Yesterday, January 2nd, was National Science Fiction Day. This celebration of all things science fiction originated in the United States but has been gaining popularity with sci fi fans across the world. It is celebrated on January 2nd in memory of Isaac Asimov, one of the most well-known and prolific writers of science fiction. On National Science Fiction Day we are encouraged to appreciate those authors who have created a particularly memorable character. For me, that is Mary Shelley and her nameless monster from her classic book, Frankenstein.
First published in 1818, Frankenstein is now recognised as one of the first works of science fiction and Shelley’s memorable monster has inspired many adaptations. The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White was published in 2018 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein and I found it to be a great read. But first, to the original Frankenstein.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mention the word Frankenstein and people immediately think of a hideous, mindless, moaning monster, yet Shelley’s book is not named for the monster but the creator, Victor Frankenstein. Victor desires to make a name for himself in science by discovering the elixir of life. His grisly study of death and decay eventually leads to the successful animation of lifeless matter, however, it is not the great scientific discovery that he has dreamed about.
“His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!–Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes,…his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips…but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
It is Frankenstein who declares his creation to be “a miserable monster” and, equating ugliness with evil, automatically assumes him to be “a depraved wretch, whose delight was carnage and misery.” Victor rejects the creature, casting him out into the world and initially at least, refuses to take responsibility for the violence that eventually follows. He shows nothing but contempt and horror for the creature that he himself has brought into being, repeatedly calling it an abhorred monster, wretched devil, vile insect and fiend.
But is the monster really a monster?
Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, Shelley’s monster turns out to be a wonderfully intelligent and compassionate creature, who desires nothing more than love and belonging, but is cruelly rejected for his physical appearance. The creature is never given a name, except for the obscenities hurled its way by Frankenstein, but eventually his life story is revealed. From his abandonment by Victor, the creature slowly achieves consciousness, learning the skills of survival, and through keen observation and practice develops the gift of communication and a love for learning and knowledge. Hiding in a hovel, he shows compassion for his neighbours, longing “to join them, and.. win their favour, and afterwards their love” but he has already experienced the bitterness of rejection. The creature was not born a monster, but he became one.
“all men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated……every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend….I am malicious because I am miserable…the feelings of kindness and gentleness…gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth. Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind“
I have read Frankenstein a few times now and I have loved it more with every read. I can’t help but be moved by compassion for the monster and question to what degree is he really a monster. It leads to a whole range of questions regarding the definition and nature of a monster as well as the way we still reject and exclude people based on appearance: disability, race, gender… without seeing the person inside. No matter what time in history we read Frankenstein, it is still has universal relevance for us today.
White’s re-imagination of Shelley’s classic, tells the story from Elizabeth’s point of view. Elizabeth was Frankenstein’s fiancee and very briefly, his wife. Moving between the past and the present, White shows how Elizabeth came to be with the Frankensteins, her relationship with Victor and presents an alternative ending. The story also has a modern twist, detailing the precarious position of women in the nineteenth century and exploring the dark side of obsessive, controlling and manipulative relationships.
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets…until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything – except a friend.
Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.
But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and indulging his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive whatever the cost…as the world she knows is consumed by darkness.
Timed with the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is a stunning reimagination of the classic, speaking to the fears we all bury deep inside.
Elizabeth has a tragic background. She lost her family at a young age and is the victim of physical abuse when she first meets the Frankensteins and is offered a desperate glimmer of hope. In return for being “Victor’s special friend” she is rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food and silk dresses, but she was always afraid of what would happen if one day she was no longer needed.
I had been traded to the Frankensteins for a few coins, and lived in fear that they, too, would sell me. By their grace I lived, and so I did all in my power to keep their love.
For Elizabeth, it is a dangerous game.
Young Victor Frankenstein is a strange child. Highly intelligent, but friendless, Elizabeth soon discovers that his parents fear him. He is obsessive, manipulative, selfish and lacks any trace of empathy. Consumed with knowing “what lies beneath every surface”, Victor’s favourite game is corpses, where Elizabeth “would lie silent and still, like a corpse” while Victor “explored all the bones and tendons, the muscles and tracings of veins that make up a person.” When Elizabeth almost dies from an illness, Victor is obsessed with finding a way to defeat death.
You are mine, Elizabeth Lavenza, and nothing will take you from me. Not even death.
It is a refrain that Victor says repeatedly to Elizabeth, an ominous warning underscored with menace.
As in Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein eventually succeeds in animating a collection of body parts and the result is equally hideous.
terrible in aspect…his hair, long and black…misshapen head…skin ridged and puckered…lips were black like tar…alien and repulsive
But White’s Frankenstein knows no boundaries. He murders his own brother to set up and destroy Elizabeth’s friend, Justine. He not only murders their friend Henry because he is a rival for Elizabeth’s affections, but doesn’t let a good body go to waste. Looking closely at the monster, Elizabeth recognises something familiar – Henry’s eyes!
This monster shares many of the same characteristics as Shelley’s original – intelligence, compassion and eloquent speech, and bitter rejection. But here he is given the chance to choose a name, Adam, and after the initial shock and revulsion have passed, friendship and a happy ending. Well, as happy an ending as a hideous creature reviled by human beings can possibly get in this world.
I knew the gift we had brought him was not a gift of words or knowledge, but of companionship. We would never leave him. He would never leave us.
And the real monster of the story is revealed.
you are mad…you say you created an abomination? You are one, Victor. You made a monster because that is all you are capable of being yourself.
I really enjoyed The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. I loved the ending. I loved that the “monster” got a happy ending and I liked the way White explored the reality of life for women without a family during the nineteenth century. Elizabeth was a great heroine, strong and brave, and like Mary Shelley, a woman ahead of her times.
Forget Hollywood. Read the book.