In year nine we did Frankenstein. We covered it for our SATS. We didn't go into as much depth as anything we did at GCSE but I think we spent most of a term on it.
I might be misremembering, it's been a long time since I was 15. But the one fact I took from these classes was that Mary Shelley had experienced a miscarriage. This was the unnatural, horrific event which explained the monster in the story.
I read Mary Shelley's Wikipedia page today and there were a few interesting things I didn't know.
The first is that Mary Shelley's own mother has been referred to as 'the mother of feminism'. She wrote the proto-feminist text The Vindication of the Rights of Women. She actually died of puerperal fever, one of the casualties of doctors not knowing to wash their hands between handling dead people and births.
The second is that the 'miscarriage' we discussed in class was actually Mary's first baby, Clara, who was born at 28 weeks or so. She survived for 8 days. Mary was still very young, either 16 or 17 at the time.
The third is that Mary's marriage was an open one, something that caused her a lot of grief. And Percy Shelley's first wife committed suicide in the early stages of Mary and Percy's relationship. That can't have been easy, to say the least.
I now see Frankenstein and how we teach it a bit differently.
First of all, it's important to praise Mary as just a damn good writer. She knows about plot, depth and suspense, not something that should surprise us considering her upbringing around some of the great thinkers of the age and the fact she was hanging out with Shelley and Byron on a wet weekend when she wrote 'Frankenstein'. Much of the morbid plot just comes from her skill at writing horror.
But Mary Shelley's childbearing experience could well be important to the book, as she lost Clara the year before writing it. I can't imagine why presenting this as a 'miscarriage' was supposed to be helpful to a group of 15 years olds. They will come across infant loss at some point and a sensitive discussion might have broken some of the taboo that we face in this country...
Finally, I think Mary's writing does have horrific grief weaved through it. So many characters die at the monster's hands. And I think this is combined with the body wisdom that comes from having grown and birthed a baby. Mary's fear about being with Percy Shelley probably comes through as well. For all her mother's writing about feminism, Mary found herself in a relationship without much say.
The genius of the novel for me at least is all these layers, all the bits of Mary's experience and life coming together at once.
Most people won't be that interested in these ideas, which is fine. I overthink things, I accept that.
But for me, it's seeing these lines of powerlessness and power in creative works that help me understand advocacy in the birth room. These miss told stories about women's lives and feelings, and about their childbearing have been around for ages. It's all connected.
Perhaps too much for a year 9 English class? But I would have loved to consider all of this. I've really just scraped the surface of Mary Shelley's life here, there's a lot to be learnt about being a woman, or indeed any other kind of human, from her.
I'd love to hear what you think about this, leave a comment below.