Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Frankenstein, Grief, and Graves

Lisbeth Chapin, Gwynedd Mercy University

 

1. At the Saint Pancras Old Church in London, in whose graveyard originally were buried Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Godwin’s second wife, Mary Clairmont Godwin, visitors approach an entrance plaque that informs them of the church’s seventh-century origins, including an even earlier altar “probably used by St. Augustine.” I arrived at this entrance one not-so-dreary day in November 1999, when I set out to find the very gravesite where Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley stood to declare and solemnize their love for one another in 1814. Armed with an imperfect map, I started out from the British Library and walked for half an hour only to arrive at a St. Pancras Church with no graveyard; a passerby informed me that this was the eighteenth-century St. Pancras church and that the “Old St. Pancras” is several miles in another direction. I walked on, through a myriad of half-abandoned neighborhoods, and after another hour ascended the steps to the graveyard of Saint Pancras Old Church,1 eventually discovering the rather plain stones that mark the original graves of Mary Shelley’s mother, father, and step-mother. The only stone that would have existed during Mary Shelley’s youth reads, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Born 27th April 1759, Died 10th September 1797.

2. I was standing on the spot where, on the evening of June 26, 1814, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley walked from her father’s house on Skinner Street in East London about a mile and a half to St. Pancras Old Church near King’s Cross, to stand at the gravesite of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; some biographers conjecture that the two even made love at this site. Mary Shelley’s visit to Wollstonecraft’s grave in 1814 with Shelley was one of many; the site held for her significant connection to the mother who died from childbirth complications eleven days after Mary’s birth. But what did Mary see when she stood facing this gravestone, this engraved text about an event at her birth that changed the course of her life and would shape her literary career? The image of the author gazing at a gravestone under the tall canopy of trees is an apt one for the author of the most famous novel of the British Romantic period, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). It is a novel particularly suited to the themes connecting death and birth, graves and suicides, and the science that supported the market of grave robbing for decades. The impact of her mother’s death is embedded in Frankenstein, which develops themes of the grave as locus of birth and death for both Mary Shelley and for Victor Frankenstein.

3. Frankenstein is a novel of dying, death, decomposition, and the disorder created when this order of nature is disobeyed; it is not the eradication of death that is the sought after ideal in the novel but the mitigation of grief caused by death and, more broadly, of a general grief caused by injustice. That injustice may be traced to the circumstances of the bodies of dead criminals in eighteenth-century England. Parliament’s Murder Act (1752) made the medical dissection of all executed murderers compulsory, intended as a deterrent to the crime of murder since the act of dissection was considered disrespectful, an offense to the corpse. Unfortunately, with the demand of material needed for anatomy schools far exceeding the number of hanged felons, most families who buried their loved ones feared they were in danger of disappearing from their graves. On one occasion, in Lambeth, England in 1795, a crowd stormed the parish graveyard only to discover many empty coffins; it was reported that, “some, in a kind of phrenzy [sic], ran away with the coffins of their deceased relations” (Richardson 44).

