Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, September 18, 2023

Monday September 18, 2023: Maximum Shelf: Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein

Harpervia: Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein by Anne Eekhout

Harpervia: Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein by Anne Eekhout

Harpervia: Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein by Anne Eekhout

Harpervia: Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein by Anne Eekhout

Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein

by Anne Eekhout

Dutch author Anne Eekhout's fourth novel and English-language debut, Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein, is an evocative re-creation of two momentous periods in author Mary Shelley's life that led--directly or indirectly--to the composition of her 1818 masterpiece. Drawing parallels between the creative process and motherhood, and presenting a credibly queer slant on history, Eekhout's book is full of eerie encounters and mysterious phenomena that replicate the gothic science fiction tone of Frankenstein itself. The novel stands out for its creative engagement with a classic and its feminist reimagining of the past through the lens of motherhood.

Mary Shelley (1797–1851) was an inheritor of great literary gifts but also much sadness. She was the daughter of two influential 18th-century writers, philosopher William Godwin and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, but her mother died giving birth to her. Mary Shelley would go on to lose multiple children herself, including her first daughter, who was born prematurely.

In the novel's 1816 story line, 19-year-old Mary and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, are in Cologny, on Lake Geneva, visiting the poet Lord Byron (nicknamed "Albe") along with their baby son, William; Mary's stepsister, Claire, an occasional lover of both Percy and Albe; and Albe's friend John Polidori, a doctor. They go for walks and convene for evening storytelling sessions. They read aloud from an anthology of French ghost stories, but Albe suggests that they should each write their own tale. "Whoever writes the most frightening story wins," Percy agrees. Albe chimes in: "Mary can do it too. Surprise us, Mary."

Those two weeks in Switzerland were dark and stormy, literally, and famously so, creating the perfect atmosphere for swapping ghost stories. Mary had a deep well of grief and fear to draw upon in crafting her own contribution. From the first, it is clear that the loss of her daughter still haunts her: "Every night she dies, her daughter. She discovers it only in the morning.... But she knows it must have happened at this hour, the witching hour." Throughout the novel, birth appears as a traumatic reality--but also as a metaphor for the fraught process of bringing an idea or a book into the world.

Through the alternating 1812 strand, Eekhout posits earlier inspiration for Mary's science fiction-meets-horror plot. It is known that she stayed in Dundee, Scotland, as a guest of the Baxter family when she was 15, but the details of her visit are lost to time. By way of a fictional diary, Eekhout has Mary inform readers of the major events of those months, as well as her state of mind. Mary is immediately attracted to the Baxters' 17-year-old daughter, Isabella. "Her smile, the way she tilted her head, her mouth curled up at the corner, made me forget all good sense.... [S]he laid her head on my shoulder. Warm and heavy. I smelled her soap, and a longing sang through my body. Like a glowing knife ripping me open from my heart to my lower belly in the most loving way." The erotic charge between the two intensifies.

Analogous with the 1816 timeline, Mary and Isabella's days are mostly taken up with walks, visits, conversation, and storytelling. The Baxter clan, too, loves spooky tales. Isabella is obsessed with the local history of witches and their persecution, having learned that she is descended from a woman accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. The first tale Mary tells, an uncanny one of metamorphosis and mermaids, is based on an encounter with a fishwife in the town and earns her rapturous applause: "I was proud of myself for inventing something that gave people pleasure. I had taken something from real life and twisted it and spun it out until there was more to it than had really happened. Until it was more than the truth."

The truth becomes difficult to decipher over the course of Mary's diary entries. She and Isabella are falling in love via their daily escapades, but they are also subject to gaslighting by Isabella's sinister brother-in-law, Mr. Booth, and to mental stresses. Isabella is bitten by an adder, and together they see an ape-like creature. There is fever in the household; Mary faints and later falls from a horse and suffers a concussion. The fear of snakes leads to hallucinations that center around Mr. Booth, who Mary thinks has designs on Isabella. Jealousy, illness, nightmares, and fantasies meet in a delicious welter, and culminate with a scene hypothesizing how Mary's diary from that time might have been lost.

Eekhout hints that the real monsters are within, borne by memory and the mind. The general unease and specific phobias of her stay with the Baxters lived on inside Mary, only to resurface in Cologny: "It is her monster, this monster. She has always carried it with her. She carries it under her bosom, keeping it warm, keeping it wild." Mary's experience of infant loss makes that figurative language even more poignant.

The novel maintains the tension between the tangible and the elusive. The terror of the unexplained--what did Mary and Isabella really see?--is palpable. Translator Laura Watkinson's collaboration has produced sensual prose and preserved a varied sentence length, which, together with the alternation of tenses and of first- and third-person narration, make the pages turn quickly as readers explore how life becomes legend--and vice versa. --Rebecca Foster

HarperVia, $30, hardcover, 320p., 9780063256743, October 3, 2023

Harpervia: Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein by Anne Eekhout

Anne Eekhout: Balancing Research and Imagination

(photo: Keke Keukelaar)

Anne Eekhout's previous novels are Dogma (2014), nominated for the Bronzen Uil Prize; One Night (2016), nominated for the BNG Literature Prize; and Nicolas and the Disappearance of the World, named the 2019 Best Book for Young Adults in the Netherlands, where she lives. Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein (HarperVia, October 3, 2023), her English-language debut, explores two key periods in Mary Shelley's life and theorizes about sources of inspiration for Frankenstein.

