Nearly 140 JASNA Southwest members and guests gathered at Chapman University for “Jane Austen Meets Mary Shelley” on September 14. Numerous students from both Chapman University and Azusa Pacific University joined JASNA members for this event, which featured speakers John Kessel, Anne Mellor and Victoria Shorr.
Following continental breakfast and a white elephant sale, John Kessel launched the day’s presentations with his talk “Mary, Jane and Me.”
Best known for his science fiction novels, including Pride and Prometheus — a mashup of Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein — and numerous short stories, Kessel served as first director of the MFA program in creative writing at North Carolina State University, where he has taught since 1982. Observing that some people hold a narrow view of the genre, he noted that, for him, science fiction encompasses gender issues and other social concerns.
In describing his idea for Pride and Prometheus, he said, “I was unforgivably ignorant about the raft of novels and stories about Mary Bennet that have been written by Austen fans, and of the community of fan-fiction writers who have produced rules for such works.” He described those rules as including creation of a transformative work, being respectful of the material being “borrowed” and having an “HEA” (happily ever after) ending. He defines his work as not simply fan fiction, although he is a fan, but as critical fiction. He adds that a work of critical fiction should also stand on its own and bring something new while commenting on the original.
He referenced such works of critical fiction as Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (the backstory behind Jane Eyre from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s first wife) and John Gardner’s Grendel (a retelling of Beowulf from the antagonist’s viewpoint).
The challenge of “mating the disparate tales” of Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein in Pride and Prometheus made for a fascinating project, he said. While Austen treated her characters with cool distance, irony and dry humor, Shelley’s novel is full of humorless “histrionic excess, chases and murders.” In Austen, he noted, “There’s plenty of psychological distress but, by and large, the most violent thing that happens is an overheard conversation or someone getting caught in the rain. Frankenstein’s Creature does not belong in a Regency drawing room. The Bennet sisters do not belong in a gothic 19th century laboratory.”
However, he observed that both novels involve social criticism and looking for a mate. He strove to examine, extend or critique both practical matters and themes of the originals, such as the moral choices made by the characters.
Next, UCLA Emeritus Distinguished Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies Anne Mellor spoke on the topic of “Mothering Monsters: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Genetic Engineering.” She is the author of books on Mary Shelley, Romantic women writers (including Jane Austen), William Blake and many other British Romantic poets.
Her book Mothers of the Nation — Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780-1830 argues that women writers were instrumental in shaping public opinion during the Romantic era. She has authored numerous books, including Mary Shelley: Her Fiction, Her Life, Her Monsters and Romanticism and Gender. She edited the first collection of feminist essays on Romantic writing, Romanticism and Feminism and is the co-editor of an anthology of canon-transforming Romantic writing, British Literature 1780-1830, as well as of The Other Mary Shelley and Passionate Encounters in a Time of Sensibility.
Mellor began by pointing out an interesting fact about Mary Shelley and Jane Austen: “they had the same mother,” she stated. Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, was Mary Shelley’s biological mother and Jane Austen’s intellectual mother, according to Mellor. She argued that “Jane Austen was a devout disciple of Mary Wollstonecraft to the extent that she takes characters from Wollstonecraft’s writings, she quotes Wollstonecraft word for word but never with quotation marks because a respectable woman, in her day, could no longer openly identify with that radical, feminist, whore, atheist known as Mary Wollstonecraft.”
Mellor’s discussion primarily focused on Shelley and how she gave birth to Frankenstein, describing it as “a myth about a human being giving birth to another through mechanical processes.” She added: “This narrative has become the myth of modern science — the master narrative for the ways in which man’s attempts to control and improve the workings of nature can have unintended and even monstrous consequences.”
Jokingly, she offered an alternative description of the novel as “the narrative of what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman.”
Frankenstein would not have happened, she said, without the radical climate change caused by Mt. Tambora’s eruption on April 10, 1815. Its volcanic plume created a molecular screen that effectively blocked out the sun. Thus 1815 came to be known as the year without a summer. Tambora’s eruption caused severe weather, failing crops and even cholera outbreaks.
On a stormy night in June 1815, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her lover, Percy Shelley, were in Geneva visiting Lord Byron. She had a vivid waking reverie that Mellor posits came from her most traumatic experiences. Her mother died in childbirth and she was subsequently raised by a negligent father and runaway nurse. Her father eventually remarried and Mary became a Cinderella figure in her stepmother’s home and was eventually sent off to live in Scotland with the family of a man who was a fan of her father’s work. When she returned two years later, she met her father’s latest disciple, Percy Shelley, they fell in love, made love on her mother’s grave and ran off together. She later gave birth to a premature baby girl who died two weeks later. The following year she gave birth to a son, William, and five months later she had her waking reverie that in turn led to the creation of Frankenstein.
Mellor draws attention to the parallels between Mary Shelley’s life and the Creature’s life in Frankenstein. She suggests that for the first time in English literature a novel embodies the pregnancy anxieties of a very young and frequently pregnant woman. The novel implicitly raises questions that such a young woman might ask herself: “What if my child is born deformed? A freak? What if my child dies? Could my child kill me the way I killed my mother?” In the novel, Victor takes one look at the creature he labored for nine months to bring to life and is appalled.
Mellor explained that Shelley read and was well-informed about the latest scientific advancements and experiments of the time, including Erasmus Darwin’s theory of “single sex propagation,” in which the woman’s role in giving birth is unnecessary.
For Shelley, “bad science” tries to intervene with, change or master nature. In the novel, nature pursues Victor with the very fire and electricity he stole to bring the Creature to life. The novel’s violent storms also reflect the climate and extreme weather caused by Tambora and represent a manifestation of mother nature’s elemental powers.
For Mellor, the novel suggests that where there is no mother, monsters are created. She cautions against scientists who fail to take ethical responsibility for the predictable and even unintended consequences of their experiments and technological developments that can destroy life as we know it, describing the potential impact of today’s CRISPR Cas9 gene-editing technologies.
After a boxed lunch and trivia contest, with prizes of books by the speakers, Victoria Shorr gave a presentation, “The Midnight Moment” based on her book Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning. Published in March 2019, Midnight focuses on three women as they face their greatest challenge — a homeless Jane Austen, Joan of Arc at the stake and Mary Shelley in Italy as she contemplates a potential future without her husband when he is lost at sea.
Shorr, whose first novel, Backlands, was named one of Booklist’s top 10 first novels of 2015, co-founded the Archer School for Girls and the Pine Ridge Girls’ School in South Dakota, the first independent, culturally based, college-preparatory school for girls on a Native reservation in America.
She read from the Austen segments of Midnight, which focus on Austen’s acceptance of a brilliant marriage proposal just when she, her mother and sister most needed the independence her marriage to Harris Bigg-Wither would have brought them — and the following morning, when she told him she had changed her mind. Shorr said she was drawn not to the witty, clever, superbly in control, intimidating Jane Austen but to the lesser-known Austen as the homeless woman, the unpublished author with no money and nowhere to live. If Austen had accepted the proposal it would have altered the course of her life.
Austen would have been mistress of her own home, surrounded by comforts and children, and not dependent on her brothers and their wives — but perhaps would not have become an author. In this midnight moment, Shorr explained, Austen “would have been forced to stand and gaze into the void and figure out who she was and what she did next.”
Her refusal comes as a profile in courage not often celebrated, rarely discussed and kept very private. It is a cold courage not born in the heat of the moment but from deliberate consideration, Shorr said.