Category Archives: Mary Shelley

The Last Man: Cousin de Grainville’s Dernier Le Homme and Mary Shelley

In my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, I devoted an entire chapter to Mary Shelley and her place within the Gothic tradition, discussing not just Frankenstein but her third novel The Last Man (1826). The Last Man has become of great interest to critics in the last few decades for its apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. While Shelley had some predecessors in writing about the theme of the end of the world and there being one lone survivor, most of those works were poems, notably, Lord Byron’s “Darkness” (1816), Thomas Campbell’s “The Last Man” (1823), and Thomas Hood’s “The Last Man” (1826). However, one work was a novel, and it was not one I had read previously.

Published in 1805, Grainville’s novel was pirated and published without an author in England in 1806. Mary Shelley may have been inspired by it to write her own novel titled The Last Man

Recently, I reread Shelley’s The Last Man with an online group and became curious about this other novel that may have influenced her. The novel was Jean-Baptiste Francois Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 French novel Le Dernier Homme. I found a copy published in 2002 by Wesleyan University Press that states it is the “New English Translation.” It is translated by I. F. Clarke and M. Clarke, and it includes an introduction and critical materials by I. F. Clarke.

I purchased this copy on Amazon but did not realize it was a new translation of the novel until I received it. I admit I was disappointed by this because I wanted to read the version Mary Shelley would likely have read, if she did read it. However, after reading the introduction, I was not disappointed because it clarified that what Mary Shelley may have read was not really what Cousin de Grainville wrote, much less what he initially planned to write.

Grainville was born in 1746 of lesser nobility and became a priest in 1766. According to I. F. Clarke, he began writing Le Dernier Homme at age sixteen. Meanwhile, the French Revolution broke out. In 1790, he took an oath to the French Republic, and during the Reign of Terror, he left the priesthood. He would later marry, but his life was not happy; he and his wife were relatively poor, and in 1805, he committed suicide by throwing himself in the Somme Canal at Amiens at 2 a.m. If Grainville had no influence on Mary Shelley, it is clear that both of them had difficult lives and may have written their novels out of despair and grief. Shelley wrote her novel in the years immediately after her husband Percy Shelley drowned in 1823 and her friend Lord Byron died in 1824, making her feel like “The Last Man.”

Grainville’s manuscript was published after his death, but it was still not complete. While the text is a complete long piece of fiction, Grainville divided the book not into chapters but ten cantos. His intention was to use the prose he had written as a rough draft to be the structure for an epic poem, the first canto of which he had begun to turn into verse. Instead, the book was published as a novel in France in 1805. It caused no stir, and according to the preface to the second edition of 1811, it did not sell well. Clarke says it sold forty copies. However, it gained the interest of someone who wanted to translate it into English. In 1806, Grainville’s novel was published as The Last Man, or Omegarus and Syderia, a Romance in Futurity in England. No author’s name appeared on the title page. According to Clarke, the translation shows that it was translated into English by someone whose first language was not English. Who the translator was remains unknown. Even if not English, the translator did know enough about English readers that they would not like certain passages in the novel that glorified France and belittled England. Remember, the novel was written during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. In one passage, we are told that in the future world Grainville depicts, England has sunk into the ocean. In another passage, the main character, Omegarus, is said to be descended from Napoleon and he is also of French royal lineage—a sign of the French thinking themselves superior since Omegarus is believed to be a messiah figure in the novel. These passages were removed from the English translation, and many other similar changes were made. The result was what appeared to English readers as an anonymous novel written by an Englishman.

So what Mary Shelley may have read had no taint of French to it. Le Dernier Homme is a very religious novel and one written by a Catholic priest, but Shelley, who would have been more attune to Protestant thinking and was perhaps an atheist, and whose own novel is often described as existential, would not have known any of these details, though doubtless she could not ignore the novel’s biblical and religious elements.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man was inspired by her grief over the deaths of her husband Percy and close friend Lord Byron

What is religious about Le Dernier Homme is obviously influenced by the Bible, specifically the book of Revelation, but as Clarke points out, Paradise Lost must have also been an influence, especially Milton’s scene of Adam seeing the future of mankind since in Le Dernier Homme, Adam is a character who gets to visit his descendants Omegarus and Syderia, the last of the human race. Omegarus also at one point gets to see the future of the human race if he and Syderia should have children. Shelley no doubt would have picked up on these parallels to Paradise Lost since she herself was influenced by Milton’s masterpiece in writing Frankenstein.

