Essay

Unwitting Encounters with the Creature

By: Sultana Raza

Forced to shelter indoors in 1818, the year without a summer, Mary Shelley brought one of the most famous monster to life at the Villa Diodati in Geneva. Little would she know that the spring and autumn of 2020 would be ruined for many people not just in England, but in many parts of the world, forced to stay inside during the enforced lockdown. Or that celebrations about Keats’s 200th death anniversary in 2020 would take place in a virtual manner. Had her husband written about himself, or about Keats in the overly long Adonais? Will the pandemic be over by 2022 when we will be celebrating the 200th death anniversary of Shelley himself?

Back in the ‘normal’ times of 2018, I kept seeing the Creature, disappearing over very steep slopes. One needed to have superhuman sinews to climb up those precipitous hills anyway. And to keep on going, and going. To find a place and peoples where one could feel at home, perhaps. The wind was strong enough to blow us away completely, if we didn’t scrunch up and held our ground. It almost scraped off the exposed skin of one’s face like furiously hurtling pellets. Of what? Snow? Sand?

But it was just an impression. That’s all. And that was just in May. What if we’d come here in winter? Or even in autumn? Am not too sure I’d have gone to any conferences in the Arctic outside of the summer months. Being from India, I’d panicked as soon as my paper on Keats had gotten accepted. Did I have a coat that was warm enough to be worn in the Arctic region? I got the news around the end of January, when most winter coats were going, going, almost gone from shops. I did buy a few straggling remains in sales, just to be on the safe side. But I had one last shot at buying winter coats in Toronto, where I’d popped in between two conferences in the US.

In the chilly wind of the Norwegian fjords, I was grateful for it, though some Brits and Americans were wearing the thinnest of coats, with tights to boot. But he wouldn’t need any special winter coats, would he? His rags would have been enough. Still, I couldn’t imagine anyone trying to track him down through these desolate snowy wastes. Had he come through Norway? I couldn’t remember all the details of the story. But did it really matter? For the closer one got to the North Pole, the smaller everything became, till one would reach point of no return, and automatically start walking in the opposite direction from where one had come from. If one were lucky enough to survive that long. But his legend had endured for 200 years. Why? Perhaps because in it man could play god, and breathe life into a new, though patchy creation. Yet, it also reflected back all of man’s major flaws, and existential angst.

At the Arctic conference, we did have a Panel on him, with a few more papers on the monster strewn among the other Panels. It seemed an apt place, and a very timely event to be talking about the Creature out here, not too far from the place where he ultimately ended up. Whether he haunted the thoughts of the speakers who actually talked about him, I don’t know, but for some odd reason, I kept visualizing him disappearing over the far ranges, up and down every sharp peak. Luckily, when we got on our eight hour cruise on the fjords, the sea was calm, and so it so more or less smooth sailing, but one would have to be really obsessed to follow someone to literally the very ends of the earth. Someone who had another kind of engine, than those of mere mortals, lighting up his insides.

To be honest, though I’d heard about the monster before, I’d refused to tango with him. In fact, I’d deliberately not gone to watch this play broadcast live in cinemas from National Theatre in London because I tend to avoid over-hyped plays or films. But when it was re-broadcast yet again, I decided to watch it. And was blown away by Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. He knew his beasts, whether they were Samug the Dragon in The Hobbit, or the Creature. In fact, I preferred his performance in a body suit as Smaug in the DVD extras, rather than the actual CGI version in the films. Perhaps because the dragon was so huge, it was difficult to get a grasp on him. But one when sees the actor becoming the dragon, and how he lay, writhing and slashing about on the floor, that one gets a clearer glimpse of the art behind his electronically altered persona.

(On a side note, in fact, before I’d seen Cumberbatch on stage, I thought I’d spotted someone like him on a flight from Paris to Singapore. But he wouldn’t be travelling in economy. Besides the guy in question seemed to be a younger and more innocent version of the actor. Hope I hadn’t been staring at the poor guy in Economy. Or perhaps he was used to some people throwing him startled glances. But since no one approached him it was a safe bet he wasn’t someone famous. Possibly, an innocent cousin of the artist, unspoilt by Hollywood).

