Tag Archives: Penguin Classics

Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein

Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, radical writers of the late 18th Century. She ran away with and later married a radical from her own generation, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She spent time in the company of Lord Byron, and wrote her most famous novel trapped by the rain in his Italian villa. These associations are significant, but Mary Shelley made her own contribution to cultural life, not least through the novel Frankenstein.

Mary’s Life

The tragedy of Mary’s childhood was the death of her mother from puerperal fever within days of her birth in 1797. Her father was devastated. Mary grew up motherless. Godwin remarried, partly to provide a mother for baby Mary and her half-sister Fanny Imlay (Mary Wollstonecraft’s older illegitimate child). Her stepmother provided her with stepsiblings, including Jane, later Claire, but very little affection.

250 Mary and Percy Shelley

Mary spent intellectually formative time in Dundee with friends of her father’s, but on meeting and falling for Shelley in 1814, ran away with him and Claire to France. Shelley was already married to Harriet who was pregnant and later committed suicide. Her half-sister Fanny Imlay also committed suicide at this time. Mary married Shelley on Harriet’s death. She and Shelley already had a son and were to go and have three more children. Only one survived.

In 1816 the Shelleys and Claire returned to Europe, staying in Geneva near Byron. Claire had already started a liaison with Byron, but he soon tired of her. It was here that Mary had her first ideas for Frankenstein.

Over the next few years the Shelleys lived and travelled in Europe, where three of Mary’s children and Claire’s daughter by Byron all died. Shelley was drowned in June 1822. It is not surprising that Mary suffered from depression with her life defined by the death of many of her most important people.

Mary supported herself and her remaining son until she died in February 1851 through her writing. She wrote travel books (as did her mother) as well as six more novels, at least 50 biographical essays for an encyclopaedia and edited her husband’s work for publication.

Of her works, only Frankenstein has remained well known.

1816 – The Year without a Summer.

In April 1816 Mount Tambora erupted in the Dutch East Indies – present-day Indonesia. It was the most violent eruption ever recorded. The effect of the huge volumes spewed from the volcano was to change weather patterns all over the world for at least 12 months. In Europe the dreadful, wet summer resulted in failed harvests, and the high prices of grain brought starvation and political unrest.

In Geneva it rained day after day and the Romantic poets’ party was confined to their houses. It was here that someone, Byron it seems, announced ‘we will each write a ghost story’.

Writing Frankenstein

250 Frankenstein text

Mary took time to find her inspiration, and it was the conversations that the party were having about life and its principles, and specifically about galvanism, that led Mary to form her ideas. After one such conversation she records

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. (quoted in the Introduction xxi)

She began writing:

It was a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. (58)

In the revisions the sentence appears at the start of Chapter V of Book 1.

The novel reveals her extensive self-taught understanding of ‘natural philosophy’ as physics was called at the time. She also knew the classics, and read the new knowledge being revealed by enlightenment scholars. Mary’s most famous novel is not so much a ghost story as a gothic science fiction horror story.

250 Frankenstein Peng

Not surprisingly women cannot be forgiven for so much transgression nor allowed to achieve intellectual status. Some commentators have suggested that Frankenstein was actually Shelley’s work. Although he apparently provided some editorial assistance, this was Mary’s.

More on Frankenstein in the next post, looking at the Royal Ballet’s production of Frankenstein, by Liam Scarlett – a world premier.

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter

Both women challenged conventional acceptable behaviour by women, refusing to accept that women should be treated differently. Both had unmarried sexual relationships with men, and both had illegitimate children.

Both wrote fiction and travel writing, but Mary Shelley did not publish polemic books such as the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Both women married radical men. Both suffered for their love, Mary Wollstonecraft was abandoned, more or less, by Imlay, despite their baby Fanny. Shelley seems to have indulged himself wherever he chose, including with Claire (Mary’s step-sister, who accompanied them on their travels). Claire is known to have had a child by Byron. It is not surprising that the group were known as the ‘league of incest’. The men of the circle seem to have behaved like those men of the 1970s who exploited women’s new sexual freedoms, whatever the cost to their partners.

Both women were ostracised for their sexual activities. Both spent time abroad, Mary Wollstonecraft in France during the revolution and Mary Shelley in Europe with Shelley until his death.