Although I wish I had read the original pirated English edition of the novel because it would have been a more accurate way to determine any influence of Grainville’s book on Shelley, I think it’s fair to say that if the novel had any influence on Shelley, it was simply the theme of the end of the world and the Last Man that influenced her and nothing more specific. Clarke, in his introduction, says the novel did not influence Shelley’s work and that the similarities are coincidences. The only real similarities are, as Clarke notes, that both novels begin with a cave where an unnamed narrator enters and information is given about the future. Shelley’s narrator and her companion enter the Sibyl’s cave and find sibylline leaves scattered about the cave with writing on them—they piece together these fragments to create the narrative of her novel. Grainville’s narrator instead meets a Celestial Spirit in a cave who then shows him the story through an enchanted mirror. There isn’t anything else in the two novels that is similar other than a few passages where people see what appear to be multiple suns in the sky—Shelley doesn’t explain this phenomenon while Grainville explains that a volcano has erupted on the moon, causing it to look like another red sun from the lava.

Are those similarities or coincidences? Did Shelley read Grainville or not? We can’t say for sure. I think it likely, but if she used the novel as inspiration, it did not in any way limit her imagination from creating her own world. They are very different novels, Shelley’s novel shies away from religion except in the case of depicting one religious fanatic, while Grainville’s novel is filled with biblical imagery. The two novels are so different it is hard to say which is superior. For those interested in more information on Shelley’s novel, I invite them to read the novel and my chapter on it in my book The Gothic Wanderer. For those who want a plot summary of Grainville’s novel, I provide it below but also invite people to read it for themselves. Both novels have been discussed as early forms of science fiction, but there is nothing in terms of technology used in them—the authors could not foresee the technological world or even the advances to items like trains just decades away. The characters travel in balloons, although Grainville calls them “airships.” What makes the novels early forms of science fiction are simply their depiction of the future.

More importantly, both novels, though two centuries old, are still relevant to us today. Shelley’s world is destroyed through plague, which critics have likened to AIDS and other health crises we have faced in recent years. Grainville’s novel has more of an environmental message where the people have gone to live in cities and forsaken cultivating the earth so that plants no longer grow or are able to sustain people, and people themselves have become infertile. (Infertility is, notably, also a theme in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel written in 1985 and now a Hulu Original Series in 2017.) Both novels depict a pessimistic future, one that was not really imagined until the aftermath of World War II when it became apparent that mankind can destroy itself through nuclear weapons—a threat that has only become scarier as the years have passed. As we live today amid fears of overpopulation, global warming, and increased violence, we can look back and see just how insightful and prophetic both Shelley and Grainville were. In fact, just recently, Stephen Hawking has come out to say the earth can only sustain us for 100 more years. It is not far-fetched to think that one day one of our grandchildren’s grandchildren could be the last man or last woman.

In their day, Shelley and Grainville’s novels might have been dismissed as the works of people filled with depression, grief, perhaps even madness to the point where both were likely suicidal and one did commit suicide. But perhaps we can also see both authors as realists in their view of the future, even if not all of us would subscribe to Grainville’s Christian viewpoint or Shelley’s more atheistic one.

Today’s apocalyptic, end-of-the-world stories tend to be far less religious, and human fate tends to remain in human hands rather than in God’s. For example, in Robert O’Brien’s novel Z Is for Zachariah (1974), made into a film in 2015, the human race also gets wiped out save for a young woman and a man. When the man tries to rape the woman, she chooses to abandon him. In this case, it is not God who decides the human race cannot continue, but the modern-day Eve figure. She refuses to let a man have power over her. In a sense, this is coming full circle with ancient traditions and the tale of Lilith, believed in Jewish tradition to be Adam’s first wife who was rejected because she refused to let him be dominant over her.

In any case, Grainville and Shelley’s apocalyptic visions still resonate with us today. Perhaps they are prophets of a future we have yet to face.

 

Plot Summary with Some Commentary on Le Dernier Homme

Book I: Canto I

The story begins with a cave near the ruins of Palmyra (in Syria). This reminds me of Shelley’s Sibyl’s cave. However, what is in the cave is not fragments of a story (Sibylline leaves) but much more. An unnamed narrator visits the cave and is summoned in by an old man who says this is a cave of death that cannot be disturbed. Those who disturb it are punished, but the unnamed narrator won’t be because he was summoned into it. The old man is able to communicate with the narrator by thought. He explains he is the Celestial Spirit. In the cave, the narrator also sees Time personified and bound. The Celestial Spirit tells the narrator that he knows all the future and the past and it’s his purpose to share with him the story of the end of the world and the Last Man. The narrator then watches the events of the end of the world through an enchanted mirror (the only real element of sci-fi technology in the novel, though Grainville would have likely called it magic). This unnamed narrator is similar to St. John, who witnesses the end of the world in the Book of Revelation. Grainville also draws upon “Dies Irae,” a hymn in Latin meaning “Day of Wrath” that was once sung at all Masses for the dead. The translation that Clarke provides of Dies Irae is by Macaulay and includes “This vain world shall pass away/Thus the sibyl sang of old.” This line is not in the novel, but the sibyl reference reminds one of Mary Shelley’s sibyl’s cave.

