Bygone Days

Book Title: The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein
Reviewed By: K.A. Corlett [The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein]
Written By: Theodore Roszak
Genre: Historical/Gothic
Publisher: Random House New York
ISBN: 0679437320
Date: 1995
Price: $2.50

"The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein": The Classic Gets a Tantric Makeover
"...I see the men conjuring their fantasies out of captive matter.
"And I see the men making creatures of their own imagination.
"And I see the men breeding without women.
"And I see monsters bowing down to their makers and rising up against them." (Roszak, 420)

     Perhaps the true measure of a skillfully written re-imagining is whether it puts a fresh spin on classic material. Mary Shelley scholar Theodore Roszak has exceeded the mark in "The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein". It is notable--if not surprising--that Mary Shelley, daughter of the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, chose to tell her original tale using male voices. In the 1818 version, arctic explorer Robert Walton narrates the story of science gone awry as told him by a dying Victor Frankenstein.

     In the 1995 re-telling, Roszak takes the female point of view. Sir Robert Walton, in the capacity of 'editor', guides the reader through the diaries of Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor Frankenstein's adopted sister and eventual wife. In the Preface Walton tells how he obtained the diaries from Ernest Frankenstein, the last surviving member of the immediate family, in 1806. The "Memoirs", essentially Elizabeth's diary entries punctuated by Walton's explanatory comments, trace Elizabeth from her early days with an Italian Romany caravan. Elizabeth's aristocratic mother dies giving birth. Elizabeth's father commends the girl to the care of the gypsy midwife who delivered her. A prominent Swiss family, the Frankensteins, later adopts her.

     The relationship between Elizabeth and her adopted mother, the Baroness Frankenstein, is key in the "Memoirs". The Baroness, secretly a practitioner of alchemical magic, foresees a mystical union between her son Victor and her daughter Elizabeth. From the time they are children she steeps them in centuries-old ritual, teaching them to honour and respect the Earth. Ancient, matriarchal spirituality is married with the mysterious and tangled lore of alchemy in the education of the Frankenstein children. Elements of far eastern philosophies and tantra intertwine with studies in mathematics. But Victor, strongly influenced by his father, is fascinated by the latest developments in eighteenth-century science. He embraces the philosophies of the Age of Reason, deeply convinced that Man might harness the powers of nature and use them to humankind's advantage.

     Elizabeth, on the other hand, knows the deep wisdom of the matriarchs who guide her. With frustration and a sense of powerlessness she watches Victor reject all they have learned. When he betrays their mutual trust in an act of violence and disappears into his scientific studies, Elizabeth is left alone to try and rebuild her shattered psyche. By the time Victor returns, she has learned what it means to be her own woman. But Victor himself is broken by his transgressions against science, morality, and Nature Herself. In seeking to wrest Nature's greatest secret from Her, he has given birth to monstrosity.

     In Roszak's "Memoirs", the thematic intertwining of life, sex, and death is employed to great advantage. Because the main action of the book is set during the sociopolitical upheavals of 1780s and 1790s Europe, there is ample opportunity to contrast an ages-old pagan ethos and the rising Cult of Reason. Roszak does so in depth, with great care to make ideas clear to even an untutored reader. Many of the intellectual lights of eighteenth-century Europe visit the Frankenstein home. In the "Memoirs" we encounter disturbingly familiar tensions between preservation and progress, between scientific hunger for knowledge at any cost and primordial awareness of Nature's sublime, terrifying power. Roszak also exposes Nature's fragility, and he uses the metaphors of Mother Earth and the female body to do it. Is the female sexual anatomy a devouring cavern or a nurturing receptacle? Must male and female be forever caught up in the violence of give and take, or might they share the intimacy of true equals? Repeatedly Elizabeth raises the question: can man and woman be One, or must they eternally rend themselves in Two?

     Elizabeth is an exceptional, highly educated woman in a male-dominated society. With immense insight, Roszak chronicles her anger, her sense of oppression, and the violations she endures at the hands of her male counterparts. Elizabeth's trials are mirrored in larger metaphor: Nature assaulted by Mankind. The Man bares emphasis here, for the "Memoirs" are very much herstory. The spin is undeniably matriarchal. Themes of rape and defilement, creation and destruction become leitmotifs. Cleverly, Roszak keeps us in the nineteenth century with Sir Robert's editorial comments. The perspective of an often fierce, proto-feminist Elizabeth makes a striking contrast with the observations of Sir Robert, a male scientist very much a part of his time.

     "The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein" illuminates much about the Age of Reason. There are some interesting--if unnecessary--side trips, like when Victor and Elizabeth travel to visit Mesmer and undergo a somewhat questionable group treatment in a naked bath. And certainly Roszak gives short shrift to the leaders of the French Revolution... But then the daughter of a wealthy, titled family is telling the tale, and the setting is Switzerland, not France. Fans of Robespierre will have to look elsewhere.

     One aspect of the story is a bit muddled; Roszak takes pains to develop an acquaintance, even an intimate friendship between Elizabeth and Adam, the creature created by Victor in his laboratory. At times, Adam is almost kindly toward her. And yet, the "Memoirs" both begin and end with Elizabeth's death by Adam's hand. This part of the narrative could use, perhaps, a touch more development. If one so carefully crafts the story to elicit the reader's sympathy for Adam--and Roszak does--one might go just a little further than chalking it up to fate that a monster's gotta do what a monster's gotta do. And, uh, gee, sorry, Elizabeth. Digging deeper, one might observe the irony of the female sacrificial victim; Roszak employs the striking symbolism of a painting done by the Baroness in which a bound and bleeding woman floats upside down under water. A popular metaphor for disorder in the eighteenth century was anything turned on its head; a toppled throne, a woman 'on top', ie. in the 'dominant' sexual position, et cetera. And yet, while Elizabeth resigns herself to playing the paschal lamb, can it really be said that her sacrifice results in transformative redemption? Her death remains, as it was in Shelley's original tale, an ominous and somber warning. It spurs us to a question rather than an answer. In this sense, Roszak's version of the story retains its full gothic flavour: that which shines brightest contains the darkest seeds of decay. Not that we're looking for happy endings; this is still Frankenstein, after all.

     In the end, Theodore Roszak has created a tribute to Mary Shelley as a writer and as a woman. This Frankenstein from the female perspective adds numerous facets to Shelley's horrific diamond.

K.A. Corlett

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