L’enfant gâté or not, Cumberbatch knows how to wind up his inside gears, and get his twisted characters right. As in Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, who became a victim not just because he was different, but also because he was a genius. Whose brilliance may have frightened his colleagues. Whoever had had the bright idea of casting Cumberbatch as the Creature knew his stuff. And even without watching lots of interviews, one assumes Cumberbatch must have jumped at the chance of flexing his quirky muscles in taking on the deformed character.

Though Mary Shelley is not my main area of interest, when I start thinking back, it’s impossible to avoid her if you’re into the Late Romantics. They were my favourite many years ago at university. Somehow, I’d managed to escape their clutches, and dived into fantasy. But a chance encounter with a DVD on Byron in a library reignited my interest. Of course, the famous scene when they all made bets on writing ghost stories was very much in the 2003 film. But before that, I remember hearing in a reading group that Mary was only 18 when she’d written her chef d’oeuvre.

And a master performance it was by Cumberbatch, as he made the audience empathize with this warped version of a human being. Seeing the piece emoted by talented actors helped modern audiences gain more insights into the Creature’s psyche. Though no doubt armies of scholars would say that I haven’t really delved deeply into the book. Does one need theatre to appreciate literature? Specially when, as another professor put it, Mary was able to write so well about the monster because she was living with one.

Possibly, P.B. Shelley could be very selfish, but was it on purpose? Apparently he’d get so lost in his thoughts and theories, that he’d forget to eat. A handy way of remaining slim. Though at least he didn’t have that particular problem in his short life. Neither did Mary, as they struggled to make ends meet with scraps thrown at them from time to time by Percy’s father.

In the 2017 film, Mary Shelley, director Haifaa Al Mansour did a very competent job of bringing Mary’s life and times alive. With a sensitive portrayal of Mary, the film captures the period details quite well, and succeeds in creating the right atmosphere in different scenes. Though critics haven’t been kind to the film, it recreates the period details quite well. The acting is believable as well. It doesn’t give off the vibe of a low budget film, with the props, costumes and music working to great effect. The film deserves a better reception than the one it’s gotten so far. The story propels you forward, just as life whipped Mary forward into unknown territories.

In fact, on a rainy day in York, England in May 2017, I was rushing from one Panel to another to find the room where a Greek professor was giving a paper on Mary Shelley’s attempts to learn Greek. I arrived late, but there was still an empty chair to be found. Perhaps a few other professors didn’t care for my late arrival, but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. The speaker had a gift for story-telling too, as for the first time, Mary Shelley came alive to me. I’d seen her hand-writing at the Lord Byron in the Hand of Mary Shelleyexhibition at the Keats-Shelley House in September 2015. Yet, she’d remained distant. Someone with a huge amount of patience. Forbearing enough to deal with Byron and his ego. When her own husband’s writing was so much deeper than that of the spoilt peer. Yet, as she explained to Byron, copying his work gave her some respite from her own thoughts. Byron, with whom both her spouse and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont had had a turbulent and complicated history for different reasons.

Yet, those fifteen minutes at the conference in 2017 made her live in a way those faded papers couldn’t. Here was the young Mary, desperately trying to enter Percy’s world. Trying to learn Greek, so that she could better understand what he and his high-brow friends talked about. Struggling to keep up with them intellectually. Didn’t her mother think that women should be men’s equals? Even if her mother had never been around to help or guide her. The talk also brought home Mary’s pain at her husband’s death more poignantly than any flat, and silent sheets of papers ever could.

***

Added to this initial intellectual struggle, was the emotional turmoil that Mary went through ever since she ran away with Percy. Coping with his philosophy of free love, which she didn’t seemed to have practiced herself. These points were highlighted in the 2017 film too. Could Mary have had a sympathetic understanding with Polidori? Though this was just hinted at in the film, a run in with another researcher in 2017 in Strasbourg shed new light on this unfortunate figure. Apparently, Polidori was a polymath, and a bright spark, who’d qualified as a doctor at the early age of nineteen, but who’d had more than his share of bad luck in life. Like Byron and Shelley with whom he’d spent that fateful night at the Villa Diodati. Though I’d visited Geneva for a creative writing conference in the early 2000s, I hadn’t made the pilgrimage to gawp at the well-known mansion. In any case, it’s not possible for the public to visit the famous Villa Diodati, where the Creature was first born in Mary’s mind. After having watched the 2017 film, Mary Shelley, perhaps I should’ve gone to see it, if only from the outside.