Despite the tragedies in both their lives and the attitudes of their times, both women pursued education, radical ideas and have influenced ideas for more than 200 years.

Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marcy Shelley by Charlotte Gordon published by Corsair 2015. 652pp.

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. I used the Penguin Classics revised edition 1992, edited with an introduction by Maurice Hindle.

Related posts

Katacharin on Mary Shelley on sheroesofhistory.

Mary Wollstonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw from this blog in March, looking at Charlotte Gordon’s biography of the two Marys.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Writing

To Moscow with Books

What picture do you have in your head of Moscow? If you have never been, perhaps it is like mine: dark, threatening, sombre people and brutal buildings. And how was this vision built? Through films and news reports from the Cold War era. Who hasn’t seen the parades through Red Square? Who hasn’t heard about the eavesdropping, being tailed, the bureaucracy? The image has not been improved by recent killings of opposition folk: Alexander Litvinenko poisoned in London in October 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya shot in Moscow in October 2006 and in February 2015 Boris Nemtsov shot in the back as he walked on the Bolshoy Moskvorsky Bridge.

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

The image of Moscow as dark, dangerous and mysterious may have been created by novels as well. In the first of the three discussed the Moscow location is an essential feature.

  1. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

99 G Park coverThis is set in Moscow in 1981, the time of Brezhnev. Corruption is rife. There is an uncomfortable relationship between the Moscow city police and the KGB. Three bodies found frozen and mutilated in the snow in Gorky Park lead through the city, briefly to the border area beyond Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and ultimately to New York. It was the first in a series featuring investigator Arkady Renko.

The novel is mostly played out on the city’s streets and its buildings: offices, hotels and apartments. I read one climactic scene, a near-drowning in the University ponds, on the day we visited.

Moscow University with ponds

Moscow University with ponds

Martin Cruz Smith illuminates the physical appearance of Moscow in the early 1980s. Much of what he describes is still present.

Soviet gothic was not so much an architectural style as a form of worship. Elements of Greek, French, Chinese and Italian masterpieces had been thrown in the barbarian wagon and carried to Moscow and the Master Builder Himself, who had piled them one on the other into the cement towers and blazing torches of His rule, monstrous skyscrapers of ominous windows, mysterious crenellations and dizzying towers that led to the clouds, and yet still more rising spires surmounted by ruby stars that at night glowed like His eyes. After His death, His creations were more embarrassment than menace, too big for burial with Him, so they stood, one to each part of town, great brooding semi-Oriental temples, not exorcised but used. The one in the Kievskaya District, west of the river, was the Hotel Ukraina. (101)

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (first published in 1981), available from Simon & Schuster 559pp

  1. Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011)

199 Sdrops coverSnowdrops is a depressing story as no one in it behaves well. The narrator is confessing to his fiancée, but you feel he is unlikely to be forgiven by her. Miller describes Moscow in the first decade of twenty-first century, and the corruption in housing and the big oil companies. Snowdrops considers corporate and individual corruption through the narrator’s role in them. Weaknesses that leads to corruption are not only money, but also sex, fear, a need for attention, wanting to be right, fear of being wrong.

Two Russian young women pick up Nick on the Metro and take him for a ride, using his services as a lawyer to defraud their victim of her flat. The Cossack takes Nick and his fellow lawyers for a similar ride with investments in oil production. In both cases Nick gradually becomes aware of the scam, but does not speak out and prevent them. He colludes. It’s a grubby story.

The narrator meets Maria on the Metro, as he waits on the platform at Revolution Square, ‘where the civilian statues are – athletes, engineers, bosomy female farmhands and mothers holding muscular babies’ (8).

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011) published by Atlantic Books. 273pp. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.

  1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966/7)

Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

199 M & M coverFor a view of Moscow in the early 1930s this novel of satire and phantasmagoria is hard to beat. Its subject are Stalin’s regime, which was approaching the height of its power, the madness and menace of the regime and the chaos it caused. I couldn’t tell you the story, it is outlandish and hard to follow. At the time I read it I noted that ‘after the mayhem in Moscow it got easier to follow, and I even found myself thinking I might go back to the beginning’.