In the enchanted mirror, the narrator sees Adam, the first man, who has been banished to an island where he is punished and suffering until the end of the world—this depiction is odd because this book is being written by a Catholic priest, and the medieval Catholic tradition is that when Christ died, he descended into hell and freed all the dead from sin—in medieval art, Christ is frequently portrayed as taking Adam by the hand and leading him out of hell with the rest of the human race following. However, Grainville decides to ignore this tradition. Instead, he subscribes to the idea that when people die, they remain dead until the Day of Judgment when they will come back to life (as is depicted at the end of the novel). Adam is an exception—rather than dying (although the Bible says he died), he has been kept alive until the end of the world.

The Harrowing of Hell was a popular medieval theme. Here it is depicted by Fra Angelico. The premise is that when Christ died, he descended into hell and freed the human race. He takes Adam by the hand and behind Adam the rest of the human race follows so they can be freed from sin and enter heaven. Grainville’s novel, however, believes all humans remained dead and in the grave until judgment day.

The angel Ithuriel appears to Adam and tells him he must go to the last humans, without revealing his identity, and in time, his purpose in doing so will become known. The success of Adam’s mission will determine whether his suffering will come to an end. Adam is then transported to where he is found by Omegarus and Syderia, the last couple likely to produce a child. (A few other humans are still alive, but Omegarus and Syderia are the only fertile ones—this is Grainville’s reversing of Paradise Lost, focusing on the last rather than the first couple.) Omegarus and Syderia have spent the night in fear, having seen various spirits and feeling the end of the world is approaching. Adam tells them he is there to comfort them and asks to hear their story.

 

Book I: Canto II

Omegarus begins to tell Adam his life story. He is descended from royalty, kings who once ruled both hemispheres—later it is clear he is descended from French royalty. (This detail is similar to Shelley’s Adrian being the last of English royalty.) Omegarus is something of a wonder child because most people on earth are now sterile and he is the first child born in Europe in many years. Omegarus grows up being the only child in Europe, and eventually, his parents die while he is yet a teenager. As a young man, Omegarus meets a man consumed by flame who tells him not to try to help him, but that the flame is his natural element. This man tells him the world is going to come to an end soon. This man is the Guardian or Spirit of the Earth, appointed by God, so he has knowledge that the day of destruction is near. The spirit tells him he must go to the city where the maid was burnt in France (Rouen and St. Joan of Arc) and there meet Idamas who will help him so he can go to Brazil to find the only woman still fertile who can help him repopulate the earth.

As Omegarus travels to Rouen, he is greeted by other humans who witnessed his birth; they now proclaim him as a prophesied messiah figure who will restore the earth to health and allow mankind to breed and multiply again. Once Omegarus meets Idamas, he is told they will travel to Brazil in an airship (a hot air balloon).

 

Book I: Canto III

Omegarus, Idamas, and a few others take off in the airship. They fly past England, which is sunk into the sea. (The endnote in the Clarke edition suggests this was to please the French readers since England was the enemy and it was the time of the Napoleonic wars.) As they travel, Idamas tells Omegarus the recent history of the world. Not long ago, mankind had reached the peak of evolution and had been experiencing its golden age. Then one man discovered the secret to life extension. He was going to gift it to humanity but then he realized it would result in overpopulation if people did not die, so he captured it in a flame/vial and placed it in a temple on the Fortunate Isles. The flame was then only to be gifted to the very talented who dedicated their lives to humanity. The entire world population would have to vote to allow someone to receive it.

Then a horrible event happened—a second red sun appeared in the sky, which turned out to be the moon rising. A volcano had erupted on the moon, making it red, and soon the moon was completely destroyed and fell from the sky. This destruction affected vegetation on earth, causing scarcity of food, and made people become violent and warlike. This even led to airship wars—people fighting each other in hot air balloons with knives.

The earth was now overpopulated. However, a scientist named Ormus solved this problem by suggesting the land beneath the rivers was fertile so they should divert the rivers and farm in the riverbeds. This worked, so Ormus suggested they do the same thing with the oceans, but it was decided to be unnecessary because people were becoming sterile, which made the overpopulation and food scarcity issues less severe.

Next, the sun began to die. The northern climates became too cold to live in so people fled to warmer lands, resulting in Brazil becoming a major population center. Idamas concludes his history at this point as the airship lands in Brazil.

