In the introductory post, I offered the hypothesis that “Frankenstein” (1) was a letter written by the teenage Mary Shelley to her dead mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. I suggested that Shelley had written herself as Frankenstein with her mother Wollstonecraft as the monster. It occurred to me that Shelley wanted her dead mother to understand how it felt to be an abandoned child. It could be suggested that this hypothesis is flawed because we start the text with the explorer, Walton and his sister, Margaret Saville. However, if we reason that Shelley is the mother of sci fi; I think we can safely expect her to have fluidity in her writing. Even though she was writing in the early 1800s, Shelley was not bound by convention. As her main character Frankenstein was a scientist, an experimenter, so Shelley embraced investigation in her writing. I think that Shelley explores her communications with her dead mother throughout the text in a theatrical way. The characters change their costumes and become someone else. Hence, in the beginning, we are introduced to Walton the explorer and his sister Margaret Saville who are simply Shelley and Wollstonecraft, respectively.
In this post, I will explore how my hypothesis fits with the beginning of the book when we read Walton the explorer’s first three letters to his sister, Mrs Saville. Mrs Saville has been left at home whilst her brother has exciting adventures. It is a typical 18th century scenario. The male has inherited the family fortune and is off proving his masculinity whilst his sister sits at home waiting for his correspondence. As the daughter of the first feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, it is easy to see how the text could be perceived as a bit tongue in cheek. However, as I am reading the letters as letters from Mary Shelley to Mary Wollstonecraft, they can be viewed another way.
As I suggested earlier, Mary Shelley has depicted herself as Walton whilst her dead mother is the sister Mrs Saville. Mary was a teenager when she penned Frankenstein, Walton is an explorer. The teenage years are when young people try many things for the first time. In other words, teenagers are explorers.
It is obvious that Shelley both loved and mourned her mother – she would read on her grave. In Frankenstein, she has placed Mrs Saville in the home. The sense of Mrs Saville being tied to her domestic quarters is obvious, so distinct in fact, that it suggests the home we never leave – the coffin. The sub text is sly; it is similar to having a rag of ether placed over your face whilst you are unaware of it. In other words, it creeps up on you insidiously but once you are conscious of it, it is obviously there. The message is loud and clear to the dead mother – “Look at me, this is living. Look at what you are missing by abandoning me.” Fundamentally, the first letter is all about bravado –”I am an explorer of life and you are tied to the domesticity of the grave.”
When we read the second letter there is a huge change of mood. The teenager who has bragged, strutted and portrayed herself as a complete adult returns to the isolation of a toddler missing her parents. Shelley as Walton laments her loneliness. Even though there are many men aboard the ship, Walton suffers from a sense of alienation.
“I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no-one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection.” (2)
Letter three is a short missive. Walton does not speak of personal matters. He merely discusses the weather. However, in the last paragraph he tells Margaret that he will “not rashly encounter danger. I will be cool, persevering and prudent.” (3) I would strongly suggest that this is Shelley writing to the dead Wollstonecraft. She is telling her that although she is embarking on a voyage of motherhood, she can and will look after herself. The message is ambivalent. It partly consoles the mother that she doesn’t need to worry about her daughter. Contrastingly, it also says that she has had to learn to steer her own vessel onto safe waters because the captain jumped ship.
Shelley is a mistress of signposts. We have to be vigilant when we read her. She throws small clues into the text which the eye might skim over. A good example of this is the way Walton has signed the first three letters to his sister. They are signed – Your affectionate brother, R. Walton; Your affectionate brother Robert Walton and Most affectionately yours, R.W. (4) By signing each letter differently, Shelley is depicting changes in Walton’s moods. Fundamentally, the changes in Walton’s moods are a teenage girl’s conflicting emotions towards the dead mother she is desperate to communicate with.
- Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein 1818 text.
- ‘ibid; p.8
- ‘ibid’ p.8,p11.