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Pride and Prometheus

March 26, 2018

Although I resisted for a day, I finally bought the last signed copy of Pride and Prometheus by this year’s ICFA guest of honor, John Kessel, while at the conference. One of the things that decided me was hearing his guest of honor address, entitled “Mary, Jane, and Me,” in which he delineated some rules for good fiction that uses characters and settings derived from other works of fiction—the most important being that the new story should not depend entirely on knowledge about the older one.

I had just re-read Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, in preparation for the 200th birthday celebration and my presentation on reanimation, resurrection, and necromancy in fiction since its publication in 1818, so I was primed to enjoy this new story. One of the things my re-reading reminded me of is that Victor Frankenstein creates his monster using alchemy, not by stitching him together from parts of different bodies—that’s an image from monster movies and later fiction.

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice were published five years apart and there are ten years between when the events of Pride and Prejudice close and those of Frankenstein begin, so there are connections worth mining. In Kessel’s mashup of the two novels, an older Mary Bennett meets Victor Frankenstein shortly before the interval in Shelley’s novel when Victor goes to England to build his creature a wife.

Since I’d just been reminded that the creature was created with alchemy, I especially enjoyed Kessel’s description of him as uncanny:
“There is no obvious flaw in my countenance. My hair is thick and luxuriant, my brow noble. One might object to my cloudy eyes, my pale skin, or my dark lips—but I believe the trouble lies not in my difference from men, but in the too slight distance between them and myself. The very fact that I look so like them, when clearly by some token of my bearing, my expression, the way my lips or eyebrows move, I am not human, damns me. They look, and they see that something is wrong. I am some demonic semblance of a man. A monster.”

There are some elaborate jokes, like the polite dinner-table conversation when Victor and Henry Clerval are invited to Pemberley:
“’Have you taken the Matlock waters’ Mary asked Clerval, seated opposite her at the dinner table. ‘People in the parish swear that they can raise the dead.’
‘I confess that I have not,’ Clerval said. ‘Victor does not credit their healing powers.’
Mary turned to Frankenstein, hoping to draw him into discussion of the matter, but the startled expression on his face silenced her.

The plot involves the unexpected death of one of Mary’s sisters, Victor’s snatching of her body, Mary meeting the monster, and Mary’s longing to see her sister brought back to life, even though she can see that the monster is “a sham, an animated corpse, a hideous parody of a human being.”

I heard Kessel read a chapter of his novel out loud, and his voicing of the monster, who Mary calls “Adam,” was deep and hollow-sounding, which added to my enjoyment of the section where Mary teaches him to sing harmony:
“Mary sang a C as clearly as she could. As a girl she had always been praised for having perfect pitch. Years later Kitty confessed that everyone in the family had told Mary that simply to make her feel better about being plain.”

In this story, it is Mary Bennett who provides the circumstances for Clerval’s murder at the hands of Frankenstein’s monster, and it is a chance meeting with a Captain Walton some years after the events in which she was directly involved that gives Mary a chance to hear the rest of the story, over tea.

It’s a delightful meeting of worlds, made even better for me by the chance to read some of it while sitting by the pool at the conference, which is held in Orlando, and having the author walk up to me and say something charming and self-deprecating about what I was reading. I don’t remember exactly what, because I was deep into the world of his book.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2018 3:48 pm

    Frankenstein is such a wonderful story, and so ripe for additional retellings and reimaginings.

  2. March 27, 2018 3:01 pm

    Intriguing mash-up! I’ve only read Frankenstein once, in college, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I might. How lovely that you got to read it pool-side in Florida, that sounds wonderful to me (I know, I just got back from the beach, but it was SC and it was cool and overcast most days! There’s no pleasing me apparently.)

    • March 27, 2018 3:06 pm

      The first two days I was in Orlando were too cool for sunning by the pool, at least for me, but the second two were sunny and warm and I went in swimming in between bouts of reading, which is pretty much paradise.

  3. April 3, 2018 6:03 pm

    Fascinating Jeanne … love that he merged the two novels in his parallel one. I agree as you know about the new “version” standing on its own.

    • April 3, 2018 6:05 pm

      One of the things he said that I thought was true is that we don’t think about how close the publication dates of these two novels are. I loved what he did with Mary, ten years older.

      • April 3, 2018 8:54 pm

        No, I think we often look at works in isolation and forget who else was around at the time. Beethoven was born 5 years before Austen, as was William Wordsworth. Coleridge was 3 years younger. She though followed the more classical tradition of Pope and Cowper than their Romantic one. It’s interesting to ponder isn’t it?

        • April 3, 2018 8:59 pm

          Yes, especially across disciplines, as you point out with the example of Beethoven!

  4. April 8, 2018 6:43 pm

    Well now that’s an interesting mashup. Not sure I will ever read it, but I am glad you enjoyed it!

    • April 8, 2018 8:27 pm

      It’s sobering to realize that Mary as an “old maid” was almost as outcast as Frankenstein’s monster.

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