It was a dark and stormy night…
Maybe. Well, probably; it was Edinburgh after all! This was the Fall of 2007, when I was doing my semester abroad. For my Literature class I was supposed to have read Frankenstein to discuss it in my six person tutorial group. I say “supposed to” because this took place in November, which is Birthday Month so I was not exactly up on my reading. Anyway, because the discussion group was only six people, and it would be painfully obvious if I wasn’t talking, I needed to know something about the story. So, I read the Sparknotes, scanned a few key passages recommended by Sparknotes, debated the reality of “Birthday Magic”, and decided I would be fine.
I got to class before the tutor, and noticed one of the guys, let’s call him Hamish, (protecting the innocent) sitting there frantically flipping pages. He stopped long enough to ask me if I had read the novel, looked relieved when I said I had not, but went back to flipping and so missed the part where I said I had done a fair amount of research for discussion purposes. And then class started.
I should mention that I do not like talking in class. I don’t mind public speaking, and will, if not happily, at least contentedly, stand up in front of a room full of people and talk, but class discussions are just not my thing. I’m all for big anonymous lectures. At one point in my undergrad career, the goal was to have one thing to say in more than one meeting for a class in a given week. Shooting high, clearly.
So the day of The Incident, I was not expecting anything other than getting through looking like I had maybe read some of the book. The tutor asked the first question. I considered, realized I knew the answer and so spoke up. And I did not stop talking for the rest of the class. I don’t know what happened! Every question, I had a thought, a comment, an observation. By my second contribution I decided to just roll with it, by my fifth I couldn’t have stopped if I wanted to. By the middle of the class, the tutor would ask a question and look to me first before opening it up to the rest of the students! Then, disaster: Hamish answered a question. Incorrectly. But unfortunately for him, in Literature no one ever says the answer is incorrect, but rather something along the lines of, “OK that’s an interesting interpretation. Can anyone elaborate on another possible conclusion here?” Which is what my tutor asked. And then I was off again, contradicting what Hamish had said entirely and careening on to the next point. He looked at me with a look of confusion and fear, like “Why wouldn’t she just say she HAD read the book? What’s going on?!” I felt bad. Really I did, but I couldn’t be stopped.
I suppose you could speak to the fact that that’s what went wrong within the novel itself, charging ahead single-mindedly without considering the repercussions or the response of those along the periphery. Reanimation of a being made from the parts of corpses, alienating the one Scottish person in class….same story, different century. Or something.
Anyway that was my roommate’s opinion when I told her. She likened my literary approach to playing rugby, a take no prisoners, don’t look back, charge to the finish. Grab that ball/book and RUN with it. If you run fast enough people might even think you know what you’re doing! Ok so maybe she wasn’t comparing me to a GOOD rugby player. But then again, I hadn’t actually read the book.
I was thinking about this last week, when I went to Hideous Progeny a play by Emily Dendinger and performed at The Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (Preview here - I ended up sitting next to the woman who wrote it). The play takes place in the summer of 1816, the summer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later to become Mary Shelley, gathered with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and others in Switzerland. It was a cold, stormy summer and so to amuse themselves, Lord Byron proposed a contest to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Mary came up with Frankenstein.
That’s the story I had heard, and despite my love of the book (which I did eventually read) I have never delved deeper. Frankenstein is fascinating in its Gothic structure, it speaks to the dangers of science without reason, and it promotes discussion of feminism and the roles of women. But other than the comparison of Shelley’s feminism with that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and who died soon after Mary’s birth anyway), Mary Shelley’s personal life is often left out of the discussion. This isn’t so unusual; while personal histories are fascinating, it’s important not to confuse them with motivations for writing. Yes, it’s difficult not to leave something of yourself in your writing, but it’s impossible to truly know where voice of the book ends, and the real voice of the author begins. While related, the trick is not to treat the two as one and leave it at that.
But the personal backstory is what Hideous Progeny looks to explore. If the concept of Frankenstein is like a novel itself, just call this another voice to add to the complex, interwoven narrative structure in order to offer a more comprehensive, balanced view of the whole (See Mom? I know more than just monkeys and pubs). Anyway the play was really good. While I might not be able to discuss it in technical theatrical terms that won’t elicit judgment from my actor brother, I can tell you that I am a harsh critic of portrayals of the books I love. I watch the movies because I feel I should, but some of the enjoyment is lost in the scrutinizing of the (often disappointing) set and casting. Harry Potter is the exception. Ella Enchanted, well, we don’t talk about that….
So anyway, for me to say the play was good, means I truly enjoyed it, in what it showed, what it implied, and what it questioned. It was the kind of play that leaves you (or me, at least) looking for more answers and not believing that two hours had actually passed. Lord Byron was incredible, played to perfection as the type of person Barney Stinson aspires to be. And this with a club foot! Which, by the way, the actor portrayed so convincingly, that it took me until the second act to realize that it was not in fact a real condition (I’m pretty sure, anyway).
As with most things related to my time abroad, watching Hideous Progeny brought about the standard “Wow, I can’t believe it’s been almost four years since…” moment, this time related to the Frankenstein Incident. The Incident, by the way, that led me to do my final for that class on the novel, and another paper about it the next semester (after finally reading it for real!). It was also incorporated into (/inspiration for) my Masters dissertation. That whole rugby approach thing. I can only hope somewhere Hamish appreciates it was nothing personal…