This essay grew out of two quotidian sources: a pattern I noticed on Twitter, and a dream.
The pattern was as follows: as the Frankenstein bicentennial unfolded over the course of 2018, a great many people wrote tweets about Mary Shelley, often referring to her as the mother, creator, or inventor of science fiction. And because the Twitter algorithm has really got my number, it learned to show me these tweets paired with 18th-century British literature scholar Manushag Powell’s inevitable comment, which usually said something like “Cavendish!” or “You’d love Margaret Cavendish!” or “Guys, Cavendish!”
This got me thinking about what we want from Mary Shelley. Why must she mother a genre, on top of all the other mothering she did? Why are we collectively so committed to a fantasy of Mary Shelley as the ingénue inventor of speculative fiction, and what might these speculations tell us about our fantasies of genre, writ large?
Now, when it comes to projecting our personal desires onto Mary Shelley, I am certainly not an innocent party. During my pregnancy, I clung to Frankenstein and to its conflicted fantasies of inspired creation and monstrous embodiment. In my recent book, Harvester of Hearts: Motherhood under the Sign of Frankenstein, I interrogate my own desire to carve out an identity for myself as a mother in the imaginative space generated by that favorite novel. I also ask how the Mary Shelley we have today has been constructed, piecemeal, out of what feminists have desired of her, tracing these desires from Muriel Spark’s marginalia to Betty T. Bennett’s Frankenstein fan-fiction to the last manuscript pecked out by Barbara Johnson, who had to use one hand to steady her body, in her illness, in front of the screen.
At the same time, I locate Frankenstein and its lesser-known companion work, Mathilda, within that fabled period of Mary Shelley’s life — the period between 1815 and 1820, when she was between the ages of 18 and 23. That’s the Mary Shelley of our fantasies: Elle Fanning looking totally modern in a no-makeup look on the shores of Lake Geneva, the year without a summer, the birth of the Byronic vampire, Shelley’s dream of bringing her dead infant back to life by rubbing its feet by the fire. That’s the moment we’ve constructed as the birth of science fiction — a moment of big, feminine feelings that strike us in satisfying contrast to the incisive brilliance of the scientist’s steady hand.
Our attachment to this myth has something to do with our ideas about female brilliance, certainly. It may also be, at least to some extent, a pedagogical fantasy, or a retro-projection of our pedagogical desires. In the introduction to a new edition of Frankenstein geared toward STEM students that came out from MIT Press last year, the editors write: “Sixteen-year-old Mary ran off with Percy from England to continental Europe, returning shortly after only to run off again on the jaunt that led her to imagine Frankenstein. Mary was doing drugs (laudanum, a powdered opiate) and became pregnant by a man who was at the time married to someone else: if she had turned up at ASU or any other school, she would have been labeled an ‘at-risk student’ and targeted for intervention.” (The editors all teach at ASU.) Lily Gurton-Wachter has pointed out that Frankenstein suffers and self-destructs for want of a teacher; perhaps this has something to do with the desire to see our students see themselves in Victor Frankenstein, on the one hand, and Mary Shelley, on the other. Elsewhere in the edition, the editors explain to their imagined classroom,
… we have decided to refer to the author and her main protagonist simply as Mary and Victor wherever possible. We do not wish to diminish them with this familiarity, but we do wish precisely to render them more familiar. Mary was eighteen years old when she began to set her ideas to paper. Victor was a young man, still very much a student. Both of them are more like you, the reader, in that sense than like us. We want you to see them more as colleagues, classmates, and maybe even as friends rather than as a distant contributor to the literary canon and the maniacal character she devised.
In so doing, these editors blur the line between what is literary history and what is fiction, revealing the extent to which the version of Mary Shelley who famously invented science fiction is a story like any other. They also raise the question of what it is about a young female author that invites her posthumous editors to fictionalize her in a ploy to make her more relatable.
The truth is that this period of Mary Shelley’s life — the Frankenstein period or the first edition period — which seems so romantic two hundred years later, was actually a time, not only of poignant productivity, but also of unimaginable pain for her. It was a period in which she lost three children, among other devastating ruptures and crises. To take Shelley seriously means acknowledging the unromantic nature of this time in her actual human life. It also means including Shelley’s long career as a working single mother, publishing to support and maintain custody of her only surviving child, as part of the story. And if we want to take women writers seriously in general, then we need to see past the fantasy of Mary Shelley as the inventor of a genre to the authors who innovated the Gothic and science fiction genres on which Frankenstein is based.
