Copyright 2003 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. Randel, Fred V



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III. England and Scotland

Victor Frankenstein's "many months" (192; vol. 3, chap. 3) or "nearly a year" (194; vol. 3, chap. 3) in England and Scotland, while shadowed by the monster, are seemingly a respite from murder. Yet Victor agonizes over his fatal past and possible future, mulls over the seventeenth-century killings of King Charles I, Lord Viscount Falkland, and John Hampden (184-85; vol. 3, chap. 2), and physically destroys the female creature that he was laboring to complete on one of the Orkney Islands. The stay in Britain puts special emphasis on the role of the author's country in the development—and retardation—of modern revolutionary thought and practice.

Victor's visit is partly a representation of transnational influences and misunderstandings, in the development of subversive thinking in Europe during the eighteenth century. After promising to make a female mate for the monster, Victor visits England in order to tap the knowledge of "the most distinguished natural philosophers" (183; vol. 3, chap. 2). At this stage, Victor reenacts the French Enlightenment's indebtedness to English science and politics, especially Voltaire's stay in England from 1726 to 1728, which resulted in his Lettres Philosophiques (1734), where the celebration of Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, and English liberty was used to criticize established French practices and institutions. 27

But in London Victor swiftly finds "an insurmountable barrier placed between me and my fellow-men." His mental state becomes "sorrowful and dejected," afflicted by "extreme anguish" (183; vol. 3, chap. 2), "tormented" by thoughts of the monster's revengeful plots against him and his family, "guiltless" yet cursed (187; vol. 3, chap. 2). He journeys to Derbyshire (186; vol. 3, chap. 2), among other places, and responds to the hospitable invitations of a "person in Scotland" (184; vol. 3, chap. 2), a "Scotch friend" (186; vol. 3, chap. 2), with much less than "the good humor expected from a guest" (187; vol. 3, chap. 2). He craves solitude and eventually finds it on a remote and almost uninhabited island, where he can go about his work "ungazed at and unmolested" (188; vol. 3, chap. 2). In each of these instances, Victor relives Rousseau's tormented visit to England from 1766 to 1767. The latter had been invited by the cosmopolitan Scotsman, David Hume, and he stayed most of the time at a house in Wooton, Derbyshire, isolated from society. His mental condition was unstable, [End Page 476] partly because he had been subjected to fierce personal attacks, public condemnations, outlawing, and even stoning on the continent, and he imagined plots by nearly everyone, including his friends, against him. He and Hume had a much publicized quarrel, as a result of mutual misunderstandings and Rousseau's frenzied and unfounded suspicions. 28 He fantasized about the period in 1765, when he withdrew from society to the Island of Saint-Pierre in the middle of Lake Bienne in the Neuchâtel region, as the happiest period in his life and celebrated it at length in his Confessions and Reveries of the Solitary Walker. 29 Rousseau's recoil against society is itself a form of identification with and adaptation of an English cultural model of individualism, pushed toward solipsism: in the Confessions he explicitly resolves to be another Robinson Crusoe and, in the process, he alienates himself from his British hosts. He reveals what Mary Shelley would see as a defective grasp of human interdependence behind his—and his English prototype's—reconceptualizations of politics and society.