 

Book I: Canto IV

Upon arrival in Brazil, Omegarus and his companions are told they have to leave or die because there is not enough food there for them. However, after they explain their mission to the king, including that Omegarus brings hope because he has been prophesied to restore the human race, they are welcomed. A sort of beauty contest is then held to find the right maid for Omegarus. There are many signs during the time leading up to the contest of whom the right maiden will be. Nature personified appears and shows Omegarus what his bride will look like. Meanwhile, Syderia, who will be chosen, is having visions of a man whom she later realizes is Omegarus. Eventually, it’s determined that Syderia is to be the bride for Omegarus. We learn that Omegarus’ father is the king or chief of a native tribe in Brazil—they are the last people to have quit living an agrarian and natural food lifestyle, and hence, Syderia is still fertile. To celebrate the fertility, the humans dig and plant seeds into the earth, something that their civilized recent ancestors scorned to do, which caused the earth to cease to be fertile.

 

Book I: Canto V

Idamas now wants Ormus, the river converter, to come and bless Omegarus and Syderia’s marriage. Ormus is found, but he is resistant. He also has the gift of prophecy and says God is not in favor of the marriage so if it happens, it will only be a way to try to stop the prophecy of the earth’s destruction, which will actually further it because mankind cannot be saved. Nevertheless, Ormus comes to the ceremony. During it, he claims to speak to God and prophesies destruction (though no one else hears God’s voice). Ormus says that as proof of the prophecy he’s hearing, he will die, which he then does.

The fifth canto ends with the Brazilians demanding that Omegarus and his French companions depart before more doom is brought upon them.

 

Book II: Canto 6

Omegarus and the French prepare to leave Brazil, but they decide to bring Syderia with them. She loves Omegarus so she departs to France with him, but at the same time, she is worried that she is defying God by being with him so she won’t consummate the marriage. After they leave Brazil, Syderia’s father appears to her in a dream, saying he died of grief after she left, but he now knows as a spirit that God is in favor of their union. As a result, Syderia gives in to Omegarus’ advances, they have sex, and she becomes pregnant.

 

Book II: Canto 7

Adam, who is listening to Omegarus recite his tale, now has God appear to him and tell him that he is against the union of Omegarus and Syderia. Adam then explains to Omegarus that God is indeed against the union and, furthermore, the child conceived, if born, will murder its parents, and that will be the least of its acts. It will father an evil race as well. (I was struck by this because it made me wonder whether Shelley was inspired by this novel in writing Frankenstein as well—after all, the monster is Victor Frankenstein’s son, and it seeks to murder him and does murder Victor’s wife.) Omegarus is defiant, refusing to believe what Adam says and refusing to obey God until Adam finally reveals to Omegarus that he is Adam, the father of mankind. He then explains to Omegarus that all the prophecies in favor of his and Syderia’s union have been the deceitful work of the Spirit of the Earth who first sent Omegarus on his journey and told him he was to father a new race of men. As the earth’s guardian, the Spirit will cease to exist if mankind dies out and the earth is destroyed, so he is lying to preserve his own life. In this sense, the Spirit is like Satan, a deceitful transgressor against God’s will.

Omegarus still refuses to separate from Syderia, but Adam continues to try to convince him. Adam says that if he can prevent the birth of this evil race that will spring from Omegarus and Syderia’s union, then he will be able to wipe away his sin. (In other words, Adam has as much of an agenda as the Spirit of the Earth.) At first, in reading this section, I thought Adam was advocating that Omegarus and Syderia commit suicide, but instead, it turns out that if Omegarus will just separate from Syderia, that will be enough for God to realize they are obeying him, and then he will destroy the earth and the human race so that all the humans of the past can rise from the dead to have eternal life.

Omegarus finally agrees to separate from Syderia, though he feels great guilt. He almost returns to her, then instead writes on a stone, “Omegarus is not guilty” hoping Syderia will see it and understand.

This canto is disturbing in its Christian message. Even Omegarus wonders how a beneficent God can be so cruel. However, Adam says that once Omegarus dies, the souls of men will praise him for they will have eternal life.

 

Book II: Canto 8

Now that Omegarus has separated himself from Syderia, God is ready to fulfill his plan to destroy the earth. Comets strike. The earth begins to erupt. The bones and ashes of the dead rise up from the earth, which causes mountains to fall and the earth’s landscape to alter. Omegarus finds shelter in a house where he finds the bodies of an old couple, Tibes and his wife. He sees the aged bodies become youthful. God has restored them to life but their shades have not yet returned to them. Omegarus feels grateful that their souls and those of all humanity will now be freed.

 

The Last Man, a 1849 painting by John Martin. The painting does not depict a scene from either Shelley or Grainville’s novels but just the popular theme. That said, notice the red sun/moon in the darkness.