4.  If only the bodies of convicted murderers who had been hanged until dead could by law supply the anatomists of the day, in England, then the character of Justine in Frankenstein is worthy of note. Justine is accused of strangling to death the child William, Victor’s brother. Although innocent of the crime, she is coerced into confessing by a priest and promptly convicted and executed. Whether she was hanged or decapitated with a sword (or possibly, guillotine) is not clear in either the 1818 or 1831 edition; however, if she is hanged, by the law of the day in England—that is, by the laws with which Shelley’s readership would be familiar—Justine’s dead body could have been available for use in the making of Victor’s female monster; as it happens, similar laws for the acquisition of corpses were not in place in Scotland, where Victor begins to assemble the female monster. As David Ketterer explains, although “grave-robbing was rife in the Scotland that Mary Shelley knew as a girl” and Percy Shelley attended the lectures of the surgeon John Abernethy, who in 1819 proposed that pauper bodies be used for dissection, there is no direct evidence connecting specific events or the controversy of grave-robbing to any of the three editions of Frankenstein (1818, 1823, 1831) (Ketterer 121).2 While acknowledging this, I nevertheless would point out the significance of Shelley’s depiction of the innocent Justine as a deeply sympathetic character made more so by her vulnerability against the condemnation that surrounds her. In this way, Mary Shelley takes a stand against the possible desecration of Justine’s corpse or perhaps any other felon’s who may be either wrongly accused or condemned; Justine’s body as a marketable commodity in death compounds with the unjust conviction of a sympathetic female character. Therefore, the possibility in the British reader’s mind of Justine’s corpse being used for the purposes of anatomists such as Victor Frankenstein aggravates further the offensive choice of Victor, whose grief and guilt over his brother’s death prompts his agreement with the monster to make a female companion. Victor’s culpability in the crime, having created the monster who murders William, is less an indictment of his character than is his noting to himself that, “Justine was a girl of merit…now all was to be obliterated in an ignominious grave; and I the cause!” (57).3 He declines to relay any of this to the authorities for fear that his story would be considered, “the ravings of a madman,” and his silence extends the disgrace of her grave to himself (57). The ignominy of Justine’s death is not only an instance of an innocent person being convicted of murder, but also would call to the nineteenth-century reader’s mind the fact that her actual grave might not necessarily provide a deterrent to anatomists such as Victor from defiling it. Mary Shelley presents readers with the complex convergence of death, grief, and the pretension of a scientific community that thinks it can overcome either.

5. It is grief from his mother’s death that first drives Victor to become obsessed with his project of finding the true source of life, a grief which has left a great despair within him. Even before he arrives at the University of Ingolstadt, he is convinced that he will create no new friendships; he observes, “[m]y life had hitherto been remarkably secluded and domestic; and this had given me invincible repugnance to new countenances,” continuing, “I believed myself totally unfitted for the company of strangers” (27). Soon after, his laboratory becomes the locus of a peculiar kind of birth, the culmination of an ambition to “banish disease from the human frame” (23), as he declares earlier, but more pointedly, in my analysis, to mitigate the grief from the death of his mother, who has succumbed to scarlet fever a few weeks before he left for the university. So he studies maniacally and assembles the pieces of the dead, seeking to imbue them again with life. Even so, he must know that his experiments can never again infuse into his life the love he lost from his mother; the fact that Elizabeth cannot replace that love is one way of analyzing the dream Victor has soon after the monster comes to life. When Victor sees “the dull yellow eye of the creature open”—a “new countenance” he clearly finds literally repugnant—he rushes out of the room agitated and eventually falls asleep, during which he dreams of Elizabeth “in the bloom of health” coming toward him (37). When he embraces her, she immediately becomes the corpse of his dead mother, with “graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel” of her shroud (37). Matthew C. Brennan has written an elucidating analysis of this dream, “a dream that links the dead mother and Monster in an eruption of the uncanny that Victor strives to escape from, through the sublime, during the rest of the novel” (121).I concur and further define this “uncanny” element to be the liminal boundary of life and death, at which Victor seems stuck. The state of his emotional life is analogous to his laboratory, littered with the detritus of death. Victor describes his “workshop of filthy creation” and that his own “eye-balls were starting from their sockets” in perusing his work, as if they, too, were some of the human body parts around him and parallel to the monster’s dull, yellow eye (35). He adds that “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” furnished his materials (35); this combination of human and non-human parts is one which Stephanie Rowe interprets as significant, an analysis that establishes yet another source of silent misery—the suffering of animals at human hands—in a narrative whose purpose seems to be to document the impact of grief and loss (137, 152).4