Victor's stay in Oxford constitutes a meditation on English revolutionary history, from the point of view of a narrator who is himself subject to the author's criticism. He lingers nostalgically over the "spirit of elder days" in the Oxford of Charles I and his beleaguered royalist forces and followers, between 1642 and 1645: "This city had remained faithful to him, after the whole nation had forsaken his cause to join the standard of parliament and liberty." The beheading of "that unfortunate king" in January 1649 is the imminent event that looms over an Oxford of "peculiar interest" (184; vol. 3, chap. 2) to Victor, as he reconstructs it. He finds in the king's environment a mirror of his own mood of anxious waiting for an inevitable catastrophe. Instead of drawing practical lessons for himself about what might have been—and what might be—done differently to minimize bloodshed, as Mary Shelley's royalist source, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon's History of the Rebellion, attempts often to do, he aestheticizes the scene, making its "ancient and picturesque" college buildings and their "lovely"(185; vol. 3, chap. 2) natural setting into a still visible correlative for an irremediably doomed circle. Victor's naming of "the amiable Falkland" and "the insolent Goring" (184; vol. 3, chap. 2) on the royalist side implies a large moral spectrum within that faction, with much unintended reference to his own ambiguous moral personality. Clarendon, whose history Mary Shelley referred to unmistakably in her manuscript version of the Oxford passage, had vividly portrayed Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland's brilliance, idealism, [End Page 477] absolute integrity, and courage in the years up to his death in battle, as well as George, Lord Goring's irresponsibility, treachery, and insolence, ending in his ignominious desertion and flight. 30 But, from Mary Shelley's point of view, neither character represents a viable option, granted the historical transformation occurring in his time. Both are stuck within too many of the assumptions of a no longer viable, absolutist order. Victor's romantic antiquarianism and morally equivocal life-history replicate what the duo jointly exemplify. The British section of Frankenstein faults the monster's creator and recent British society, not for excessive radicalism but for not being radical enough.

Before leaving the Oxford area, Victor sees another spot sacred to English Civil War history, but this one is potentially exemplary for his own life:

We visited the tomb of the illustrious Hampden, and the field on which that patriot fell. For a moment my soul was elevated from its debasing and miserable fears to contemplate the divine ideas of liberty and self-sacrifice, of which these sights were the monuments and the remembrancers. For an instant I dared to shake off my chains, and look around me with a free and lofty spirit; but the iron had eaten into my flesh, and I sank again, trembling and hopeless, into my miserable self. (185; vol. 3, chap. 2)

For the only time in Britain, Victor here experiences the possibility of liberation. Mary Shelley relies on Clarendon's character sketch of John Hampden but not his underlying evaluation of the man. Clarendon pays eloquent tribute to Hampden's reputation for probity and courage, his sagacity and yet modesty in debate, and his unique rapport with the people of England: "He was indeed a very wise man, and of great parts, and possessed with the most absolute spirit of popularity, that is, the most absolute faculties to govern the people, of any man I ever knew." But as an opponent of the radical parliamentary Independent group, in which Hampden was (with John Pym) a co-leader, Clarendon thinks him a subtle deceiver, pretending moderation but instigating root and branch extremism behind the scenes: "he had a head to contrive, and a tongue to persuade, and a hand to execute, any mischieve." 31

For Mary Shelley, as for her father and husband, Hampden was the supreme English model of political leadership. William Godwin, in his History of the Commonwealth published six years later, would treat him as the greatest hero of his period and "one of the most [End Page 478] extraordinary men in the records of mankind." 32 Percy Shelley, in his "Philosophical View of Reform," would rank Hampden as one of the four greatest Englishmen of all time, the only one not a major writer. 33 Unlike Charles I, Falkland, and Goring, he had a profound sense of his historical moment, and of the possibilities and promise of radical change. In contrast to Rousseau and Victor, he had a firm grasp of social and political reality, and an unbroken bond with the people. In contrast with Rousseau and Victor, whose irresponsibility toward their offspring is notorious, he was thought so suitable a mentor for a young person that he was proposed by the parliamentary forces as a tutor for the Prince of Wales (later, Charles II), then ten years old—a window on Hampden's remarkable character that Godwin will emphasize. 34 Hampden first came to public notice by defying an absolutist monarchy and refusing to pay thirty shillings for a tax, imposed by the king without the consent of parliament. He died courageously in battle against a royalist army in 1643 before having an opportunity to participate in the execution of the king. 35 He is Frankenstein's ideal male revolutionary.