So, why not Cavendish, guys? What does Mary Shelley have that Margaret Cavendish doesn’t, at least from a pop-cultural perspective? When I posed this question to a room full of graduate students, they zoomed in on Cavendish’s childlessness, pointing out that her failure to have children allowed her to have “paper bodies” instead. This phrase comes from a letter in which Cavendish thinks through the fear that her plays had been lost at sea:
… if I had not had the Original of them by me, truly I should have been much Afflicted, and accounted the Loss of my Twenty Playes, as the Loss of Twenty Lives, for in my Mind I should have Died Twenty Deaths, which would have been a great Torment, or I should have been near the Fate of those Playes, and almost Drown’d in Salt Tears, as they in the Salt Sea; but they are Destinated to Live, and I hope, I in them, when my Body is Dead, and Turned to Dust; But I am so Prudent, and Careful of my Poor Labours, which are my Writing Works, as I always keep the Copies of them safely with me, until they are Printed, and then I Commit the Originals to the Fire, like Parents which are willing to Die, whenas they are sure of their Childrens Lives, knowing when they are Old, and past Breeding, they are but Useless in this World: But howsoever their Paper Bodies are Consumed, like as the Roman Emperours, in Funeral Flames, I cannot say, an Eagle Flies out of them, or that they Turn into a Blazing Star, although they make a great Blazing Light when they Burn …
In this passage, we see a woman writer directly opposed to the trope of the beautiful, tragic young mistress/wife/daughter/mother striking on something genius and true as if by accident. Cavendish’s labors are poor, both because her labor produces written works rather than children, and because she claims that labor as meticulous, careful work that cannot be confused with divine epiphany. There’s no confusing Margaret Cavendish with the heroine of a Gothic novel herself, nothing artless about the neurotic precision with which she guards and then burns the manuscripts she parents. If we wanted to make Margaret accessible to our undergrads, perhaps we’d have to call her extra. This is the tack Danielle Dutton takes in her brilliant novel about Cavendish’s life, Margaret the First. As the novel opens, Dutton writes:
At breakfast tables and dinner parties, over porridge or pike or a gravy made from the brains of a pig, she was all that anyone talked about, as watched for as Queen Catherine herself but a far more thrilling spectacle: those black stars on her cheeks, the scandal at the theater, her hats! One anonymous satirist had dubbed her Welbeck Abbey’s illustrious whore. Others called her simply fantastical. An overgrown spoilt girl. Her work: chaos. Her books: sad heaps of rubbish. Voluminous, some called her. Crack-brained. So extremely picturesque. Yet there were others … who considered her the unequaled daughter of the muses and her latest book a blazing utopia to rival Bacon’s own.
Tracing the history of speculative fiction back to this book, Cavendish’s 1666 The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, offers a different origin point for woman-authored science fiction, one that provides an imaginative counterpart to sustained scientific discourse and one that evokes a feeling of authorial control, as Cavendish begins with a note to the reader in which she explains, “I have made a World of my own: for which no body, I hope, will blame me, since it is in every ones power to do the like.” Frankenstein, by contrast, is a book-length guilt-trip, a story in which creation is not always virtuous and creators rarely go unpunished. For all the feminist cathexis that has secured Shelley’s place in the canon, her pop-cultural longevity inheres, not only in Frankenstein’s timelessness, but also, perhaps, in a long history of shaping her into a manic pixie dream author. She is not the studious thinker backing up her work. She is — and Frankenstein is about — the way that youth makes us want to bring the dead back to life.
This brings me to the dream — not Mary Shelley’s, not Victor Frankenstein’s, but my own. (Okay, maybe also Victor Frankenstein’s dream, following his creature’s animation, in which he caresses his sister/cousin/fiancé in his arms and she transforms into his mother’s remains.) As I was gearing up to write this essay, I was also winding down a course on Jane Austen and the Gothic that situated Austen’s fictions within the literary-historical moment in which she read and wrote in order to highlight the starkness and darkness at their margins. And out of the confluence of these two endeavors issued a weirdly specific dream in which my discussion of Shelley and Cavendish as potential “mothers” of science fiction devolved, or perhaps evolved, into a discussion of monstrous motherhood in Austen’s Lady Susan and Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria. In Lady Susan, a monstrous mother takes the story into her own hands, both literally — the story unfolds in a series of letters — and figuratively, by manipulating others in order to drive the plot. In Maria, which literalizes Gothic tropes in the service of cultural criticism and which is full of female monstrosity, the title character, wrongly imprisoned in a private asylum, puts pen to paper in order to tell her history to a daughter she will likely never meet. This history is only one of the novel’s stories, which come together to suggest that becoming a mother within a world of systemic injustice is in itself an act of madness.
Why this move to the mad mother as author figure, I asked myself upon waking, then realized that, while I’d been asking what it might look like to re-assert Cavendish as the mother of science fiction, my subconscious mind had been asking a far more Shelleyan question — namely, why a genre needs a mother at all. When we ask Mary Shelley to invent science fiction in a stroke of accidental genius, we ask her to “Commit the Originals to the Fire, like Parents which are willing to Die, whenas they are sure of their Childrens Lives.” We privilege our idea of her and her literary-historical taglines over her lived, human life. We equate invention with a kind of madness, and, in so doing, we discredit her. But while our dominant methodologies, at least in the field of literary studies, keep insisting that the author is dead, I want us to remember that she was once alive, and that attending to her life in its complexity — and to the lives of those who came before, and to the lives that shaped her afterlives — might help us understand the needs and desires that we bring to literature ourselves, and the experiments we conduct there.