Book II: Canto 9

Syderia wonders why Omegarus hasn’t returned. She finds the stone on which he wrote “Omegarus is not guilty” and realizes he has deserted her. She feels, however, that he is guilty; then she feels bad to think he is guilty. She is in misery and then in shock as she sees the earth throwing up stones as the dead are raised from the earth. She becomes wounded and miserable. She finally sees Omegarus again and he looks radiant and tells her it’s a happy day, but she is then separated again from him.

 

Book II: Canto 10

The Spirit of Earth, determined still to live, makes a bargain with Death not to kill Syderia because then both will be able to live if the human race continues. Death promises not to kill her so long as the flame of love is in her heart. Of course, Syderia’s love eventually dies and Death does kill her. He then kills the Spirit of the Earth. Eternity then dawns. Meanwhile, the human race enters eternal life, praising Omegarus as its savior.

The End

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Mary Shelley, The Gothic and the Bible

Lives of the Necromancers: William Godwin’s Misunderstood Treatise Against Magic and the Supernatural

I really didn’t know what to expect from William Godwin’s The Lives of the Necromancers (1834). This was the last book of the great eighteenth century political writer and author. Considering that Godwin was the father of Mary Shelley, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, and that his ideas greatly influenced his son-in-law, Percy Shelley, I expected a work far more intellectual and scholarly in tone. Considering that Godwin wrote two extremely fine Gothic novels, Caleb Williams (1794) and St. Leon (1799), the latter full of Rosicrucian elements, I expected something more thorough and colorful in tone.

William Godwin (1756-1836), father to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

William Godwin (1756-1836), father to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Instead, I feel like this book is a second rate work lacking in any real scholarly value although ironically, perhaps its reception proves the very point Godwin was trying to make. I’ll explain that irony in a moment. First, let me explain that this book is basically a compilation of everyone in history Godwin could find information on that ever claimed in any way to work any form of magic. Even the title is misleading since Godwin uses “necromancer” in the same sense as magician or sorcerer, rather than its more specific meaning of someone who can raise people from the dead. Godwin compiles a great deal of information from history into this one volume, some of it somewhat obscure, but most of it I believe would be knowledge most readers could have easily found elsewhere, and even in his day, I think that would have been the case.

The book begins with very brief descriptions of different forms of magic including magical beings like fairies and sylphs, magical organizations like the Rosicrucians, and general magic terms like the philosopher’s stone and astrology. Godwin then takes us through history from looking at evidence of magic and sorcery in the Bible to the Greek myths, the Roman legends, and tales of the East, including the Arabian Nights. Next, we move to medieval Europe and then the Renaissance. Finally, he discusses magic in the seventeenth century, including King James I of England’s passage of laws against witchcraft and how they were later repealed, and tales of witches in Sweden, England, and finally, the famous Salem Witch Trials of New England. He does not continue into the eighteenth century, but in passing, simply remarks that he has seen plenty of superstitious people in his own day—and that hasn’t changed even in 2015.

Some of the people Godwin treats are brushed over rather quickly, like Nostradamus, who only warrants a little over a page, but Nostradamus’s fame in Godwin’s day was not what it is today. Other people, like Dr. John Dee, have extensive sections. Dee was at the court of Elizabeth I, claimed to have had the philosopher’s stone, and with a business partner, got himself into and then thrown out of several courts in Europe because of his claims of supernatural knowledge and power.

Other famous people treated include Merlin and Pythagoras. Godwin’s treatment of Merlin initially interested me because of my interest in Arthurian legends, but there was nothing said here that hasn’t been said in hundreds of other books. Pythagoras was far more interesting because he is known for his contributions to math, but I had no idea of his claims to supernatural powers, including that he had incarnated in many previous lives—a claim I found fascinating since nowhere else did Godwin discuss reincarnation, and the major villainess of my Children of Arthur series—Gwenhwyvach—also incarnates repeatedly over centuries.

Ultimately, Lives of the Necromancers has little value beyond the biographies save for the fact that how it has been revered ever since is ironic in view of Godwin’s intentions. Godwin wrote it to show how easily man allows his imagination to get the best of him, and yet many readers have held it up as a book of value for studying the occult and going down its path. Godwin begins in his preface by saying that this will be his last published book, and I am not surprised, for he must have felt his faculties failing him. He was seventy-eight at the time of its publication in 1834 and would die two years later. He also states that something of value can be learned from exploring how easily mankind can become incredulous. Anyone who reads the preface will understand that Godwin thinks all forms of witchcraft, sorcery, and even religious belief are false. He was a noted atheist as well as a proponent of reason in the Age of Reason. Godwin states that in nature we observe things we cannot understand and consequently have to invent gods and other supernatural beings to explain them. Following are the key paragraphs of the preface that make this point clear:

“[W]ith a daring spirit inquire into the invisible causes of what we see, and people all nature with Gods ‘of every shape and size’ and angels, with principalities and powers, with beneficent beings who ‘take charge concerning us lest at any time we dash our foot against a stone,’ and with devils who are perpetually on the watch to perplex us and do us injury. And, having familiarised our minds with the conceptions of these beings, we immediately aspire to hold communion with them. We represent to ourselves God, as ‘walking in the garden with us in the cool of the day,’ and teach ourselves ‘not to forget to entertain strangers, lest by so doing we should repel angels unawares.’