This book captures the borders of the familiar world with a dystopia and made me wonder about some aspects of our visit to Moscow. The drive from the airport to the city centre for example. Four of us were crammed into one car. The driver shot forward immediately, as he did every time he saw a meter of road. In the dense jam on the route into Moscow he went off road onto the hard shoulder and positioned our car is such a way that other cars could not cut back in, holding a shouting match with one driver whose car was 2 cms from ours. When we reached Mscow he shouted at us. None of us understood Russian and he had no English. Perhaps we had a sightseeing tour. As he left us he blew a raspberry for we did not give him a tip. I have only been more frightened in Malta, where we drove round U-bends on the wrong side of the road, in defiance of traffic rules and gravity.

The Master and Margarita generated spontaneous approaches from people on public transport when I was reading it. The impression it left with me added to the sense that in Moscow everything might not be what it seems, something was lurking …

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (first published in 1966-7) and republished by Penguin Classics 396pp

And has it changed?

There is still violence on the streets of Moscow. You might notice that the memorial on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was shot six months before is close to the domes of St Giles Cathedral and Red Square.

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Armed men still parade in Red Square. These men were rehearsing for a Moscow Day celebration.

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

And Gorky Park is still popular, full of young people and a delightful place to visit with its dancing musical fountains, young people and kiosks.

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Moscow was a surprise to me despite these. I found it was a lively and accessible city, with beautiful metro stations and helpful people just getting on with it.

Related posts:

You can find a list of 10 novels set in Moscow in the Guardian. It included classics such as Boris Godunov by Pushkin, War and Peace by Tolstoy and Three Sisters by Chekhov.

Also see Trip Fiction site to find location-based fiction.

Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)

Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)

Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)

Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Coming soon: St Petersburg (Sept 2015)


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

180 Hearing t coverMarian Leatherby is the most fantastical of the 15 older women in fiction I have explored in the blog so far. The Hearing Trumpet is bonkers, completely and utterly bonkers! And that means both the main character and the plot. It reads like a story that just grew and never saw an editor’s eye. Its shape is meandering with sudden divergences, and the characters take on surreal and fantasy roles as the story lurches into a global catastrophe, by way of a byzantine history of an eighteenth century woman.

Leonora Carrington

You might know Leonora Carrington better as a surrealist artist. There was a recent exhibition of her paintings at the Tate, Liverpool. She lived a remarkably long life, from 1917 until 2010, and there are some great stories about her as she moved from the world of debutantes to the demi-monde of Paris and eventually to Mexico. She married Max Ernst in France and when he was imprisoned by the invading Germans she spent time in an asylum in Madrid. She was treated with Cardiazol. ‘It was very much like having being dead,’ she said later. (See the excellent introduction by Ali Smith). Apparently she was rescued by her childhood nanny who arrived in a submarine. (I should point out that Madrid is not accessible by submarine, but it is an excellent story and in keeping with Leonora Carrington’s bizarre life.)

Cocodrilo on Paseo de la Reforma.The statue was donated to Mexico City by Carrington in 2000 and was moved to its current location in 2006

Cocodrilo on Paseo de la Reforma.The statue was donated to Mexico City by Carrington in 2000 and was moved to its current location in 2006

Her surrealism spilled into her writing. The Hearing Trumpet was written at speed, probably in the 1950s. It was not published in Britain until 1976 (although it was published in a French translation Le Cornet Acoustique in 1974). Her Wikipedia entry lists 9 books including Down Below, a novel about her descent into madness. She also wrote short stories.

The story of The Hearing Trumpet

The Hearing Trumpet begins with painful piece about the hardships of a 92 year old woman in Mexico at the hands of her son. Marian is sent to a home for senile ladies where a most repressive and bogus psychological regime called The Well of Light Brotherhood is in force. Here, in a kind of Russian doll method of story-telling, she comes across an extraordinary account of Abbess Dona Rosalinda Alvarez Cruz della Cueva. There are more Russian doll stories – letters and other documents – about the Abbess and her strange activities.

Inspired by the accounts of the Abbess and by Marian and her friend Carmella, the inmates of the retirement home stage a revolt. But then climate change changes everything and the women, and a few good men, have to make their own peace with the world and its fantastical creatures, especially goats, bees and wolves.