Mary composed the passage about him in October 1817, when she visited his monument in the church at Great Hampden, Buckinghamshire, with her father. 36 In the England of 1817, Hampden was not merely a subject of antiquarian interest. The principal vehicle of organized popular agitation for parliamentary reform and working people's economic relief was the Hampden Clubs, named after the seventeenth-century parliamentary leader and founded by Major John Cartwright in 1812. The first national meeting of Hampden Club delegates was held in London in January 1817, and it was linked to the presentation of a petition, signed by a half million to a million and a half persons, calling for annual parliaments, universal manhood suffrage, and vote by ballot. 37 Percy recalls the episode vividly in "A Philosophical View of Reform": "The people were then insulted, tempted, and betrayed, and the petitions of a million of men rejected with disdain." Like the monster addressing Victor for the first time in the Alps earlier in the book, these people craved a hearing. 38 In February and March repressive legislation, including the Seditious Meetings Act and the suspension of Habeas Corpus, drove the reform movement underground and crushed the Hampden Clubs. The trip to Greater Hampden by Mary Shelley and her father and the insertion of a paragraph celebrating Hampden into the novel was, in late 1817, a political act implying just the reverse of the conservatism now sometimes attributed to Frankenstein. [End Page 479]

But Victor cannot sustain his momentary identification with the Hampden model; by the end of the paragraph he relapses into a politically passive pathology. He is still in such a state when he happens upon the Lake Poets in Cumberland and Westmoreland, "men of talent" "who almost contrived to cheat me into happiness" (186; vol. 3, chap. 2). These influential British intellectuals figure as male sirens who lure people away from decisive political engagement. It will take more than aesthetic pleasure, according to Mary Shelley's pointed (but reductive) put-down, to break out of the chains.

On "one of the remotest" Orkney Islands in Scotland, Victor will learn that the monster has secretly accompanied him throughout his travels in Britain (188; vol. 3, chap. 2,). Yet the monster has killed no one during this period. This interruption of bloodshed has two distinct referents. If the excluded and oppressed believe their problems are being seriously addressed, as the monster does while Victor works on making a female creature, they will feel no need for violence: this is an argument for political and social reformation, an expression of hope. On the other hand, the remission of killing points to a historical reality: revolution never happened in Britain in the 1790s. There were no executions by revolutionary tribunals, but neither did significant progressive change occur in Britain during this period. The country lurched into reaction and repression. Ultimately, in the book's narrative, what gets killed is the female creature. The explanation for why and how she dies is rooted in the political geography of England and Scotland in this novel.

Victor makes his decision to kill her, while suffering the pathological effects of the island existence celebrated by Defoe and Rousseau. His "solitude" (188, 189; vol. 3, chap. 2) is not just a matter of miles from population centers. He is psychologically remote from the few impoverished inhabitants of the island, whose misery facilitates his isolation by numbing their awareness. He sinks into anxiety, speaking repeatedly of his fear. He will soon let his boat drift at sea, like Rousseau on the lake surrounding his island. 39 He stifles the compassion which had once made him agree to provide the monster with a female companion. In this state, his reasoning is as unbalanced as his emotions.

His analysis of the possible catastrophic consequences of letting loose a female monster on the world depends on two fallacious premises: that a creature's appearance is an accurate indicator of his or her moral state, and that both male and female monsters can be [End Page 480] expected to be "malignant" (190; vol. 3, chap. 3) and "wicked" (192; vol. 3, chap. 3). While the monster's earlier narrative had shown him to be naturally good but forced into crime by a biased and exclusionary society, Victor now assumes, in opposition to Rousseau, that both creatures must be naturally depraved. To prevent "terror" (190; vol. 3, chap. 3), he, therefore, reinforces the mistreatment that drove the monster into crime in the first place. By couching his uncompromising rejectionism in the vocabulary of high-minded altruism toward future generations, he reverts to the historically obtuse posture of saintly absolutism taken by Charles I. Like Goring, he is a treacherous and insolent promise-breaker. He fails to measure up to Hampden's precedent of adopting new insights and placing himself in the vanguard of history.

