Anne Eekhout's 'Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday October 24, 2023
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Author Anne Eekhout (photo: Keke Keukelaar)
Author Anne Eekhout (photo: Keke Keukelaar)

Among the many things they don't tell you about Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is that it's a deeply moving novel, not the least in its proposal of a tender, unnamed monster done and gone wrong. His creator, Doctor Victor Frankenstein, is like Captain Ahab, undone by his creation, a fatal obsession. Against the odds, by concentrating on its author, Anne Eekhout's new novel, "Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein" (HarperVia, superbly translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson), makes it even more involving.

Writers revisit classic books at their peril. The literary graveyard is full of headstones marking re-thinks of Melville and completions of novels by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. The pull of Eekhout's story is its avoidance of any trace of revisionism in the interest of producing a fantasia on the original. As it happens, Shelley makes a superb central character.

The cover of an 1818 first edition of 'Frankenstein' (photo:  

The other bicentennial
The bicentennial celebration of Shelley's 1818 novel (first published anonymously because it was by a woman, never mind her pedigree) proved newly revelatory. "Frankenstein" had long been acknowledged as the first work of science fiction, and its author was hardly undervalued, being the daughter of feminist crusader Mary Wollstonecraft and the wife of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. New readers did not have to be inducted into the idea that the "latter" Mary was second to neither as a writer, her work patently more enduring —and read outside academia.

"Frankenstein," which Shelley subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," was written on a dare by Lord Byron, who was staying with the Shelleys during a gloomy, socked-in Geneva winter. He proposed that each member of the stranded company, wannabe genre fabulists before their time, write a ghost story to entertain the others.

None rose to the challenge that winter, but over the following year, Mary, the 18-year-old, perpetually pregnant, mourning mother of dead children came forth with a horror story that put centuries of more distinguished literary ghosts, you should pardon the expression, to the pale.

If the bicentennial had done nothing except clarify that Shelley's Frankenstein was not the unnamed monster but the even stranger doctor, Victor Frankenstein —who created "it" (Shelley's designation) and literally shocked it into life electrically, subsequently shocking generations of readers with Shelley's account of his dark science— its work would have been done.

Instead, the celebration cast light on the fearlessly, furiously creative author's entire output, concluding with a "travel" book, "Rambles in Germany and Italy," that took the bold stance, anathema in Victorian England, that depicting homosexual love was not deserving of punishment.

It's tempting to think that Hollywood's century of depicting the monster as a frightful giant with bolts in its oversized head did little more than hold the page for a broader recognition of the original. Of course it accomplished much more, locating the monster, however misidentified, in our collective unconscious permanently. Still, none of the novel's successors, however persuasive, holds a candle to Shelley's scope, depth, and daring.

What Eekhout hath wrought
"Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein" takes us back to the Swiss chalet but does not strand us there. In the Alpine retreat, Mary sees Percy dawdling with another of the guests and Byron being flagrantly sexual with John Polidori, who also makes a pass at Mary.

But even at its most lurid, that narrative choice is overtaken by the newly pregnant Mary's threnody of inconsolable grief at the crib death of her daughter, which sets the tone of the novel as a whole.

For the historical Shelley, more dead children — miscarriages, stillbirths, and yet more early deaths— were to come. Formative as those experiences were, none stopped the prodigious flow of Mary's writing.

Eekhout leaves few of the standard stones of gothic fiction unturned. Creatures with gills and scales make frequent appearances, but with a literary daring all her own, Eekhout locates the genesis of "Frankenstein" in the adolescent tryst of the historical Mary and Isabella Baxter, the daughter of Mary's father's friend with whom she passes a fateful sojourn in Scotland. A budding erotic relationship between the girls blooms, with all the ecstasy and calamity of young, forbidden love.

Mary refers to Isabella's "reckless, magnificent intensity," though there's a fair amount of projection there. The climax of their "affair" comes in an episode of Victorian skinnydipping that shimmers with eroticism. Mary recalls it later:

"[Isabella's nipples] were dark, dark and hard, and when I pressed my lips to her nipple, took the firm bud into my mouth, that hardness drove itself into my body, through my entire self, downwards, downwards."

There's a lot more where that comes from.

Monster mash
The most direct, verbal censor of the girls' relationship is by the sinister Mr. Booth, who has his eye on Isabella, too, but, importantly to the larger plot, has a reputation for experimentation with various life forms in his abandoned brewery.

Mary imagines him as a man with a snake, another snake, real of not, having just bitten Isabella in a quiet invocation of the serpent in Genesis. A monster with characteristics remarkably like those of the historical Shelley's ghoul appears at their every sexual act. Is it the monstrosity of their love?

Such as there's philosophy in "Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein," it's about the wafer-thin membrane that separates fact from fiction, not just in this tale but in the life we all live.

"Stories are a mirror," the fictional Mary comments. "You see yourself but not always as you had expected. A story like a mirror; not real but still true."

Less abstractly and far more potently, the unstable boundary between reality and illusion is in the warp and woof of Eekhout's novel. The book operates in two time frames, the fictional Mary in Scotland and the less fictional Mary in Switzerland, but they're easily distinguished, the first told in first person and the other in third.

The writing itself verges on the surreal when it is not frankly hallucinatory. Dreams abound, mostly nightmares. The prose has a strange, hypnotic, enveloping beauty, the guarantor of a good horror story.

Deliriously yet pellucidly run-on sentences jostle with sentence fragments and totemic individual words, all under Eekhout's sure control. The looping between narrative threads takes place within sentences and paragraphs, not just in the more time-specific sections.

In hands other than Eekhout's, and the two Marys', this might all be aggravating to the most careful reader. Instead it is narratively life-giving, in the non-electrical sense.

'Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein,' by Anne Eekhout; translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson. $24. HarperVia, 300 pages.

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