The Secret Life of Books: Frankenstein Back

The Secret Life of Books: Frankenstein presents an entertaining and very watchable presentation of the intriguing history of what is a deservedly famous novel. Its opens with a highly promising manifesto: ‘reading the original book can come as something of a surprise, revealing far more than just the famous monster myth’. The programme includes a sensible focus on Mary Shelley as author, and the contributions of two Shelley experts (Michael Rossington and Nora Crook) are as fresh and insightful as their academic writing on this subject.

Disappointingly, the show ultimately harks back to views of Frankenstein now broadly considered to be outmoded, presenting two misconceptions that actually contradict one another. This paradox is summarised in the programme’s online blurb. The first (misconstrued) assertion is that in writing Frankenstein and ‘showing the disastrous results of the obsessive Victor’s attempts to create life’, the 18-year-old Mary Shelley ‘is seen to be critiquing the Romantic ideal of the solitary, creative genius, a notion associated with poets Percy Shelley and Byron.’ The second error is the interpretation of the Frankenstein manuscript: ‘surprisingly, when examining Mary’s original manuscript at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Alice [Roberts, the presenter] also sees written evidence of Percy’s collaborative role in the creation of Victor.’ This important idea is a very valid and topical focus for Shelley studies, but the programme lets the viewer down by refusing to examine the detail of Percy and Mary Shelley’s collaboration.

It is counterintuitive to suggest that Mary Shelley collaborated with her husband on her novel, and yet also imply that the most important message within its pages was a criticism of him. Rossington carefully describes the ‘critique of the solitary genius’ in the programme, but editing frames his input to imply that this focus is the most crucial interpretation of the text. The academic rigour of Rossington’s words is diminished as the show takes his commentary out of context. Frankenstein as a ‘critique of the solitary genius’ has for some time been considered to be a restrictive reading of what is a far more complex novel. The Shelleys regularly interact and challenge one another in writing, but to reduce Frankenstein to this formulaic analysis is limiting and devalues the Shelleys’ intimate and interactive writing relationship.

What the programme says about collaboration is accurate; collaboration is a crucial aspect of the Shelleys’ relationship. Frankenstein and the literary collaboration of 1816 (when the novel was conceived at Lake Geneva, and Percy Shelley was writing related poems like ‘Mont Blanc’) was a peak in their partnership in terms of sharing ideas, reading and writing together. Insight into the combination of challenge (Mary’s criticism of Percy) and collaboration (on Frankenstein) provides useful and innovative critical understanding in Shelley studies. However, the BBC’s presentation of these ideas sadly leaves us with an outdated interpretation of the creation and composition of Frankenstein.

It is becoming a tired convention for media to appeal to their viewers by presenting a sensationalised account in which academic observations are taken out of context and their ideas simplified to produce a ‘shocking’ dynamic – and that is how this programme depicts the Shelleys, their relationship, and the book. Such embellishments can devalue accurate literary criticism, and their continued prevalence in the media is disappointing.

The presenter, Alice Roberts, is an academic, but in anatomy, not literature. Her perusal of the Frankenstein manuscript at the Bodleian is frustrating to witness. She reviews one of Percy Shelley’s corrections of a misspelling made by Mary Shelley by focusing solely on his use of the nickname ‘Pecksie’:

“I know how I feel when I write, and people change my writing, but nobody’s ever written “oh you pretty Pecksie” alongside an amendment that they’ve made to my writing. Yeah, I think I’d feel that was just more than a little patronizing.”

Implying that Mary Shelley is patronised by her husband not only unnecessarily paints a portrait of Percy as a patriarchal bully but also devalues Mary as an assertive, intelligent young author with the ability to accept or reject Percy’s alterations. What should be the focus, but which becomes lost under Roberts’ hyperbole, is Rossington’s appreciation of the Shelleys’ relationship as he explains in the programme:

“They are companions […] and in terms of their reading, in terms of their thinking – and I think that what the manuscript shows is that dialogue between them, one in which both parties […] are willing participants, on equal terms.”

Debates about personalities and the existence/non-existence of a hierarchy in the Shelleys’ marriage reflect their turbulent critical and popular histories as authors. Percy Shelley required revival from the Victorian etherialisation of his character. This revival was provided in, for example, the biography by Richard Holmes (The Pursuit, 1974), in which Holmes ‘wanted to show […] a modern Shelley still speaking to us, a Shelley who had penetrated the darkness at the edges of existence; a bright flame, certainly, but a flame flickering in the shadows’. Currently, overemphasis is put on the radical Shelley of the poet’s private life, i.e. judgement of Percy Shelley’s personal character, not the poems, and thus a dominating figure to his younger wife’s creativity emerges, a misperception damaging to both authors. Likewise critical understanding of Mary Shelley has now moved on from the need to elevate her from literary obscurity as a neglected female author (something that occurred, with necessity and purpose, in the second half of the 20th century). Surely both Shelleys can now be understood on their own, individual, and renowned, terms (as Rossington says, ‘willing participants’ in a ‘dialogue’). Therefore disagreements in their creative collaboration should not be deemed ‘patronising’ in order to perform the sort of narrative that the BBC and Alice Roberts apparently seek.

Aspects of the programme are enjoyable and it is of course very difficult to create a rigorous academic programme of thirty minutes on a novel written almost 200 years ago. A highlight of the piece is when Roberts discusses a little-known poem by Percy Shelley to Mary Shelley in 1814 in a way that is both touching and intriguing. And for those who have not been there in person, film footage of the Villa Diodati, where the novel began, and Old St Pancras Churchyard, Mary and Percy’s favoured meeting place at the grave of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, provides atmosphere and is enlightening. It is good to see a manifest focus on the texts and writings of the Shelleys; this is admirable, considering that these two authors are so often discussed (in popular culture and the media) merely in terms of their dramatic biographies.

The Secret Life of Books: Frankenstein was first broadcast on BBC4 on 2nd November 2014.