By tearing up the female creature, Victor kills society's best hope for deliverance. In Mary Shelley's fiction, she holds the potential of restoring human balance to an all male social formation, by substituting love and caring for repulsion and irresponsibility. She offers human connectedness in place of island disjunction. Her prototype is the author's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose version of revolutionary ideology, in her daughter's estimation, was the best of what Britain had to offer during the 1790s. Wollstonecraft was sensitive to the wrongs suffered by people excluded from social acceptance and political voice, by reason of gender and class, while also affirming and practicing the nurturing processes that Victor and Rousseau conspicuously failed to cultivate. The description of the female creature's murder reenacts in displaced and inverted form the circumstances of Mary Wollstonecraft's death, shortly after her daughter's birth. Instead of a physician unsuccessfully picking the pieces of a retained placenta out of the birth canal, as occurred after Mary Shelley's birth, Victor dismembers the yet uncompleted female creature and drops the pieces into the sea. 40 As we read the account in the novel, the grown-up offspring of that 1797 birth is telling the horrific story of a quasi-abortion in which her mother was aborted. The agonizing nature of the event has personal roots, but it affects an entire civilization.

When Victor places the "relics" (194; vol. 3, chap. 3) of the riven female form into "a basket," "cast" it into the sea, and "listened to the gurgling sound as it sunk, and then sailed away from the spot" (195; vol. 3, chap. 3), he is enacting a nightmare transformation of what Moses's mother did with him when he was three months old: "And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of [End Page 481] bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink." Unlike Victor, she carefully sealed up the container to keep the water out and placed it near the edge of a river where it would be likely to be found. The Pharaoh's daughter found the child, "had compassion on him," and named him Moses "[b]ecause I drew him out of the water." 41 Victor, lacking such compassion, does precisely the reverse. In the Bible, Moses would lead his people out of bondage. In Frankenstein, the female creature had the same potential for liberating a society. Her ending recalls not only Mary Wollstonecraft's catastrophic demise in her most productive years, but also the near simultaneous destruction of her reputation and the elimination from public discourse in Britain of the point of view which she championed. The silencing of her emancipatory voice has, in Mary Shelley's estimate, been climactic in a series of obstructions and choices which have prevented Britain, despite its seventeenth-century revolutionary legacy, from exerting a decisive positive role in the era of the French Revolution.



IV. Ireland

Just after the novel's treatment of an event of 1797, the monster murders Victor's friend, Henry Clerval, in Ireland. This outbreak of violence is Mary Shelley's representation of the bloody Irish rebellion of May to September 1798. Unique among the important settings in Frankenstein, Ireland is not chosen by Victor: a storm drives him there at night, and he assumes when he lands that he is still in England or Scotland. His first human encounter forces him abruptly to change his premises:

"Why do you answer me so roughly?" I replied: "surely it is not the custom of Englishmen to receive strangers so inhospitably."

"I do not know," said the man, "what the custom of the English may be; but it is the custom of the Irish to hate villains." (197; vol. 3, chap. 3)

In this exchange, the book posits a new sense of culture clash; previous transitions from Bavaria to Geneva to Britain lacked this sharply contrastive rhetoric. Upon seeing Henry's corpse, Victor is startled to learn that the monster's murderousness—and his own unwitting causality—have reached in an unexpected direction: "Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry, of [End Page 482] life?" (200; vol. 3, chap. 4). The question points, on one level, to historical fact. The most likely landing-places for Victor's boat are Northern Ireland or County Mayo: he is blown to the Irish coast from the Orkneys by a high north-east wind (196; vol. 3, chap. 3), which becomes a "strong northerly blast" (198-99; vol. 3, chap. 4). If he lands in Ulster, his trip points to the role of the United Irishmen in preparing Ireland for revolution. Founded in Belfast, but extending their influence during the next few years over much of Ireland, the United Irishmen distributed selected writings by such authors as Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Constantin-Francois de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, Godwin, and Thomas Paine to a wide Irish readership. 42 Victor now resembles the European intellectuals who flirted with or actively promoted radical ideas at home, but were aghast when overseas colonies chose to apply Enlightenment notions of human rights to their own condition. Revolutionary leaders in France, for example, recoiled against the revolutionary aspirations of black slaves in Haiti. 43 The alternate likely landing point for Victor's boat is the Killala region of Mayo, where French forces landed in 1798 to give military support to the Irish rebellion and were ultimately defeated. 44 Most English admirers of Locke, Godwin, and Paine drew back from supporting a French invasion coupled with an Irish rebellion. Murder in Ireland, therefore, adds to Frankenstein the reminder and prospect of revolutions and imperial conflicts multiplying throughout the empires of Britain and other European powers. Imperialism and philosophies of popular sovereignty were an explosive mix. Clerval's death extends the book's implied political geography of horror to Asia, Africa, and the Americas, as well as to the rebellious subjugated people across the Irish Sea. 45