Who had inspired Mary when she was creating the Creature? Percy, Byron, or other men of their circle? Unfortunately, even today the world is peopled with various kinds of monsters. The MeToo movement started with shedding light on Hollywood monsters, but quickly spread into almost all fields, such as the corporate world, including the increasingly corporatized university environment. In August, when flying to Toronto from Paris, I caught up with the 2018 TV series Genius: Picasso. There’s no doubt that the artist had a genius for promoting and self-mythologizing himself quite successfully, and wriggling out of tight spots. In which category will future feminists place him, and other male painters like him (such as Klimt), who used and discarded females, (models or not) like dirty paint-streaked rag dolls? As women continue to fight for respect in all domains, perhaps a revisionist view of past misdemeanours of alpha males is sorely needed.

Since Picasso identified himself with the bull archetype, or even with the minotaur, are his distorted views of women a reflection of how a monster would see them? In Malaga, the Picasso Museum is within walking distance of a well-reserved bull-ring. Presumably the artist grew up surrounded by the bull-ring culture, and possibly decided that being a monster was preferable to being trampled by one.

While, no doubt modern art is quite conceptual in nature, and is supposed to have many layers of meaning, with at least a hundred thousand words being necessary to explain what’s it about, can’t a straightforward view be one of the explanations? Art critics/professionals are loth to accept a simple or simplistic explanation for their idolised artists, as that could de-value their work, which would affect their own fees, commissions and salaries. Which could mean a fall in the monetary value too. Which would be unthinkable. Artists who’ve built up their stature of giants are unsinkable.

Perhaps there’re lots of convoluted reasons for the breaking up of the elements of a face, or portrait, as for example, done by Picasso. However, could it be he’d simply slipped into the character of the half-human half-monster, and this is how he’d see women from that perspective? There are far fewer broken up images of men than of women by this versatile artist. Would his title of a monstre sacré change to that of un sacré monstre by women in the twenty second century or beyond? In that case, he’d be one in a long line of monsters who’ve paid little regard to women through the centuries.

***

Did Percy respect Mary, since he was fascinated by her parents. Perhaps he did so in his own way, and probably more than most men of his times. Though my visit to Rome in 2015 was not a literary pilgrimage, yet I couldn’t help visiting the Keats-Shelley Memorial House near the Spanish Steps. Ironically, Shelley never visited it, but stayed in an apartment nearby. When in Rome, not only can visit  Keats’s grave, but also admire all the ruins and museum which contain relics of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization that the Romantics admired, and drew upon for their writings.

At Shelley’s grave at the quiet, green Protestant Cemetry in Rome in 2015, I couldn’t help reflecting on Mary’s strange request to take her husband’s heart, and whether this was just a very old urban legend. There’s one chance in a million that she’d actually gotten it, or had really preserved it. Though the act would’ve been creepy and macabre, it reminded me of Isabella cutting of Lorenzo’s head in Keats’s poem, Isabella, or Pot of Basil. In that poem, as poor Isabella wept over it, the basil plant flourished, until it was taken away by her cruel brothers.

Mary did much to promote Percy’s writings, the outpourings of his head after his untimely death. Her act of preserving Percy’s heart reminds on the Egyptians who’d had the morbid tendency of preserving various organs of the illustrious dead in jars. Specially as the pyramid of the mysterious Cestius is in a corner of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where both Keats and Shelley are buried.

(On a side-note: it was surreal to come across a sketch of an architectural fantasy scene, or ‘capriccio’ of the above pyramid by the eighteenth century French artist, Hubert Robert, at The Louvre invites the Comics exhibition in November 2018).

But back in 2015, I couldn’t help wondering if Mary had ever visited Percy’s grave, since his body wasn’t there? Perhaps a few molecules of his ashes still survived in the ever shifting layers of the underground soil. Somehow finding out the precise answer to this question would spoil the mystery of the shaded past. And shouldn’t a couple be allowed to keep some of their secrets? Why ‘unweave a rainbow,’ as Keats says. For unspooling their rainbow or colourful life could reveal some rather grim tones. Of course, I stayed longer than the average tourist at Keats’s grave, and noticed two Spanish women did the same. Then we were surprised and pleased to come across each other at Shelley’s grave too. With some sign language, and halting English one of the women explained that she was a poet, and a great admirer of the Romantics. This stop was one of the highlights of their trip to Rome, as it’s bound to be for anyone with even a faint Romantic inclination.

