This was a big week for the Creature and me. The current joke amongst the neighbours is that I have lived with Frankenstein for two years and that is no way for me to talk about my partner. Tuesday was the private preview of the inscribed copy that Mary Shelley presented to Lord Byron. What was I doing at such an exclusive event? I suppose that they were keen to have an Elvis fan. Two days later, I was involved in the launch of ‘Frankenstein Galvanized’, a new edition of the classic novel that I helped produce. After this week I move on and an expanded edition of Dracula is next. The neighbours are already preparing not so fresh jokes.
Much has been written and debated about Mary Shelley. The Byron copy is not a historical revelation. We already knew of the friendship and association between Shelley and Byron but objects are important otherwise Alfred Hitchcock would not have organised so many of his set pieces around them. The bodies of Janet Leigh and her stand in are crucial to the shower scene in ‘Psycho’ but so are the shower curtain and the plug-hole in which the destiny of our attractive heroine eventually disappears. Champagne bottles and a single key dominate the famous ball in ‘Notorious’. Without them we would not only lack a plot but also the heroics that allow us to tolerate Devlin, a handsome hero but also one of the men who abuse Ingrid Bergmann. Objects help us imagine and organise narrative.
In the preface to ‘Frankenstein’, Shelley mentions the famous challenge by Byron to write a ghost story and what followed. ‘…my two friends left me on a journey among the Alps, and lost, in the magnificent scenes which they present, all memory of their ghostly visions. The following tale is the only one which has been completed.’ Shelley is too much of a lady not to make an excuse for Byron and her husband Percy but that final sentence is definitely triumphal. The existence of the inscribed copy to Lord
Byron insists that we wonder. The book may have been submitted as a modest token to a more famous talent or perhaps it was a reminder to a superior rival of her own willpower and sincerity. It could have communicated affection and admiration or something more complicated. The Byron copy and the inscription exist now not as something that illuminates our understanding but as extra evidence that suddenly makes the mystery addictive. The objects we see in movies and imagine in books, objects actually without real substance, are versatile. They can deceive, explain or simply add drama. Hitchcock understood all this which is why he was determined that his audience would acknowledge the objects that fascinated him. They could be large or small – the Statue of Liberty, the monument at Mount Rushmore, a torn sleeve on the jacket of an assassin or the small key in ‘Notorious’. He would have loved the Byron copy of ‘Frankenstein’. I can imagine him in the preview audience, in the crowd but separate, staring at the book and remembering his classic auction scene from ‘North By Northwest.’
The career of a writer, though, is more than one book or even her books. It includes impact, importance, application and motive. Much has been written about the meanings behind ‘Frankenstein’ and whether her book and her other work are autobiographical. The notion that Shelley created an eight foot monster as an alternative identity for herself has been ridiculed. But in ‘Mathilda’, the main character has strong links with both the author and the Creature created by Frankenstein. All are educated without formal schooling. The Creature, Mathilda and Shelley all learnt from the people they observed and from the substantial tomes that they found in their homes. All desired a father who either rejected or resented them and they all looked to a rural existence for communal and spiritual sustenance. The parallels between ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Mathilda’ are too strong to be dismissed as an author merely using material at hand to shape a story. The woman had scars. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died 11 days after giving birth to Mary Shelley. Even if her father, William Godwin, had acted like a normal parent to Mary we can still imagine her feelings to him would have been complicated by what had happened to her mother. The final scene when the Creature looks at Victor Frankenstein and mourns the loss of his ‘father’ is moving because we realise that frustrated kinship has shaped the destructiveness of the Creature. Did the small child Mary Shelley attempt to be a substitute wife for the grieving father and was she damaged when the father insisted on her being only a daughter? In the novel, ‘Frankenstein’, the Creature is immediately rejected by his father and creator, Victor Frankenstein. His subsequent attempt to find an alternative father, the blind man in the forest, ends in the Creature being violently banished by the family. The story, ‘Mathilda’, has incestuous tones and it repelled William Godwin. Despite his reputation as a free thinker, he had the story suppressed.
In his book, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, Robert Matthew Walker argues that the talent of Elvis defined the man. He was different from the people around him because he had artistic skill that made him unique. Talent and ability make the creative different and sometimes difficult except there are words missing in that phrase and they are ‘can but not always’. The obvious has to be stated. The talent and the personality influence each other. It is pleasant to think that Mary Shelley assumed that she finished her ‘ghost story’ because she had superior application and personal merit and there is added satisfaction when we imagine Byron and Percy Shelley seeing the book and having doubts about their own sense of purpose. But the reference to the Alps is mysterious. Why was she not out there enjoying the ‘magnificent scenes’ she would use in the novel that she was writing? Something kept her indoors and, whatever it was, it led to a ghost story and scenes describing self-tuition that would be repeated in the much more personal ‘Mathilda’.
When Elvis recorded the songs ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ and ‘If I Can Dream’ he asked for the lights in the studio to be switched off. He took his microphone a distance away from the others and lay down on the floor in a foetal position. It requires talent to believe that you have a voice that will enable you to make the profound emotional connections that can only be realised in the dark and in a womb that you have created. But the talent alone does not imagine the womb. That requires a complex personality shaped by an experience that is unusual. The mother of Shelley died when she was still the infant in arms. Elvis lost his twin brother at birth. The writer and the singer made very different contributions to our culture. Both, though, were restless spirits. In different ways they have challenged mortality. Their work was personal because it had to be and because for them the ‘memorable scenes’ in the Alps were ultimately inadequate. Nobody should be surprised that neither lived long lives.
If you want to read about Elvis, the Frankenstein Creature, rock and roll and much more click here.
If you want to read about Frankenstein and his Creature, the book ‘Frankenstein Galvanized’ will be available soon in bookshops and on Amazon. It can be ordered now in advance from www.howard-jackson.net and www.redrattlebooks.co.uk.
If you want to read about what happened when the author visited Brazil click here.