About Me

Tollesbury, Essex, United Kingdom
I was born in the Summer of 1969 in Dagenham, just on the border of East London. School was largely unproductive but enjoyable, setting me up for something of a wayward but interesting life! On leaving school I had various jobs including putting up stalls at Romford Market, working in a record shop, putting up ceilings, gardening and road sweeping. After resigning from an insurance company to play in a band, I found myself unemployed for two years. Then finally I got back on my feet and I've been a psychiatric nurse since 1997. I wrote A Cleansing of Souls when I was 22 years old and followed it up with Tollesbury Time Forever almost twenty years later. I started writing The Bird That Nobody Sees in September 2011 and it was released in July 2012. In terms of writing, my heroes are Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck. I would also include Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits as literary influences. So that's me I guess - scruffy, happy and in love with literary fiction, music and life...

Monday, 7 May 2012

A Review of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Now I wasn't prepared for this! Much in the same way as Treasure Island surprised me by being so much more than a book about pirates and parrots, so Frankenstein is so much more than a novel about a mad doctor who creates a monster with a bolt through its neck. I confess to having subconsciously prejudged both novels perhaps due to the ubiquitous nature of their presence in other forms of media. And, in doing so, I somehow managed to degrade them in terms of their literary worth. My review of Treasure Island and conversion to its greatness is elsewhere on this blog. So what did I make of Frankenstein?

To be honest, I was shocked on many levels - not 'horror' shocked but shocked in terms of the beautifully poetic descriptions, the  almost Shakesperian quality of the dialogue and the deep melancholy of the entire novel. This isn't a book about creating life - it's a book about being unable to tolerate life. What begins as a dream for Dr Frankenstein culminates in the ruination of all and everything that he loves.

At this point a note about the author, Mary Shelley, is most apposite. I knew that Mary had been married to the poet Percy Shelley, that she had been very young when she wrote Frankenstein and that at one stage she, her husband and Lord Byron had gone to Europe together. What I hadn't known was how tragic had been her life before she wrote Frankenstein and in the years leading to its publication. Mary was born in London in 1797. Her mother died ten days after giving birth to her. Following her father's remarriage to their next door neighbour, who already had two children, Mary was left very much in the background, receiving no formal education and prone to visiting her mother's grave in St Pancras. Just before her seventeenth birthday, she ran away with Percy Shelley (who was then 22 and married) and travelled Europe - Lord Byron meeting them for that famous sojourn. Two years later, Mary's half sister committed suicide and not long after that Percy's wife drowned herself. Mary and Percy married on their return to London but the tragedy didn't end there. Mary bore three children all of whom died shortly after they were born. Percy then drowned in a freak storm in 1822.

To put this all in perspective, by the time Frankenstein was published in its second edition in 1823 (the first to bear her name), Mary had lost her mother, been cast aside by her immediate family, eloped with a famous married poet, had her sister commit suicide, her lover's wife commit suicide, married the famous poet, had three children, all of whom died shortly after birth and then, not long after the birth of their one surviving child, her husband drowned. Much has been made in the recent past of JK Rowling's single parent status and how wonderful it was that she was able to extract herself from her perceived ignominy by writing a novel based on a fantastical premise. It's all about perspective I guess...

So is it any wonder that Frankenstein is suffused with huge discources on the nature of death and the harshness of life?  Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that so many people, myself included, have grown to think of Frankenstein as nothing more than a hulking green zombie with a bolt through his neck when in truth the creature (Frankenstein being the creator) is the most eloquent character in the entire novel. The creature is never fully described. We know it is 'ugly', 'over eight feet tall' and 'yellowed skin'. There is no mention of bolts or a block-shaped head. The description in the novel reminded me very much of William Blake's incredible Nabuchodonosor as opposed to anything from the studios of Hollywood or the pens of cartoonists.

For me, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, is a breathtaking novel that seeks to find reasons to carry on amidst tragedy, self-blame and lofty aspirations. Mary died of a brain-tumour in 1851 at the age of 53. On the first anniversary of her death, members of Percy Shelley's surviving family opened Mary's writing desk. Inside they found, amongst other things, locks of her dead children's hair and a copy of Adonais (a poem by Shelley) with one page wrapped around a silk cloth that held some of his ashes and the remains of his heart.

Frankenstein, for me, is not a horror story, it's not science fiction and it's not a tale of adventure. It is a very personal story written by a young woman who is doing her best to make sense of her life, a life that had known death almost from conception. I put the book down with the belief that it is the creature that embodies Mary more than any other character - destruction following in its wake. "Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live?" The words are that of the creature, but are perhaps the honest exhortations of the author.

All I have left to say is anybody these days going through even a part of what Mary Shelley went through would undoubtedly find themselves referred for counselling, psychotherapy, perhaps be given medication and an appointment with a psychiatrist. And just imagine what the media would make of the discovery of the locks of deceased children and the partial heart of a dead husband. But what did Mary do in response to the tragedies of her life? She wrote books - and one particular book, Frankenstein, that has people like me, almost two hundred years after its publication, tapping words into a machine that will then be available to people all around the world. Sometimes you just have to gasp at the wonder of this life.


David Barber said...

One of the best reviews I've read in a while. Nice one, buddy!

Stu Ayris said...

Thanks mate! It's so strange how and when books come into your life - even books you have known of since day dot. I could so easily spend the rest of my life reading!

Steve Porter said...

I was also surprised by Frankenstein - it was the first book I downloaded for free, and actually read, on Kindle. So it will also stay with me for that reason. Quite different from whatever I might have expected from later representations, as you eloquently say. Neither horror or sci-fi indeed. I think Mary Shelley would probably turn in her grave at how it is often perceived today.

Stu Ayris said...

Very true Steve. Dr Frankenstein gave life to the creature and Mary Shelley gave life to Dr Frankenstein. Screenwriters, Producers, Directors, Actors, Cartoonists and all those that have jumped on the Frankenstein bandwagon with sequals and prequals and all sorts of nonsense have perhaps unwittingly added that final layer of tragedy - guilty of shovelling soil onto the pages that were written by a young woman as a means of assuaging her own feelings of terror. But the catalyst these days is not electricity such as was used by Dr Frankenstein - it is fame and fortune, money and product.

Karleene Morrow said...

Ah Stuart, you have a wonderful way with words. Totally enjoyed your review as it said in print all that was in my head and heart when I read Frankenstein many years ago. Well done.

Stu Ayris said...

Thank you Karleene. Isn't it just incredible that all these marvelous books are out there just waiting for us?

I just can't get enough of it!!