The Bookshelf: In 'Mary's Monster,' Mary Shelley Comes to Life

Mar 2, 2018

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR is Lita Judge of Peterborough. Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, was first published 200 years ago. It told the story of Dr. Frankenstein who created a living thing, a monster, using parts of human bodies stolen from a graveyard. A new book by Peterborough author and illustrator Lita Judge tells the story of how Mary Shelley came to write her most famous novel. It's called, Mary's Monster. Scroll down to read a "Top Five" list of Lita's reading recommendations and a transcript of the interview.

Lita Judge's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor. “This is a book about a young person trying to cope with a confusing world, bullying and grief. You’ll want to read in one sitting, and wish you could curl up and live in it. And when you are done, you caress the cover and feel as if there is a little part of you healed! It’s such a rich and rewarding story told in a hopeful, distinctive voice.”

2.   Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir by Margarita Engle. “I adore Margarita Engle. She is a beautiful Cuban-American poet who writes with such evocative language. This is a memoir in verse.  It’s a transporting experience to live through her eyes. We learn compassion and kindness for other people through their personal stories.” 

3.   The Passion of Dollsa by Julie Berry. “This is a beautifully rendered story that takes place in Provence, France in 1241 and makes you feel like you are living in that time and place. We learn that the voices of dissent can’t be silenced and that we need those powerful voices to show us the way. This book is incredibly relevant to our current times.”

4.   Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis by Jeannine Atkins. “Edmonia Lewis was a sculptor of African American and Native American descent who worked in the post-Civil War era. This book articulates how a brave young woman overcame the racial prejudices and violence of society to produce her artistic vision. It speaks to me as an artist, and a writer, and a woman. This is a powerful story about a marginalized character and shows the path of inspiration, bravery and courage.”

5.   Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. “I read this when I was young but when I reread it as a writer who had been creating work for the last decade I was stunned by how relevant this book remains.   Shelley was able to grasp the broad ramifications of what tyrannical power, unjust wars, slavery, and neglect of the poor were doing to repress society. She believed we needed to weigh our scientific ambitions with the needs of people. When few women weren’t allowed a voice, Mary dared to challenge the actions of men. I am in awe of her courage as well as the brilliance she had to turn her contempt for the corrupt and ugly world she was witnessing into a story that is so relevant it remains a touchstone today.”

So let’s clear up the myth or the misconception that the novel Frankenstein was conceived by Shelley one dark and stormy night at the behest of Lord Byron. There’s more to the story. Tell us about that.

Yes, it is so much more than that. I think the myth grew out of the fact that it was just so controversial during the day that a woman created this creation. The actual truth is that Mary Shelly herself was this teenaged runaway, she fell in love with a married man; she was pregnant before she left home. Once she did leave home she realized that Percy Shelley still had ties with his wife and he wasn’t able to financially take care of her. They were really living on the run and she was really vilified by society. She was thrown out of the house by her father, he wouldn’t recognize her if she came home.

They were really living this destitute life. Percy Shelley went on to really mistreat her. I think he may have dealt with mental illness, and became incapable of treating her well. But the ramifications of her running away—the sister that she left behind committed suicide. There was a lot of tragedy in her life that was making her focus on writing a story about empathy and what cruelty will do to other people, and I think this story really grew from those experiences.

Not to mention the fact that she lost her children. One by one, they died.

Yes, I think the fact that this story is about creating life from death, I don’t think that we can get away from the fact that she lost her children. And Mary Shelley herself—her own mother died from giving birth to her. I think that she saw the ramifications of what men were doing.

We should mention that Mary’s mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, who is perhaps best known for her essay “The Vindication of the Rights of Women,” sort of a foundational document for modern feminism.

Yes, and I think that is a huge part of, again, why this book is so much more than a ghost story and a myth. I think she was very aware of what her mother had started and I think she felt that there was a legacy that she had inherited, speaking out for the rights of women.

I think this story is a social criticism of its day about not only science, but about slavery, unjust war, the tyranny of power that men hold and the suffering that they create. But she also is talking about the fact that women are forced backstage and that they are not allowed to contribute to society, when herself and her mother were trying so hard to contribute to society.

I remember when I read  Frankenstein in graduate school and there was such a heated conversation about whether or not Frankenstein was an expression of Mary Shelley’s anxiety about motherhood. You know, the idea that you are creating something and you are not sure how you’re going to feel about that something once it becomes what it is. What he or she is. Is that something that you’ve heard or that you’ve thought about?

I thought about it a lot working on this book. When I was working on the book I was reading her journals and I was reading her as she was pregnant and looking forward to a child being born and fearing for her own life given that her mother passed away from giving birth. And this is a girl who is a teenage runaway, she has no support in her life. So I do wonder if people have this take, that it is an anxiety about motherhood, but I think this take is completely wrong.

I think that her anxiety was about this idea that men were trying to create life without the part of women, and that giving birth was the one thing that women had that they contributed in her day. I think that she saw men trying to develop this technology without the ramifications of what they’re doing. I think she was really thinking of the ramifications of giving life without empathy or responsibility.

Do you think that readers back in the 19th century understood that interpretation?

Yes, I think they very much understood it. It was vilified as a completely atheistic belief—the fact that she was talking about the character Frankenstein creating a creature in the domain creating life in that time was considered in the domain of God alone. I think she was saying it was in the domain of God and woman, and I think readers were shocked and horrified about what she was saying. I think in later retellings we’ve become fixated on the Galvanism and the monster story, but I think at the time it was incredibly controversial book because of the criticisms it was given towards society because of the way men were treating other men.

Let’s talk about the structure of this book because it is in nine parts—which is a symbolic kind of number here if we are talking about a story about creation and motherhood—but it is also poems with illustrations. It seems like this is part of the way that you create as an author, is that not the case?

Yes, absolutely, I am very much of a visual story teller, my background is in picture books. When I decided to create Mary Shelley, I immediately assumed I was going to do a graphic novel because that seemed like the obvious choice to create a visual book about Mary Shelley.

I wanted to create images that reflected what this teenager had gone through—she was a pregnant teenage runaway, she had no support in her life, she was courageous in speaking out against what scientists of the day were doing, and also speaking out against what tyrannical power was doing at that time—so I wanted to create illustrations that were very visceral.

In a graphic novel the breaks, the fact that they are surrounded by white cells, it did not allow me to create an image for a reader to just rest and take in the image completely. You are forced as a reader to go from one image to the next. 

What do you hope people take away from Mary Shelley after reading Mary’s Monster?

I think Mary Shelley is a voice we really need to reflect on today, especially with the current times, I think particularly young women need to read this story. I think Mary Shelley was a radical teenage girl of her time that managed to take all the complicated feelings that she was experiencing and write a book that was so emotionally relevant towards readers that it remains alive 200 years later.