Shelter from the Storm: Shakespeare, Mary Shelley’s Creature, and A Song from Sandy
“The season [June 1816] was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts,” writes Mary Shelley in a preface describing the genesis of Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, 1831). The tales inspired a story-telling competition among a group that included 18-year-old Mary’s husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, in whose Lake Geneva villa they were staying. According to her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she struggled for an idea that when it came, “broke in upon” her “swift as light.” Thinking to herself, “What terrified me will terrify others,” she began her story that same day with the words, “It was on a dreary night of November.”
In The Annotated Frankenstein (Belknap Press, Harvard University Press $29.95), editors Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao point out that the “extraordinarily rainy summer” of 1816 was the result of “a global climate trauma produced by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia. In Europe the relentless weather with attendant floods and much human misery was felt to be an apocalyptic portent.”
If it sounds as though prophets of climate change were already on the job in the summer of 1816, it’s also tempting to read the stormy present into references to “relentless weather,” floods, and human misery in that “Year Without a Summer.” Before the “Frankenstorm” called Sandy began bearing down on us, Wolfson and Devao’s hefty, handsome new edition of Mary Shelley’s triumph of the imagination seemed a natural subject for a Halloween column. In any case, it made for timely company by candle light with Monday night’s gale pounding the house.
When the power went off, we’d just managed to get dinner on the table. After Irene and last year’s freak Halloween snowstorm, we were ready for Sandy, with plenty of bottled water and batteries, a Red Cross radio, lanterns in place, candles of various sizes lit, the small glass-enclosed votive candles strategically positioned. With nothing else for diversion (no more internet, no more election news, no more TV, no more Breaking Bad), we thought about games. But our Scrabble hasn’t been seen since the flood of 2005, nor has the Shakespeare board game we used to play. We still have a not quite complete deck of Authors along with the same battered pack of Woodland Happy Families that kept us occupied during the strictly rationed miner strike black-outs in Bristol, England in the early 1970s. The damp, chilly, cozy English springs, autumns, and winters came pleasantly back again during the days without electricity — if you can imagine feeling nostalgia for huddling under blankets, shopping in candlelit markets, and venturing into the dark night, lantern in hand, to visit friends when our neighborhood was in darkness and theirs had power.
Shelter in Shakespeare
We never got around to playing Authors last week, not with books to read and a fire in the fireplace. On Monday night, while the storm engulfed and wracked the house, the wind attacking full force, the rest of the family in bed, I started reading Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale in Volume III of an 1836 edition of the Works celebrated by Herman Melville for its “glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier & the top of every “t” like a musket barrel.” It was this seven volume set published by Hilliard, Gray, and Company in Boston that made Shakespeare available to Melville (“If another Messiah ever comes t’will be in Shakespeare’s person”) in time for the most Shakespearean of American novels, Moby Dick.
The question is can Shakespeare provide shelter from the storm? What comfort is there in great writing when a juggernaut’s outside the window? Maybe I should be reading King Lear or Macbeth. Maybe Winter’s Tale is too light and fantastical for the occasion. Not so, not in the second scene of Act One when Leontes, the King of Sicilia, goes ballistic after jumping to the fatal conclusion that his pregnant wife Hermione has been dallying with his childhood pal Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. After one of his attendant lords tries to sort things out, Leontes abuses him so passionately that I couldn’t resist reading the speeches aloud, revelling in all the earthy invective, “My wife’s a hobby-horse …. As rank as any flax-wench that puts to before her troth-plight.” And when Shakespeare has Leontes expanding on “nothing” I’m tempted to outshout Sandy:
Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh? —a note infallible
Of breaking honesty: Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? Noon, midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why, then, the world, and all that’s in’t, is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.
Yes, and the storm outside nothing! The fear of a flood in the basement nothing! The loss of light and heat nothing! It was consoling to speak that speech against the raging wind, drunk on all those sweet nothings, any louder and I’ll wake the house, though it’s true I have the cover of all that tumult booming outside as I give it to Camillo, “You lie, you lie: I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee, pronounce thee a gross lout, a mindless slave!”