What are we to make of this? Certainly Carrington is debunking religions and all those awful find-yourself philosophies that became so popular in the ‘60s. She adds a healthy dab of surrealism and a large bit of magical realism. And off we go.

The older women

180 illustr

As far as older women are concerned, The Hearing Trumpet shows them with plenty of spirit, imagination and resourcefulness. Above all, they can communicate with each other and the world if the world cares to take the trouble (hence the title). Here is Marian’s introduction to herself, the second paragraph of the book) – a nice combination of assertion and humour.

Here I must say that all my senses are by no means impaired by age. My sight is still excellent although I use spectacles for reading, when I read, which I practically never do. True, rheumatics have bent my skeleton somewhat. This does not prevent me taking a walk in clement weather and sweeping my room once a week, on Thursday, a form of exercise which is both useful and edifying. Here I may add that I consider that I am still capable of being pleasant and amusing when the occasion seems fit. The fact that I have no teeth and never could wear dentures does not in any way discomfort me. I don’t have to bite anybody and there are all sorts of soft edible foods easy to procure and digestible to the stomach. Mashed vegetables, chocolate, bread dipped in warm water make the base of my simple diet. I never eat meat as I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway.

I am now ninety-two and for some fifteen years I have lived with my son and his family. (1-2)

The first chapter follows Marian as she returns to her meagre accommodation in her son’s house in Mexico. She is dependent upon him, but is scarcely tolerated within the household. Her grandson describes her in these shocking words: ‘Grandmother can hardly be classified as a human being. She is a drooling sack of decomposing flesh.’ The family plot to remove her from their house.

Another older woman in this novel is Carmella, who, having the means, does as she likes with panache. She tells Marian that she gained her fortune by digging up a uranium mine by mistake. Marian suggests that Carmella must have bought the helicopter she always wanted.

“As a matter of fact,” said Carmella with dignity, “I have merely bought a limousine. Come and look at it.” Drawn up in front of the main entrance was a huge modern automobile painted a shade of lilac I knew to be a Carmella’s favourite colour. At the wheel sat a Chinese chauffeur in a black uniform powdered with pink roses. He saluted us respectfully. (123-4)

Carmella is a loyal and supportive friend to Marian and gave her the hearing trumpet that enables Marian to participate in conversations and overhear her family’s and Dr Gambit’s machinations.

A collapsible Victoria ear trumpet, made of tin. Wellcome Images Library reference: Museum No A602553 via WikiCommons

A collapsible Victoria ear trumpet, made of tin. Wellcome Images Library reference: Museum No A602553 via WikiCommons

The inmates of the home are also interesting older characters, not all good, not all able to see through the humbug of The Well of Light Brotherhood philosophy. Soon after her arrival, Dr Gambit explains to Marian how she is to proceed, speaking with many capital letters, as he does.

“There are certain things that you must neither expect nor try to understand at the present,” replied the doctor mysteriously. “Live your daily tasks with attention and Effort. Do not try to interpret Higher Planes and their mysteries before you can extricate yourself from Automatic Habit. Vice and Habit mean the same thing. As long as we are victims of Habit we are slaves to Vice. I advise you to begin by giving up cauliflower. I notice that you have an inordinate appetite for this vegetable, your reigning passion in fact, Greed.” (46)

Once we left the focus on these older women and meandered into the 30 pages of the story of the Abbess I was less enchanted with this novel.

One of the successes of the early section of the book is how Leonora Carrington makes Marian intelligible to us, but a problem to others. Communication may require some help, (such as the trumpet) but is essential for everyone.

I must mention the illustrations, included in the Penguin Classic version, which are every bit as quirky as the story. I reproduced above the one of Marian eavesdropping on her family.

So enjoy the skelter that is The Hearing Trumpet.

Older women in fiction

This is the 15th post in the series on older women in fiction. You can find all previous posts by clicking on the category, or by visiting the Older Women in Fiction list here. The list contains all recommendations and links to the 14 books previously explored. Thanks to the blog reader who recommended The Hearing Trumpet

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1977) Penguin Classics 159pp


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews