Mary Shelley’s Revolutionary Sentiment and Liberal Positivism
Questions about Mary Shelley’s commitment to the radical causes of her youth, and whether or not she was a critic of technology, come up in an examination of some of the differences between the 1818 edition and the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. I shall examine aspects of the relationship of the Shelley’s and their contemporaries, to developments in technology. Reading the letters of Mary Shelley, pertinent critical literature and its relevance to Shelley, I shall examine aspects of her changing perspective over time, including material from the book Frankenstein, but I shall focus on her letters. From my reading I shall propose that Mary Shelley maintained an interest in politics, remained true to what she called “the Cause,” in an abbreviation among her friends, in letters, for the cause of freedom and democracy. Her perspective on technology seems more complicated. She places her story of Dr. Frankenstein in the context of the technological advancements of the day, and seems to have maintained some interest. Percy Shelley writes in the “Preface,” to Frankenstein, “The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed by Dr. Darwin [Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin] and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence.” Her later novel, The Last Man (1826), reflects an apocalyptic world epidemic leaving one survivor, but her personal writings are not full of scientific stories, they rather reflect domestic concerns, financial matters, informed short commentaries on current politics, and work of her own writing or the writing of her husband or her friends. Thus, it is my contention that Mary Shelley’s perspective changed. However, it was not a transformation from a flaming revolutionary to conservative. Wordsworth for example, whose change, Percy Shelley laments in his early poem On Wordsworth:
In honored poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty, -
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.
Mary Shelly rather maintained an early position of supporting political and the liberation of the human spirt represented in her husband’s view of the Promethean spirt. Regarding science though, her youthful fascination seems to move in a darker direction in story form, but in personal writing, she has little to say about the factory system as the industrialization process proceeded. Shelly shows an abiding interest in reform as her letters to Robert Dale Owen, son of Robert Owen and Frances Wright, indicate. Owen was involved in his father’s New Harmony commune in Indiana and together with Frances Wright edited a socialist publication. They were major activists in the New York Workingmen’s Party. Mary Shelley wrote to Frances Wright a letter dated December 30th 1830, “I have felt timid at the idea of intruding myself upon one, whose noble mind is filled with such vast interests … amidst all your enthusiasm for the Cause, … the case seems to stand thus-The people will be redressed-will the Aristocrats sacrifice enough to tranquilize them-if they will not-we must be revolutionized…” Clearly, she has codified the language of socialism, industrial progress, and enfranchisement, into the simple phrase, ”the Cause.” Perhaps it was Frances Wright’s self-evident activism that elicited this response from Mary Shelley. Frances Wright had traveled to America with Lafayette on his farewell tour in 1824, where she was able to meet Thomas Jefferson, at whose home she spent a day engaged in discourse. In 1825 Frances Wright had embarked on an effort to free slaves by allowing them to work for their freedom in a community she established outside of Memphis, Tennessee called Nashoba. This is from a letter to her by Thomas Jefferson discussing her experiment to free slaves via labor:
I am cheared when I see that on which it is devolved, taking it up with so much good will, and such mind engaged in it’s encoragement. the abolition of the evil is not impossible: it ought never therefore to be despaired of. every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object. that which you propose is well worthy of tryal. it has succeeded with certain portions of our white brethren, under the care of a Rapp and an Owen; and why may it not succeed with the man of colour?
Regarding Shelley’s interest in technology, as Richard Holmes argues in The Age of Wonder, two conceptions of science predominated in the Romantic period; one was that of the “solitary scientific ‘genius,’ thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost.” Secondly the concept of the “Eureka moment, the intuitive inspired instant of invention or discovery, for which no amount of preparation or preliminary analysis can really prepare….this became the ‘fire from heaven’ of Romanticism.” Mary Shelley fulfilled these romantic dictums in her own creation of the tale, ‘willing to boldly go where no man has gone before,’ to borrow the theme from that old television series Star Trek, or as Mary Shelly sets the task for herself, “a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart.” That was the task she set herself, to outdo the band of celebrated geniuses with her own tale. Second, the Eureka moment, “Swiftly as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. ‘I have found it!’” Shelley, writing within the tropes established in the Gothic novel, establishes both her interest in the sciences and in following the literary norms of her circles, with an avid interest in current developments and their influence upon society She maintained the social interest through her life, in radical republicanism, even if her interest in science in later letters is not as evident, her following of the Owenite experiments and the activities of her friend in America, Frances Wright indicate at least an interest in the developments in industrialism and attempts to mitigate the negative impact of it upon the workers.
Silvia Bowerbank noted, “Mary Wollstonecraft, and her husband, Percy Shelley, were committed defenders of the radical perspective. In 1816-1819, when she wrote Frankenstein, Mary consciously shared their viewpoint.” By the 1830’s Mary Shelly was writing in her Journal:
“With regards to ‘the good cause’ –the cause of the advancement of freedom and knowledge, of the rights of women, &c.-I am not a person of opinions … Some have a passion for reforming the world; others do not cling to particular opinions. That my parents and Shelley were of the former class, makes me respect it … I do not feel that I could say aught to support the cause efficiently.”
As has been seen above, she was also writing incendiary material in her letters. I would think that she had good and bad days, due to the vicissitudes of life. From personal experience in the late twentieth century American radical left, I can identify with those feelings.
Mary Shelley’s world shaped by the death of her radical feminist mother Mary Wollstonecraft shortly after her birth, in 1797, and her disagreeable relationship with her stepmother after her equally radical father, William Godwin, remarried. She met Percy Shelley who was part of the circle of intellectuals drawn to her father, Godwin author of Enquiry into the Principals of Political Justice, among many other works promoting the radical concept of the Necessary, more of which below. Shelley and Mary studied the works of her parents, including A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by her mother. As a teenager, Mary was struggling to find her place in a world in which she had the privilege to be among some of the most brilliant minds of her day, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge reading Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which shows up in Frankenstein in the second letter of Walton to his sister. Walton assuages her fears for his safety in his attempt to reach the North Pole and seek a polar passage to the Orient by telling her he will kill no albatross. The explorer character in Frankenstein, Walton, makes a telling observation “I have often attributed my attachment to, my passionate enthusiasm for, the dangerous mysteries of the ocean to that production of the most imaginative of modern poets.”
This commentary on Coleridge who had by the time of the writing of Frankenstein, long split with his youthful enthusiasm for the French revolutionary materialism, and the circle around Godwin in which he had participated in his youth, who, like Shelley could have called himself “a compleat Necessitarian” following Godwin. The principal of necessity, which essentially states that man learns from experience not from reasoning, originally David Hume’s concept, was developed by William Godwin in his Inquiry concerning Human Understanding, and promoted by Shelley in Queen Mab. Coleridge, having doubts about the materialist approach believed “authority could not derive from a knowledge of space and time.” The ambivalence of Coleridge and his move to a more conservative position in the first decade of the nineteenth century may have influenced Mary Shelley to move away from the idealism of her husband to a more nuanced view. Certainly, Coleridge was a major influence, as Michelle Levy notes in her study “Discovery and the Domestic Affections in Coleridge and Shelley,” sharing with her certain “tension between their attraction to stories of the unknown and their repulsion by the effects of unbridled exploration.” However, to counter that view, I could not find any personal correspondence between Shelly and Coleridge, thus perhaps as an elder member of the first generation of the great English branch of the revolutionary fervor in the 1790’s in which her father and mother had been major players.
Coleridge had lectured in 1795 warning against imperial expansion, and the pernicious effects of the slave trade on the English as Levy writes, “Coleridge bitterly laments that both Englishman and slave alike have been cruelly ‘torn from the bleeding breast of domestic affection.’” The concern for domestic tranquility destroyed reflected in Frankenstein, first in the abandonment of his creation by Victor who observed, “his jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.” This was the behavior of an infant reaching to touch his parent. “He might have spoken, I did not hear; one hand stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs.” The wretch experiences abandonment, it would be interesting to discover child abandonment statistics for London of the period. But also in Walton’s insistence on reaching the North Pole at the expense of his own crew, and in the exploitation of the individual as Victor destroys his own heath, nursed back to heath by Clerval after creating the wretch, Shelley gives examples of irresponsible behavior, considered part of the cost of science. Victor in his last throws before perishing makes his final recommendation to Walton his companion in the Romantic version of the scientist/adventurer “seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.” Percy Shelley said in his own review of his wife’s work speaking of the injustices suffered by the wretch:
Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; - let one being selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind – divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations – malevolence and selfishness. It is thus that, too often in society, those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments, are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed by neglect and solitude of heart, into a scourge and a curse.”
There is further indication of an interest in science on the part of both Shelley and Mary as is exhibited by the note in her “Author’s Introduction” to Frankenstein in the 1831 edition. Writing of the conversations between Shelley and Lord Byron in Switzerland, she states, “Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” This essentially mechanical process based on her understanding of the cutting-edge science of the times. It reflected her confluence of the differing theories of material or spiritual creation.
Galvanism, the use of the newly invented voltaic battery to run an electrical current through the legs of frogs by Luigi Galvani an Italian scientist, had been followed up by experiments in London by Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini in which he dramatically reanimated a recently hanged man, in 1803. Sharon Ruston, in her article for the British Library, “The science of life and death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” writes of the hanged man, a certain George Foster, “Onlookers report that Foster’s eye opened, his right hand was raised and clenched, and his legs moved.” The other matter mentioned by Shelley is vital warmth, which was part of the debate over whether humans were the sum of their parts or animated by a vital force, or vitalism promoted by John Abernathy, Coleridge’s doctor, who held the Professorship in Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons. Percy Shelley’s doctor and protégé of Dr. Abernathy, William Lawrence, took umbrage with that concept and promoted the materialistic conception of man. Lawrence had studied in Europe with the noted ‘German physiologists’ mentioned by Percy Shelly in the very first line of the 1818 preface. In a famous series of lectures between 1816 and 1820, the two doctors argued over the issue, Holmes on the debate says Lawrence “claimed that the development of this physiological organization [of the human body] could be observed unbroken ‘from an oyster to a man.’” Lawrence, influenced the Shelley’s views on the subject is a reasonable speculation, Mary had already been taken to see the great chemist, Humphry Davy’s lectures on chemistry in 1812 by her father. Davy’s words from an 1802 lecture, which Coleridge attended, almost verbatim as the words of M. Waldman in his introductory lecture so influential upon Victor:
We do not look to distant ages, or amuse ourselves with brilliant, though delusive dreams, concerning the infinite improvability of man, the annihilation of labour, disease, and even death. But we reason by analogy from simple facts. We consider only a state of human progression arising out of present conditions. We look for a time that we may reasonably expect, for a bright day of which we already behold the dawn.”
Returning to Shelley, “’The ancient teachers of this science,’ said he, ‘promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; but they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.” He goes on to celebrate the potential of chemistry and science that captures the imagination of Victor. In the original 1818 version Victor goes on to join the professor after class and it seems to be a victory for science. In the 1831 edition, the paragraph inserted in which Victor says, “Such were the professors words – rather let me say such the words of fate – enounced to destroy me.” At that point the issue comes up, was Mary Shelley back tracking and taking a more conservative position regarding her radicalism. Was Shelley, as Edward Oakes says, “The claim is often made that the changes Mary Shelley made in the 1831 edition indicated both a loss of nerve and the intrusion of extraneous theological exculpation from the alleged materialist blasphemies of the 1818 edition.”
Shelley’s letters, especially those from the period around the time of the publication of the second edition, and reading her introductions to the 1839 edition of The Collected Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, give a clearer idea as to her public and private views. Reading this material has led me to conclude that Shelley although beset by financial woes, and expressing a certain modesty in terms of her ability to hold opinions regarding issues of the day, was actually fairly outspoken and quite savvy regarding the economics of the publishing industry, as well as the state of affairs in England and the progressive cause. Consideration to the possibility that Shelley, by the time she wrote the 1831 author’s introduction, was affected by the trauma of the loss of three children and her husband or that as Anne Mellor states Shelley’s “obsessive need to idealize her husband and the bourgeois family, the results of which are overly sentimental rhetoric and implausible plot resolutions.” Reading through Mary Shelley’s notes, in the text of the 1839-revised edition of The Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the example of Queen Mab, is rather edifying. Mary Shelley writes “In the former edition certain portions were left out, as shocking the general reader from the violence of their attack on religion. I myself had a painful felling that such erasures might be looked upon as a mark of disrespect towards the author, and am glad to have the opportunity of restoring them.” Mary did not have an original copy of Queen Mab. In the process of hunting down a copy over the course of December 1838 and January 1839, she queries friends on their thoughts, in a letter dated December 11, 1838 to Thomas Jefferson Hogg, she writes:
The book seller (Moxton) has suggested leaving out the 6th and 7th parts as to shocking and atheistical. What do you say? I don’t like mutilations - & would not leave out a word in favor of liberty. But I have no partiality to irreligion & much doubt the benefit of disputing the existence of the Creator – give me your opinion.”