You can’t beat the force of nature we call Shakespeare. If Jane Austen can kill zombies, why shouldn’t Shakespeare tame hurricanes?
Throughout the siege I’ve had the newly published Annotated Frankenstein, with its dramatic cover image, in sight nearby. At least Sandy has spared us thunder and lightning, for which we’re grateful. But the message of that brilliant jagged cover photograph from Getty Images is electricity, which of course is the very force we’re hoping, wishing, praying for as the power-bereft hours drag on. Without it, we’re cut adrift. Cheat how we may with our battery-run lanterns and radios and such, we’re foundering in 19th-century darkness. Electricity is central to Frankenstein, for only the Romantic period equivalent of Promethean fire can animate the Creature. Among the illustrations included in Wolfson and Levao’s lavish edition is Benjamin West’s Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (circa 1816). In their introduction, the editors point out that Immanuel Kant dubbed Franklin the “Prometheus of Modern Times … who stole the spark immediately from heaven.”
The editors also point out a seemingly obvious but rarely recognized “surname-link” between the two inventors, Victor Frankenstein and Benjamin Franklin. I wonder how many scholars of American history could get their heads around the idea that good old Ben, Poor Richard, patron saint of Philadelphia, may have inspired the naming of the creature who would rank Number One among the Top Ten Monsters of All Time. But then scholars and critics and followers of American literature would be even less prepared to accept the link between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Walt Whitman mentioned in a previous column (“Some Post-Halloween Thoughts on Dracula, Other Vampires, and Walt Whitman,” Nov. 4 2009).
It’s Still Dickens’s Year
It seems only right in this bicentenary year that Wolfson and Levao’s introduction would reveal a Dickens-Frankenstein connection that not only shows how pervasive was the spell cast by Mary Shelley’s book (the 1831 edition sold “into the thousands with many reprintings”) but how far-reaching and complex were its proliferating themes, associations, and implications. The editors point to the relationship, for example, between the protagonist Pip and convict Magwitch, whose terrorizing of young Pip in the opening scene of Great Expectations is among the greatest passages in all Dickens. As they suggest, Dickens invokes Frankenstein without naming it as well as exercising “some wry turns on the tale,” as in the scene where Magwitch reveals himself as Pip’s mysterious benefactor: “The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made, was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me, and recoiling from him with a stronger repulsion, the more he admired me and the fonder he was of me.”
Once again the range and scope of Dickens is so broad as to suggest, as I’ve been doing this year, that he and his England are virtually one and the same, and when Christmas comes next month, Dickens’s most beloved monster, Ebenezer Scrooge, will come bah-humbugging back into our holiday lives.
Sandy vs. Sandy
And then there was light!
It was that dramatic, like the birth of electricity, accomplished in an instant, at some point in the dozy minutes between 10:30 and 10:45 p.m. Halloween night. We’d been without power since dinnertime Monday. My family having gone to bed to stay warm (the temperature was 56 and felt ten degrees colder), I was in the dark living room wrapped in a blanket listening to Sandy Denny sing a song called “Next Time Around.” Believe it or not, my choice of that particular CD (The North Star Grassman and the Ravens) had nothing to do with the Sandy-Sandy connection (nor did I recognize the coincidence at all until now); more likely, it was a natural expression of the connection between the power-loss of the present and the one so intimately bound up with a nostalgia for those years in England. The music is sad, stately, richly orchestrated, and as I drifted off I was vaguely aware that the lyrics were in line with what the other Sandy was doing, lyrics like “the rain was too high,” “the river did rise,” “the building fell down/may be the ocean next time around.”
When I dozed off the room had been fully dark except for the faintly burning fire in the fireplace. The remaining five songs on the album had finished playing, and the portable CD player I’d purchased at WalMart had turned itself off when I woke up. Every lamp and light fixture in the living room had been on when we’d lost power, so the impact of sheer illumination was tremendous. The light was so bright that I could almost hear it. The furnace had come on with the power and waves of warmth were filling the room.