can be drawn between those two begetters of High Gothic fiction, the twin pinnacles, Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre and Shirley).
Charlotte’s father, Patrick Brunty, inspired by Lord Horatio Nelson, changed his surname to Brontë in honour of the admiral being ennobled in Sicily in 1799 by King Ferdinand of Naples with the Italian title, Duke of Bronte, as reward for routing the French fleet in the Mediterranean. A devotee of Nelson, Charlotte’s father changed the family surname to Brontë, placing a dieresis on the ‘e’.
In Jane Eyre, too, we see the re-emergence, in high Gothic fashion, of the disfigured hero and scandalous ménage à trois: the Byronic Rochester (divested of an inconvenient wife confined in the attic) is maimed and blinded in a fire which has consumed his ancestral home. Wish-fulfilment, directly mirroring Nelson’s misfortune, resolves Charlotte’s fable, for miraculously, Rochester’s sight is partially restored.
That Charlotte, too, venerated Nelson may be adduced from Chapter 26, in Part 3 of Shirley, where Shirley affirms:
Admiral Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Duke of Bronti; great at heart as a Titan; gallant and heroic as all the world and age of chivalry; leader of the might of England; commander of her strength on the deep; hurler of her thunder over the flood.After the death by drowning of Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Shelley, in 1822, the spectacular reanimation of a corpse into a living body would, we can assume, no longer preoccupy a woman more closely absorbed in publishing her late husband's Posthumous Poems (1824).
Besides, due in part to the sensational central proposition of Frankenstein in the context of the contemporary prevalence of grave-robbing gangs who supplied surgeons with newly buried bodies for dissection, the anatomy reform debates of the 1820s began to change the public’s perceptions of this seminal SciFi novel.
|Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; Percy Bysshe Shelley|
by George J. Stodart, after monument by Henry Weekes.
Stipple engraving (1853).
Summer of a Dormouse?One last mystery remains. Did Mary Shelley ever conduct a love affair with Lord Byron, as often rumoured? (Indeed her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, in the manner of a procuress, wrote to Byron before Mary’s 1816 visit to Lake Geneva, predicting an affair between Mary and the celebrated poet: ‘. . . you will I dare say fall in love with her; she is very handsome & very amiable & you will no doubt be blest in your attachment . . .’)
There is an encrypted answer to this conundrum in Byron’s famous aphorism: ‘When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning — how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.’
Mary Shelley’s pet name was ‘Dormouse’, because of her shyness. In 1822, the year of Percy Shelley’s drowning, she wrote to Byron, ‘. . . If I am awkward at first, forgive me. I would, like a dormouse, roll myself in cotton at the bottom of my cage, & never peep out.’
Was the ‘Frankenstein summer’ of 1816 truly a Byronic ‘summer of a Dormouse’ – in quite another amatory sense?
And, at a deeper level of religio-intellectual mythologising, did both Mary and Charlotte, as Ur-feminists, seek in their narratives to usurp the omnipotence of a patriarchal godhead and, by that empowerment, conceive legends in which their archetypes could raise the dead and heal the lame and the blind?
Or, in truth, is the Frankenstein myth of Mary, a recently bereft mother, a more elemental work altogether, delineating a young mother’s trauma and guilt of afterbirth, as many feminists with great perception propose. In her persuasive and emotionally grounded keynote article on Feminine Gothic, Ellen Moers writes:
. . . Mary Shelley’s book is most interesting, most powerful, and most feminine: in the motif of revulsion against newborn life, and the drama of guilt, dread, and flight surrounding birth and its consequences. Most of the novel, roughly two of its three volumes, can be said to deal with the retribution visited upon monster and creator for deficient infant care.On March 6 1815, Mary’s two-months-premature daughter Clara died, less than a month old. The baby had been conceived when Mary was aged seventeen.
A fortnight later, on March 19 1815, Mary records a powerful dream:
Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits . . .Needless to remark that Mary, who remythologised Prometheus (her original title, as we know, was Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus), also in her dream sought Promethean fire, the divine gift to mortals, to knead cold human clay into living flesh.
Nevertheless, I remain convinced that, beyond this primal stimulus for Mary Shelley’s novel, the symbolic reanimation of Britain’s greatest national saviour, the archetype for a dismembered hero, is a kind of ‘fantasia variation’ (to employ a useful musical term for this intertext) freely evolving, as I have attempted to demonstrate, from the predominating theme of Gothic resurrectionism propelling her epic tale.
Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence,
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)
and A Bad Case (2015)