6. The creature himself demonstrates a desire to document a narrative of misery, through his own testimony to Victor as well as the written messages left for him; the monster even purports to cite “copies” of the letters from Safie to Felix to corroborate his story to Victor, although Andrew Smith alerts readers to be wary of the monster’s claims. “Before I depart I will give them to you; they will prove the truth of my tale” (169), the monster insists, although we do not read of them again. Smith asserts that “the creature repeatedly regards textual affect as the source of genuine feeling,” recounting his discovery of Milton, Plutarch, and Goethe’s works and their intense effect on him; therefore, “the guarantor of emotional authenticity is displaced from author to reader as readerly affect reveals the truth of a text’s claim on the subject” (83). This analysis has clear merit, and I would claim that the creature’s readerly sensibilities extend even further into those of a writer, such as when he leaves messages—whole paragraphs of text—carved into rocks and trees, if Victor’s narrative is to be believed. Victor tells Walton, “Sometimes, indeed, he left marks in writing on the barks of the trees, or cut in stone,” which incite Victor to follow, anticipating, as the creature cautions, “many hard and miserable hours” (162). So if Victor is the “reader” of the monster’s texts – his arguments, his messages inscribed into rocks and trees – what is the effect on Victor? In part, Victor’s mental deterioration and varying states of delusion by the end of the novel are a result of the monster’s entire textual effects of grief and alienation thrown back at him. The monster himself is a text, pulled from the grave, to bring Victor an experience of being emotionally in stasis, in his own “ignominious grave” of unattended grief. In these instances, the monster is documenting the deepest impact of grief and misery, the depth of which Victor has not acknowledged in himself, recording his message in the materials at his disposal.

7. By the last chapter of the novel, Victor has been corrupted by the effects of the monster and his own grief enough to believe he is most at home in the company of the dead. His last act in Geneva is to visit the cemetery where William, Elizabeth, and his father are buried; this is the only instance of an actual gravesite in the novel. Victor describes the scene where “[e]very thing [sic] was silent, except the leaves of the trees, which were gently agitated by the wind; the night was nearly dark; and the scene would have been solemn and affecting even to an uninterested observer,” continuing that “the spirits of the departed seemed to flit around, and to cast a shadow, which was felt but seen not, around the head of the mourner” (159). He adds that the “deep grief which this scene had at first excited quickly gave way to rage and despair” and declares his intention to pursue the creature to its destruction, swearing, “[b]y the sacred earth on which I kneel, by the shades [spirits] that wander near me, by the deep and eternal grief that I feel, I swear; and by thee, O Night, and by the spirits that preside over thee” (159). As he pursues the monster, Victor seems to take the graveyard with him, perceiving himself in a company of miserable others: “the spirits of the dead hovered round, and instigated me to toil and revenge” (163). The monster, more isolated, believes himself to exist as an emotional being only in relation to Victor. Consequently, at Victor’s death, he departs, after vowing to commit suicide, in a pyre he will set aflame himself, at which no one will ever mourn. In the declaration of that act, the monster, the unhappy assemblage of parts animal and human, “endued” with the despair and grief of the anatomist, appropriated from a sanctified grave or—especially in the nineteenth-century imagination—perhaps appropriated from the gallows, would return to the grave, but one of his own making.

8. The monster’s was not the only suicide in Mary Shelley’s life as she wrote Frankenstein. In October 1816, Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay Godwin, the daughter of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft and her lover before she met Godwin, the American Gilbert Imlay, committed suicide by an overdose of laudanum. In November 1816, Percy Shelley’s wife, from whom he had been separated for two years, drowned herself in the Serpentine River (actually a lake) in London. Fanny’s body remains buried outside the walls of St. John’s Church (now St Matthew’s), in Swansea, Wales, near the hotel where she died; the church includes her story in a tour of its grounds.5 Harriet’s body was not claimed by her parents, the Westbrooks, since identifying her would have included the judgment of suicide and a desecration of the body with a stake through the chest and buried at a busy London crossroads (considered a deterrent to active ghost haunting), though details of her death would emerge later.6 Because both were suicides and therefore were buried outside church grounds, their graves were in greater danger of being robbed. It is not impossible that Mary Shelley considered this while writing a novel about robbing graves and the clouds of unhappy spirits hovering around.