“But, what is most deplorable, we are not contented to endeavour to secure the aid of God and good angels, but we also aspire to enter into alliance with devils, and beings destined for their rebellion to suffer eternally the pains of hell. As they are supposed to be of a character perverted and depraved, we of course apply to them principally for purposes of wantonness, or of malice and revenge. And, in the instances which have occurred only a few centuries back, the most common idea has been of a compact entered into by an unprincipled and impious human being with the sworn enemy of God and man, in the result of which the devil engages to serve the capricious will and perform the behests of his blasphemous votary for a certain number of years, while the deluded wretch in return engages to renounce his God and Saviour, and surrender himself body and soul to the pains of hell from the end of that term to all eternity. No sooner do we imagine human beings invested with these wonderful powers, and conceive them as called into action for the most malignant purposes, than we become the passive and terrified slaves of the creatures of our own imaginations, and fear to be assailed at every moment by beings to whose power we can set no limit, and whose modes of hostility no human sagacity can anticipate and provide against. But, what is still more extraordinary, the human creatures that pretend to these powers have often been found as completely the dupes of this supernatural machinery, as the most timid wretch that stands in terror at its expected operation; and no phenomenon has been more common than the confession of these allies of hell, that they have verily and indeed held commerce and formed plots and conspiracies with Satan….

…The human mind is of so ductile a character that, like what is affirmed of charity by the apostle, it ‘believeth all things, and endureth all things.’ We are not at liberty to trifle with the sacredness of truth. While we persuade others, we begin to deceive ourselves. Human life is a drama of that sort, that, while we act our part, and endeavour to do justice to the sentiments which are put down for us, we begin to believe we are the thing we would represent.

“To shew however the modes in which the delusion acts upon the person through whom it operates, is not properly the scope of this book. Here and there I have suggested hints to this purpose, which the curious reader may follow to their furthest extent, and discover how with perfect good faith the artist may bring himself to swallow the grossest impossibilities. But the work I have written is not a treatise of natural magic. It rather proposes to display the immense wealth of the faculty of imagination, and to shew the extravagances of which the man may be guilty who surrenders himself to its guidance.”

An illustration from Godwin's 1799 Rosicrucian novel, St. Leon. In the novel, the main character achieves the philosopher's stone that turns lead into gold, and consequently, destroys his family. Godwin's novel shows the fallacy of the supernatural and the consequences of achieving forbidden knowledge.

An illustration from Godwin’s 1799 Rosicrucian novel, St. Leon. In the novel, the main character achieves the philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold, and consequently, destroys his family. Godwin’s novel shows the fallacy of the supernatural and the consequences of achieving forbidden knowledge.

From Godwin’s perspective, everything supernatural, including Christianity, is of the imagination and show’s man’s credulity. Sadly, superstition continues today and Godwin’s book has been used for the very opposite purpose for which it was written. If you read the reviews of this book on Amazon, you will find that today, nearly two centuries after Godwin published this book, that credulity still exists. Below are some quotes from readers at Amazon who clearly did not read Godwin’s preface but have decided this book is a guide to them in learning about the occult and following their own dark paths. I have copied these three reviews word for word, including leaving the typos. The first is a believer in reincarnation:

“This book is very powerful for the person on the path as it will show them the various persons on the path, and the way they have chosen to get there. There are many paths to the same plane—but you must choose for yourself, and reading this made it much easier for me…..you will also find a list of those you feel that you want to reach on the astral plane—find someone who is like you or that you feel you could relate to—or perhaps someone you WERE in a past life?”

Godwin would have laughed at the idea of communicating on the astral plane with anyone mentioned in his book. Indeed, he would have said there was no astral plane. The next reviewer thinks Godwin’s book is his occult textbook:

“This book is a must for any serious student of the occult. In Lives of (the) Necromancers you will learn not only the different practicing Necromancers but also the historical ones. By understanding the different persons and WHAT kind of necromancy they practiced you will soon understand the route that YOU want to follow and from there research your own path with your own chosen guru. This is why this book is so useful, and why it was one of the most photocopied books until it was back in print. Not too long ago, it was impossible to get this published.”