Do one’s Romantic illusions dissolve a little, when one comes to know that Louis Édouard Fournier’s painting, The Funeral of Shelley is a highly imaginative and romanticized version of the latter’s mysterious death and funeral on the sea-shore near Via Reggio (in Italy) where the drowned Percy Shelley’s body was found. The cremation took place on the 16th of August 1822. From that moment on, Percy could only be endlessly re-created on paper, as his friends fenced gently with words, as to who had the most claim on his works and literary heritage, due to their camaraderie? He couldn’t be resurrected as the Creature in physical form.

***

Did Mary have a premonition that Percy was really writing Adonais keeping himself in mind? Like Hero, she waited, but her Leander, prone too much to dreaming and philosophizing, never came. And she’d come to know the spirit of solitude, only too well, for she never remarried. Or could she come to terms with his towering intellect more easily after his physical death?

Was she already feeling very lonely when she’d begun writing Frankenstein in June 1816? Or had she written thishorror story in a pique? Or had she been helped enormously by the monster at her side? If so, had Percy realized which character had been inspired by him? 2018 being the bicentenary of Frankenstein, it’s difficult to escape it in all its myriad forms. In 2018, Netflix re-streamed Seasons 1 and 2 of The Chronicles of Frankenstein, derived loosely from the famous novella, though the First Season was aired in 2015. 

But the Creature’s been running amok all over Europe, if not the world, this year. Sheltering from the rain in Barcelona in September 2018, after visiting an archaeology related conference, I came upon a graphic novel, Mary, Who Wrote Frankenstein written by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Julia Sarda, meant for young readers. The same book caught my eye at a museum shop in London in November 2018. Along with countless other books on Mary. Though I was reluctant to part with Jane Austen’s head to buy any of them. In fact, I can’t help wondering how many people will hold onto some pounds notes graced by Austen, specially if they live outside of the UK?

But why did I keep noticing the Creature all over the place more than say, Austen’s books, though it was her bicentenary too? Could it be because I’m exploring the theme of loneliness in my getting-ever-longer poem, The Golden Torch? What could Helen of Troy possibly have in common with the Creature? Just the fact that both of them were unique in their own way.

(On a side-note: though Helen had a demi-mortal brother Pollux, he seemed to have gone gadding about on adventures with his mortal step-brother Castor more, and didn’t seem to have a lot to do with her. Though Helen’s somewhat of an antagonist in my version of the tale, yet, she must have been lonelier than ever after the handsome Paris was killed with a special poison.   However, was she more lonely than Cassandra? Edward Burne-Jones’s haunting sketch of Cassandra (at his 2018 exhibition at the Tate) leads one to ask the above question. With her mouth open, as if she were uttering a prophecy, her eyes are both desolate, and far-seeing, as they witness the horrors to come, if her warnings weren’t heeded. No one in Troy ever believed what she said, and in a way she was let down by her family, and became victim to the Achaeans. But in Homer’s version, Agamemnon didn’t use her powers to foresee or prevent his own demise. Though it may seem far-fetched, re-watching the 1991 TV series, Clarissa, reminded me somewhat of Cassandra, who was betrayed by her own family, in a way, though for different reasons, and ended up with the worst of men. It’s amazing to realize that the old Greek myth has a lot of room for the important role women played in the unfolding of the plot, if only it hadn’t been written by men).

Could the Creature have been less destructive if it had had a mate of some sort? The Creature popped up on a stage in Luxembourg in the form of Mel Brooke’s Young Frankenstein in the autumn of 2018. Is it bad manners to think of other books or character whilst watching a film? If so, who’d ever know? Comparisons between works of art are made all the time. While being hurtled along Peter Jackson’s 2018 thriller, The Mortal Engines, his treatment of Shrike struck me as having something of the Creature’s quest for a family, and in the end perhaps of his own humanity. If ever there’s a sequel, who knows if Shrike is really ‘dead?’

Can the Creature ever really die? Or is it condemned to a long, cold existence without any real company? Why did it keep cropping up in so many different places? Do most immigrants from the Third World feel as isolated as this ‘monster’ in the colder regions of Europe and North America? Are they made to feel like some sort of inferior race, that has somehow managed to creep into the daily life of the snobbish inhabitants of these countries? Yet, we tend to forget that for centuries human beings have been nomads. Most peoples like to stop at a convenient time in history to claim their ancestors. Very few people in Europe proudly proclaim that their ancestors probably came from Central Asia. Perhaps over the centuries, people of their lineage moved from place to place, marrying into various tribes, thus varying their DNA considerably. Are we not all an approximation of diverse races co-mingling over the millennia? Somewhat like the Creature, created from assembling together various limbs and body parts?