The lines were not included. Edward Moxton’s concerned over his copyright, which he could lose if the lines were considered blasphemous in a court of law. Reviews in several publications were critical of her, one in The Spectator, claimed her preface to be “a panegyric rather than a judgement.” Resulting from this criticism and letters from friends and acquaintances of her late husband, she decided to request that Moxton include the verses in the second edition later that year. The book seller did and was subsequently convicted but received no punishment. This might be a sign of caution, or as a sign of her being willing to do the right thing. Mary Shelley writes in “Note to Queen Mab,” that Percy “did not in his youth look forward to gradual improvement: nay, in those days of intolerance, now almost forgotten, it seemed as easy to look forward to the sort of millennium of freedom and brotherhood which he thought the proper state of mankind as to the present reign of moderation and improvement.” In the more liberal climate of 1839, the government would go through the motions of following the letter of the law but Shelley no longer considered threatening, even though it was quite evident there were many people who cared about his legacy.
Further, in 1830, just before the publication of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelly wrote to General Lafayette, of the American Revolutionary fame, leader of the radical faction after the 1830 revolution in Paris:
How does every heart in Europe respond to the mighty voice, which spoke in your Metropolis, biding the world to be free… May England imitate your France in its moderation and heroism. There is great hope that any change operated among us will originate with the government. I was the wife of a man who – held dear the opinions you espouse, to which you were the martyr and are the ornament.
What I found interesting was the repetition here of what her husband had said that in the review of her book, Frankenstein, paraphrasing Percy Shelley’s the line about being benefactors and ornaments. Clearly, she had this in mind, whether General Lafayette would have understood the reference is conjectural, but he certainly would understand the meaning. This also indicates Shelly’s awareness and advocacy of the liberal position in English politics. At the time, there was a big push for the passage of the Reform Acts, which did pass in 1832, suppressing the rotten boroughs, and giving the franchise to many of the town dwellers. In 1828, the Test and Corporation acts were repealed, no longer requiring Protestant dissenters to take the Anglican sacrament to become representatives of town councils. The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 did the same thing. This series of acts constituted the peaceful overthrow of the ancient regime. As Frank O’Gorman states in his The Long Eighteenth Century, the Anglican church “was simply unable to establish hegemonic presence in the new industrial towns.” Shelley was aware of the changing political and social environment; technological change had been part of the transformation that Percy and Mary Shelley desired. They had embraced technological innovation and the liberating tendencies this represented in secularism and the expansion of human understanding of how the natural world worked. For them it was part of a greater movement to human liberation and liberty. The development on the part of Mary Shelley towards a radical view seems to have stopped with the passage of the Reform Act. She must have been aware of radical publishers in the Chartist circles such as Richard Carlyle who in his publication Sherwin’s Political Register published excerpts from Chartist supporters Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Pirated copies of Queen Mab, which had been in print since 1821 had become what “George Bernard Shaw referred to it as the ‘Bible’ of Chartism.”
Although at the end of her life Mary Shelly was concerned with legacy, and that may have propelled some of her statements, she does not seem to have given up on the cause of liberty. She seems to have had, like Coleridge reservations about the elimination of a creator, certainly, she was more interested in human liberty than the abstract, and seems to have followed political developments and maintained her interest in affairs of the world perhaps in spite of her personal life distresses, which are also represented in her letter. She seems more to be on the side of the angels in the struggle for human emancipation. I do not think Mary Shelley saw technology as evil, but the technicians who misapplied it as so. I will end with the final words of Victor Frankenstein “Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.”
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— “Author’s Introduction.” In Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, xxi-xxvi. New York: Signet Classic, 2000
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— “To Frances Wright, 33 Somerset St Portman Sq. 30 Dec. 1830.” In The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly Volume II “Treading in unknown paths,” edited by. Betty T. Bennett, 123-125. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
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—“To General Lafayette London 33 Somerset St Portman Sq. 11 Nov. 1830.” In The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly Volume II “Treading in unknown paths,” edited by Betty T. Bennett, 117-118. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
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