Conservative Victorian Englishmen regularly turned the monster of Frankenstein into a patronizing figure for troubles in Ireland. 46 But it is not generally recognized that the monster, as originally conceived by Mary Shelley, already included Irishness in his hybrid composition. An earlier text resonates behind the creature's first self-initiated action in the novel:

He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. (86; vol. 1, chap. 4) [End Page 483]

Compare Gulliver's first personal encounter with a Yahoo:

The ugly Monster, when he saw me, distorted several Ways every Feature of his Visage, and stared as at an Object he had never seen before; then approaching nearer, lifted up his fore Paw, whether out of Curiosity or Mischief, I could not tell: But I drew my Hanger, and gave him a good Blow with the flat Side of it. 47

Jonathan Swift and Mary Shelley tell of a monster who gestures to signal a wish for friendship, but gets contemptuously rebuffed by the title character. Gulliver will accurately read the extended hand or foreleg as a token of friendship when the dominant Houyhnhnms employ it, or when he uses it himself. 48 The Yahoo's "distorted" face, in this light, may be as much a "grin" as the facial expression on Frankenstein's creature. But Gulliver fails to penetrate cultural differences far enough to translate the body language of the Yahoos reliably or to see their positive humanity. Swift's characterization of these savage creatures was in part his own conflicted representation of the indigenous Irish population that he lived among, condescended to, and courageously defended. 49 As in Frankenstein, a refusal of sympathy toward a friendly monster provokes a hostility, which is social and political as well as individual. Where Swift writes of a mob of Yahoos gathering around Gulliver, climbing a tree above him, and discharging their excrement on his head, Mary Shelley imagines a murder which recalls a widespread rebellion.

She alludes to, but rises above, then current English stereotypes about Ireland. The book's first sentence about the place is a concentrated example of a process that will recur during Victor's two months there: "It had a wild and rocky appearance; but as I approached nearer, I easily perceived the traces of cultivation" (196; vol. 3, chap. 3). First impressions focus on "rude" (197, 201; vol. 3, chap. 3, 4) appearances and behavior, "frowning and angry countenances," "ill-looking" faces (197; vol.3, chap. 3), the look of "brutality" (202; vol. 3, chap. 4). In the most influential account of the 1798 Irish rebellion available to Mary Shelley, the loyalist Sir Richard Musgrave explains that "[i]t was a peculiar favour from heaven to send a civilized people," that is, the English, among the Irish to govern them and thus save them from their "savage," "ignorant and bigoted" ways. 50 A recent historian sums up Musgrave's epithets characterizing the uprising: "Musgrave's aim was . . . to paint the rebels in the most unflattering light possible. Terms like 'rabble', 'barbarous', 'ignorant', [End Page 484] 'fanatic', 'horrid', 'cruel', and 'vulgar' pepper his descriptions of the United Irishmen and especially their Catholic manifestations." 51 Mary Shelley, however, keeps speaking of a quite different Ireland, evident on closer examination. Victor's initial hostile reception and the witnesses' testimony supporting his arrest turn out to be reasonable human responses to the available information. The Irish magistrate's persistent quest for the facts and his concern for Victor's well-being lead the latter to revise his first impressions of the inhabitants: "These were my first reflections; but I soon learned that Mr. Kirwin had shewn me extreme kindness" (202; vol. 3, chap. 4). It is significant that the magistrate's surname is neither English nor Scottish, but unambiguously Irish. 52 Mary Shelley temporarily posits, then decisively discredits, the stereotypes about the Irish that supported England's colonial dominance. The novel's treatment of Ireland, like its treatment of other places and the monster himself, suggests that violent revolution can best be averted by recognizing the humanity of stereotyped groups, hearing their complaints, and genuinely addressing their grievances.




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