What would Mary make of all this brou-ha-ha about her novella? After all, when she wrote it, she couldn’t publish it under her own name at first, simply because it wasn’t common or acceptable for women to publish books. Strangely enough, there aren’t many female directors in the film industry in general, let alone in the Middle East. So for Saudi Arabia’ first female film-maker, Haifaa Al Mansour to direct this film means that the struggle for women to express their creativity is still ongoing in many parts of the world today. Sometimes, not many people are interested in what writers of other cultures have to say, specially if they’re of the quiet type.

(On a side-note: one such example is Reshma Aqil, a sensitive, retiring, word painter, from India, whose poems in Sleeping Wind (and two other volumes of poems) have slowly begun to be appreciated only after her early death in 2012).

Mary’s ghost must be quite busy this year, flitting from city to city to keep up with all the works derived from her life and novella. Airports in Frankfurt, Istanbul, Athens, Delhi and Lucknow carried Mary related books. Did it all start on a stormy night in June 1818 at Villa Diodati? Or is this an urban legend too? For she could have started writing it in her head from the moment when Percy first hurt her feelings.

Although, some scholars, such as Professor Charles Robinson of the University of Delaware claim that Percy had had a much bigger role to play in shaping the novella than originally presumed. While it’s highly possible, Percy may have polished the writing, or even added to the story, perhaps its emotional core came from Mary’s own experience. It seems that a painful life at an early age is the qualification for writers to join ‘The Club of Agonized Romantics.’ Director Haifaa Al Mansour’s 2017 film, Mary Shelley, drives home the point that Frankenstein was Mary’s creation, yet it’s impossible to determine the influence Percy’s editing must have had on it. In fact, on the famous night when the challenge was set for writing ghost stories, possibly Byron and Percy were the biggest ‘monsters’ in the Villa. Though Polidori’s The Vampyre was vilified in its day, new research being done on him shows he was not quite the shallow youth he’s made out to be. In fact, his book set the trend of the vampire genre, while Mary’s story has become a legend in its own right.

(On a side-note: also released in 2018 was Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, which took one back to the Regency period, when British soldiers turned on their own countrymen, behaving worse than beasts. All for the sake of profits of the mill owners. Perhaps a film will be made for British audiences about the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in Amritsar, India in which hundreds of civilians were killed, by the British army, including women and children. The heroes of yesteryears such as General Dyer have been revealed to be fiends after India’s independence. Why did General Dyer, or other officers feel such a great need to fire upon peaceful civilians? Did they feel as persecuted as the Creature, or was this sort of horrific behaviour encouraged to keep their hold on far-flung colonies)?

Why has Frankenstein endured, and continues to haunt us? It seems to have transcended the horror genre, and has a more universal appeal. As scientists come closer to cloning and prolonging life, it’s one of the earliest examples of man using science to play at being god, and creating an imperfect creature, with all his own flaws and weaknesses. Perhaps somehow, we’re all unique creature, and somewhere we all feel lonely. Perhaps we’re searching for some sort of fulfilment, as we wander in the cold wastes of our own psyche, eternally trying to find that perfect other. Who’d reflect back our own flaws in equal measure, so even if our song might be broken in places, at least some of the chords would be in harmony some of the time.

-###

Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Columbia Journal, The New Verse News, London Grip, Classical Poetry Society, spillwords, Poetry24, Dissident Voice, and The Peacock Journal. Her fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review, and has been published in Coldnoon Journal, Szirine, apertura, Entropy, and ensemble (in French). She has read her fiction/poems in India, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, Ireland, the US, and at CoNZealand.

Her creative non-fiction has appeared in Literary Yard, countercurrents.org, Litro, impspired, pendemic.ie, Gnarled Oak, Kashmir Times, and A Beautiful Space. Her 100+ articles (on art, theatre, film, and humanitarian issues) have appeared in English and French. An independent scholar, Sultana Raza has presented many papers related to Romanticism (Keats) and Fantasy (Tolkien) in international conferences.

Categories: Essay, Literary criticism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.