Ruth Franklin, who is the best reason to read The New Republic, ran an interesting piece this week about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s mother was the proto-feminist (or First Feminist, depending on who you ask) Mary Wollstonecraft. While in labour with Mary (the younger), Wollstonecraft wrote to her husband that, “I have no doubt of seeing the animal today.” From the use of the word “animal” Franklin extrapolates a whole argument about how Frankenstein might have been a metaphor for the “monstrous” experience of childbirth in the nineteenth century.
I often want to resist reading fiction through the lens of autobiography but sometimes the facts make it hard to ignore. As Franklin points out, when Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein, she was only 18, but already the mother to two children. One had died at only eleven days old. Only one of her children, in fact, survived past infancy, and she nearly died from a miscarriage. If she came out of that blood and sweat thinking of the whole thing as monstrous, I for one am not sure I can blame her.
There are, now, so many beautiful memoirs about painful childbirth experiences; of course I’m thinking of that first chapter of Lidia Yuknavitch‘s The Chronology of Water. I keep thinking about what Mary Shelley’s memoirs of childbirth might have looked like, if she’d been able to write them openly. Maybe she wouldn’t have chosen to do that. Maybe she would always have preferred her metaphor, conscious or unconscious.