I honestly don’t know what the history of the book’s publication and readership over the last 180 years has been, other than that Edgar Allan Poe reviewed it, without either condemning or applauding it. Apparently, it was long out of print (I read it as a Kindle ebook) and passed around and copied among its occult cult readers. The final review says it is for seekers of the black arts:

“Its like someone created not only a “Who’s Who” of Necromancers, but also lost about them, and many of their ideas and methods. Some that I thought were fictional turned out to be real, (truly that was worth the price of the book!). If you are interested in the black arts, if you are a seeker, if you are looking for the path, then seek from those who were on the path before you.”

I sincerely hope this person did not think Godwin was on the path first.

I am not one to enter into arguments online but I did post a short reviewing clarifying what the book’s true purpose is.

Perhaps William Godwin, aware of the disturbed imagination of mankind, would not be surprised that rather than read his words, people have chosen to imagine what his book says and interpret it for themselves.

In any case, it is interesting that this great thinker and one of the biggest influences on the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement, should turn to the occult as the subject of his last book. It is a pity it is not a better work, and that misguided individuals seek to find in it the exact opposite of what Godwin set out to do. Godwin’s own use of Gothic elements was always to expose irrational behaviors, but instead, his readership’s interpretation of him may have become his own Gothic nightmare.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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New Biography Shows Fascinating Parallels between Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon’s new biography, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley provides a fascinating look into the lives of these two remarkable, though often misunderstood and maligned, women who were groundbreaking writers of the Romantic and ultimately the Feminist movements. The book is newly published this year by Random House, and while much of what it contains is the same biographical information provided in other books, Gordon has provided much more powerful connections between this mother and daughter by discussing them both in the same book.

"Romantic Outlaws," a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother's influence on her daughter.

“Romantic Outlaws,” a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother’s influence on her daughter.

I decided to read this book because while I have studied and written about Mary Shelley, most notably her novels Frankenstein and The Last Man, and also about her father William Godwin’s novel St. Leon, in my own book The Gothic Wanderer. I have also read Shelley’s other novels—Valperga, Mathilde, Lodore, and Perkin Warbeck (I have yet to read Falkland)—and I wanted a better sense of how her life influenced those novels, especially after finding some comments about how her husband Percy Shelley influenced her depiction of Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to the throne, believed to have been Richard, Duke of York, one of the princes in the tower. I knew a lot about Mary Shelley’s biography but I had never sat down and read a full biography all the way through, and I wanted more insight into her life especially after the well-known years she was married to Percy Shelley, since the bulk of her writing occurred after his death.

So I intended to buy a biography of Mary Shelley, but then I stumbled on this book which also discussed her mother, whom I felt I really didn’t know much about. I knew Wollstonecraft had written some famous treatises and a couple of novels and of her affairs with Gilbert Imlay and Fuseli, but I was intrigued by the idea that she had a huge influence, despite being dead, on Mary Shelley’s life, and I thought it would be interesting to understand that influence better.

Romantic Outlaws is divided into alternating chapters about Wollstonecraft’s life and then Mary Shelley’s life. To some extent, Gordon has done this to tie together similarities and influences from mother to daughter, and that is apparent in a few places, but in others, less so. I have mixed feelings about this structure. Some other reviewers have complained that they had just get interested in one woman when the story flipped to the other woman. That is true, and at times, I got so caught up reading about Mary Shelley that when the chapter changed to be about Mary Wollstonecraft, I momentarily was confused which “Mary” was being referred to, but I quickly realized my mistake. It is possible the book would feel more organized if the book were divided in half, as two books in one, the first about Wollstonecraft, the second about Mary Shelley, but perhaps readers would ignore half then and only read the other half. Gordon made a decision to organize the book in this way, and despite its faults, it does have some advantages and did help to make the influence of Wollstonecraft on her daughter, as well as on Mary’s stepsister and half-sister and Percy Shelley, much more clear. I don’t think I would have ended up understanding Mary Shelley as well without having read so extensively about Wollstonecraft, and I think Gordon really showed that influence in a more complete way than any of the other books I have previously read about Mary Shelley.

I did learn a lot more about Mary Shelley than I knew in terms of her relationships, but I also was disappointed in the later chapters about her. Once Percy Shelley drowns, Gordon quickly wraps up the last half of Shelley’s life in a few chapters, which I wish had been spread out more. For example, she makes one passing reference to Mary Shelley’s friendship with the Carlyles, but I would have liked to know more about that friendship. I was also hoping to learn a little about her friendship with Frances Trollope, mother to the novelist Anthony Trollope and a novelist in her own write, but Frances Trollope is not even mentioned. Perkin Warbeck is only mentioned in passing. There is a little analysis of the other novels, but not what they warrant, especially in the case of The Last Man, which is arguably, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, although I do appreciate that Gordon refers to it as the single voice of protest against war and manifest destiny in this time period. I suspect part of why these later years are brushed over is because Wollstonecraft’s life did not provide enough detail to provide more alternating chapters to juxtapose with Shelley’s, or maybe Shelley’s life was simply not as fascinating once her husband died, and Gordon was more interested in events than literary analysis. In any case, I was disappointed that I did not get out of this book what I initially wanted.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