9. Further legislation attempted to make corpses more available to anatomists and thereby end the practice of graverobbing. The Anatomy Act (1832), supported by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, specified that the bodies of those maintained by the State, such as those in workhouses, be passed to the anatomists if not claimed by relatives (Magee 379).7 In spite of this, the shortage of available corpses for dissection was not much improved, since many residents of the workhouses signed declarations that they did not want their bodies to be used so (Magee 379). Grave-robbing continued throughout the nineteenth century in England and continued to find its way into fiction – in one instance, right to the graveyard of St. Pancras Old Church. In A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Charles Dickens makes the graveyard of St. Pancras the very site for Jerry Cruncher, a “resurrectionist,” the common term for grave robbers, to “dig someone out of a grave” and sell it to an anatomist (13). Redolent of Frankenstein, Cruncher imagines conversations with the dead that he unearths.

10. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein confronts established beliefs about exactly what purpose a graveyard serves; if it is to harbor and honor the dead, the monster’s existence refutes that assumption. In the novel, the monster’s primary function is to be an animated boundary of the living and the dead in order to challenge assumptions about the treatment of death and grief, graveyards, and practices of the medical community itself.

11. Standing at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave that afternoon in June 1814, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley swore their love for one another in what was to Mary a sacred space; she would later marry the poet in whose company with Lord Byron she would be urged to create a story in June 1816, including writing through the autumn of 1816 and the suicides of Fanny Imlay Godwin and Harriet Shelley. Frankenstein delivers a tragedy; it is a story in which death, birth, and the grave create an intricate momentum and inspire readers to ponder the interruption of death and the dead, a cautionary tale about the decomposition of a human mind and the dark materials available to it.

 


 

[1]See also the Saint Pancras Old Church website: http://sosstpancras.org/

[2] See Marshall’s book for an insightful analysis of historical background information pertaining to the conditions of grave robbing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

[3] All quotations from the novel are from the 1818 edition of the novel.

[4] Rowe reports that the slaughter-house parts could be those of cows, sheep, pigs, birds or horses. Incorporated into the monster himself, she explains, he then represents all animals who suffer under human hands. “Frankenstein voices these animals through the plea of the creature, their monstrously created figure,” emphasizing the influence of animal rights activist John Oswald’s The Cry of Nature; or an Appeal to Mercy and Justice, on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals (1791) on both of the Shelleys and on the novel. See also Percy Shelley’s essays, “A Vindication of Natural Diet” (1813) and “On the Vegetable System of Diet” (1814). Mary and Percy were both vegetarians by 1814.

[5] See Swansea Women’s History Walk: http://www.womensarchivewales.org.


Works Cited

Brennan, Matthew W. “The Landscape of Grief in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” in Frankenstein. Ed. Harold Bloom. Bloom’s Major Literary Characters. Chelsea House, 2004, pp. 117-127.

Cameron, Kenneth Neill. “The Last Days of Harriet Shelley,” in Shelley and his Circle IV. Ed. Kenneth Neil Cameron. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Chapman and Hall, 1859.

Ketterer, David. “‘Furnished…Materials’: The Surgical Anatomy Context of Frankenstein.” Rev. of Murdering to Dissect: Grave-Robbing, Frankenstein and the Anatomy Literature, by Tim Marshall. Science Fiction Studies vol. 24, no.1, March 1997, pp. 119-123; 121.

Magee, Reginald. “Art Macabre: Resurrectionists and Anatomists.” ANZ Journal of Surgery vol. 71, no. 6, June 2001, pp. 377-380; 379.

Richardson, Ruth. “Bodily Theft Past and Present: a Tale of Two Sermons.” Lancet Supplement 364 (18 December 2004): 44-45; 44.

Rivers, Bryan. “‘Tenderly’ and ‘With Care’: Thomas Hood’s ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ and the Suicide of Harriet Shelley.” Notes and Queries. vol. 53, no. 3, September 2006, pp. 327-329.

Rowe, Stephanie. “‘Listen to Me’: Frankenstein as an Appeal to Mercy and Justice, on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals.” Humans and Other Animals in Eighteen-Century British Culture: Representation, Hybridity, Ethics. Ed. Frank Palmeri. Ashgate, 2006, pp. 137-152.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. 1818. Ed. Susan Wolfson. Pearson, 2007.

Smith, Andrew. “Frankenstein’s Melancholy” in English Language Notes. vol. 48, no. 1, Spring/Summer 2010, pp. 79-88.