It was the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein in 2018 and novelists are still being inspired by it. What is the continuing appeal of the Frankenstein story?

Frankenstein is a one-of-a-kind book in many aspects. Mary Shelley was only 18 years old when she began writing it, and she had a turbulent life in which she lost her mother when she was giving birth to her, and [she] herself lost a child at the age of 17. Frankenstein is to be read as--of course--a horror novel, a gothic novel, and a science fiction novel (the first there ever was!), but it is also a story about parenthood and, on top of that, you can recognize a political aspect in it. It is so many things to so many people. And that a young woman, in that day and age, wrote it is a powerful testament to what women can achieve.

How did you decide on the dual-timeline framework and the mixture of first- and third-person narration? What made you certain that 1812 and 1816 were the periods you had to focus on?

I wanted to write about the summer of 1816, when clouds of ash were covering large parts of Europe because of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia. It was the summer when Mary visited Lord Byron at Lake Geneva and began writing Frankenstein. Thunderstorms, rain, and lightning were rampaging across the lake, and it is such a brilliant atmosphere to write about such an important event in history. But, of course, a lot has been written about that summer, fiction and nonfiction alike. I had to add my own view, my own idea of why this matters.

So I began reading a lot of biographies about and diaries of Mary Shelley. I found out that she had stayed in Scotland four years before, and that the time she spent there turned out to be crucial to the development of her imagination. But there was not much written about her time in Scotland. Apparently, her diary from that time went missing and there is no clue as to how or why. This is what set off my imagination, and I conceived a story set in Scotland with what little information I could gather. This timeline had to be in first person because it is in the form of a diary. I wanted a great distinction between the two timelines, to emphasize Mary's development and to give the diary a dreamlike quality. Therefore, the timeline set in 1816 was best written in the third person.

As in your novel's title, the verbs "to birth" or "to conceive (of)" can be applied to either a book or a child. Why was this an important metaphorical organizing principle for you?

During the writing of Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein, it occurred to me that the depth of this "conceiving" is enormous. It is, of course, linked to giving birth, but also to creating something new, a whole other aspect. It embodies the act of creativity, and therefore, imagination. Imagination is one of the big themes in the novel and the importance of it is very much overlooked in modern society, I think. I am very happy with the English title, although it was not my idea. (The book was first published in Dutch with the title Mary.) When it was acquired by HarperVia, they thought that it would be clearer if we added something.

How did pregnancy and infant loss affect Mary Shelley and determine her fictional subjects?

I think that Mary Shelley's life was dominated by her experiences with death. First her mother, then her child. I imagine the very soul of existence is being shown to you when a child dies: first it is there, suddenly, with all its splendor, then it's not. It's gone forever. What should you do now with all this love and grief? Write a book, perhaps. A book about a man who creates something so tremendously powerful that he is shocked by it and sends it away. He is in fact a parent who denounces his child. The grief part is in the child, in Frankenstein's monster: he has done nothing wrong as of yet. He was just swept into existence.

In the 1812 story line, you have Mary wrestling with attraction to a young woman, and recent interpretation of her letters has suggested that she was bisexual. Free love was also a cherished tenet of some in her circle. Why is her sexuality important to our understanding of her life and work?

Mary Shelley might have been bisexual, and this sheds an interesting light on her, because she seemed not burdened by it. Indeed, she had a very open mind about these things and also, at least in theory, about open relationships. But the fact of the matter was that Percy Shelley was the love of her life and the only one she wanted to be with after they met. That must have been horrible: seeing your true love longing for another, even encouraging you to do the same, but not being able to. I think this ambivalence towards this aspect of her life seeped through in her writing.

In writing historical fiction, how did you strike a balance between research and imagination?

After doing a lot of research, I was submerged in Mary's life. From there on out, I could determine where I wanted to change or add something. In the 1816 timeline, I was very hesitant about changing anything we know for certain. We really know a great deal about that summer, from different sources, and it is such a great story in itself, it did not need much altering. I merely emphasized some things we know to be true.

For the 1812 timeline, it was a whole other deal. We know bits and pieces, but what really did go on there in Dundee, Scotland, with 14-year-old Mary and her dear friend Isabella, and [Isabella's] eerie brother-in-law, we know next to nothing about. How can that be, when this visit meant so much to Mary? It took a lot of reading, research, and, yes, imagination, to fill in all the gaps. And no, this is not a real account of what happened back then, but it is imbued with all we know about Mary, her fiction and her world.

Your novel was originally published in 2021. What was its journey to English-language translation like?

It was so special and so much fun. My translator, Laura Watkinson, is so knowledgeable and smart. She really saw what I wanted to say with the novel, and I think she did an outstanding job translating it into English. My publisher, HarperVia, included me in all kinds of decisions about the cover, the cover text, and authors to ask for blurbs. I can't wait for Mary and the Birth of Frankenstein to hit the shelves! I hope readers will love it as much as I loved writing it. --Rebecca Foster

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