That said, I got a lot that I did not expect in regards to Mary Shelley. I especially appreciated the discussions of Frankenstein and its composition. Gordon makes clear that while Percy Shelley did do some editing of Frankenstein, it is less than the editing done to many famous books, such as The Great Gatsby, and furthermore, the 1831 edition of Frankenstein was heavily rewritten by Mary Shelley, years after Percy Shelley’s death, and made to be much darker in tone. Charges that Percy Shelley was the genius behind Frankenstein have hopefully now finally been laid to rest. I have always thought it ridiculous he should get so much credit anyway since his own novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, while written before he was twenty, are far inferior to Mary Shelley’s first novel, which she wrote at about the same age. Percy Shelley was no great fiction writer and even his poetry I have usually found tedious with a few exceptions. Furthermore, as Gordon makes clear, Mary grew up in a very literary home and would have inherited her parents’ talent and have developed writing skills early from all the reading she did and her father’s influence. She knew her mother’s writings well and this no doubt developed her literary skills. I suspect had Percy Shelley never entered the picture, she would have been a writer regardless given her family background, and while Gordon doesn’t mention it, Mary’s half-brother, William Godwin, Jr. (another person I wish Gordon had spent more time on) wrote a novel also. They were a literary family, regardless of Percy Shelley being involved with them.

But the most valuable part of this book is the treatment of Mary Wollstonecraft. I grew to have so much respect for her. Yes, perhaps she acted like a stalker in her pursuit of Fuseli, but she also was a true revolutionary, trying to create a new world for women. Whatever faults she had I think we can dismiss as being the result of the confines of her time and the strain she experienced in going against the grain of her society. As Gordon says in the book’s conclusion of both women, “They asserted their right to determine their own destinies, starting a revolution that has yet to end.” I will not go into details here about how they did this, but will instead encourage people to read the book.

Finally, what I found fascinating about Gordon’s book was her treatment of how literary legacies are fought over. She discusses Godwin’s biography of Wollstonecraft, his desire to publish a biography before anyone else, and the harm it did to his wife’s reputation, despite his intending otherwise. Gordon also makes passing reference to how women who might be inspired by Wollstonecraft’s ideas were treated in the literature of the time, notably Harriet Freake in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). That said, both of those characters, while meeting bad ends, have been read by modern literary scholars less as a condemnation of Wollstonecraft’s ideals and more as a subversive statement of how women were treated—a point Gordon overlooks. I wish again that more literary analysis had been included in this case, especially since The Wanderer is a feminist masterpiece in my opinion, as I discuss in more detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer, and I would have liked more comparison between Wollstonecraft and Burney, who was arguably the greatest female novelist of the late eighteenth century and very much a woman who used her novels to champion women, even if in more subtle ways—yet, while Gordon never directly says so, when she cites the female novels of the day that Wollstonecraft disapproved of, it often sounded like she was referring to plots found in Burney’s novels.

Mary Shelley also had to fight to preserve her husband’s literary legacy, and in many ways, she chose to whitewash it to remove the scandal and atheism Percy Shelley was known for. Similarly, Gordon explores how Mary Shelley’s own literary legacy has changed over the years. Ultimately, both of her subjects were rediscovered in the 1970s and today have been given their place in the canon of British literature, a place well-deserved.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband's shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband’s shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Personally, I found Romantic Outlaws to be a valuable and eye-opening book. It adds to and expands on the conversation about these two fascinating women, and it leaves room for further exploration. I will definitely be reading Wollstonecraft’s novels now, and Romantic Outlaws also made me want to read more of Godwin’s work. In truth, I found the book hard to put down, and while I wish it had even more information about these women, at 547 pages of primary text, it is a good length and reads with excellent pacing. Both informative and entertaining, Romantic Outlaws is literary biography made to read almost like a novel (in a few places early in the book I felt like Gordon bordered on fiction in presenting viewpoints of the subjects in the book, something she’s been charged with in her biography Mistress Bradstreet). My criticisms of this book are minor really when placed aside the tremendous amount of research and the vivacity of the presentation throughout that Gordon has accomplished. I was won over by Gordon’s style, and since I am a fan of Anne Bradstreet (and relative), I will be interested in reading that Gordon biography in the near future. Most importantly, Gordon has achieved what she set out to accomplish—to convince her readers of the powerful voices these two women had and to help us better understand them and their time.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism, Mary Shelley