The mother of Frankenstein speaks again, after 177 years

October 25, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Turn back the clock to an era when truth was taken to be beauty and beauty truth, and a pre-eminent poet could declare with conviction that "that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

John Keats' odes, including that glory addressed to a Grecian Urn, were published about 1820, the very peak of Romanticism. Keats was a pal of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his child-bride, Mary. Romantics all, they were a rough crowd, nonetheless, breaking marriage vows all over the place, living mainly in Italy more or less to avoid creditors and aggrieved spouses. Political radicals and chronic misbehavers.

That's the setting for a literary discovery that would stretch the imaginings of most high Romantics. The result is "Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot," by Mary Shelley (Knopf, 128 pages, $18).

The manuscript, unmistakably in Mary Shelley's handwriting, was written in 1820 but was assumed to have been lost until it was found in the summer of 1997. It had apparently lain for 177 years in a wooden chest in the library of a Tuscan palazzo. There it was discovered by the lady of the house, Cristina Dazzi, wife of the great great grandnephew of Laurette Mason, to whom the story was dedicated and given - and then forgotten.

Mary Shelley was brilliant and beautiful, daughter of extraordinary parents. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, the immensely influential feminist and both literary and political figure. She died soon after bearing Mary, who then spent her young life amid agonies and intimacies that make present-day Hollywood seem absolutely stodgy. She married Shelley when she was 16.

She was 19 years old when she wrote the immortal "Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus," a novel of enormous sophistication and, in its time, impressive technical detail, though not without flaws. Her prodigiousness is astonishing only if one ignores that she and those around her were of genius or near-genius intelligence and that in that era children were propelled to adulthood far faster than they are today. She apparently wrote "Maurice" in three weeks. She died in 1851, at 54, but by then her strongest work was long behind her.

Every virtue

"Maurice" begins charmingly, and ends so. The narrative voice is open, confiding, trustworthy. It introduces a 13-year-old boy who possesses virtually every virtue one could confer upon a youth.

He has suffered deprivation, harshness, hunger, pain and loss. Stolen from well-off parents at 2, he lives a miserable, battered early childhood. "Cot" means cottage, as it did then, and not bed. And a "cot" belonging to an aging, kind fisherman is where the reader is led to understand the woebegone but still noble-spirited child.

The pain in "Maurice" is historic; the reader witnesses none of it. But it's there, in vivid contrast to the goodness of the present. It is a proper morality tale, with enough adventure and loneliness ,, to catch the empathy of almost any child.

Did you know that the phrase "Goody Two Shoes" is the title of a cautionary tale popular at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries? It is told to well-behaved children by the kind old fisherman's wife. The term "Chevy Chase" was the title of a ballad of the same period, sung by the same kindly moralist.

With its background of deprivation, the story is dominated by Mary Shelley's "melancholy," which is explored in a helpful introduction by Claire Tomlin, the Shelley scholar who first authenticated the manuscript.

The name Maurice was chosen as an anonymous alias by the boy, though his actual name is Henry, a sort of trademark mask of loneness and isolation. In Britain, Maurice is a common man's name, pronounced "mawrice," with more or less equal emphasis on both syllables, almost precisely like the name Morris, except for a slightly broader sound in the first syllable.

(Inexplicably, many Americans who otherwise speak perfectly all-right English pronounce the name as if they were speaking bad French: "mow-reese." If in doubt, pronounce the name as you would Morris, unless you are speaking French or talking to or about a Frenchman.)

This cleanly cast and wrought little story, if nothing else - and especially in this season - should be a goad to return to "Frankenstein."

Heart or mind?

Rising from the same melancholy, "Frankenstein's" essential mission is to examine the two inseparable but inimical sides of the human character: The heart, exemplified by Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and the mind, in the manifestation of the nameless monster the doctor has created.

Forget the monster costumes, which will proliferate come Halloween, and the perversions of Mary Shelley's Promethean novel into mostly truly bad movies and worse television. Go for the real thing. It's lovely, fascinating, important. It explores deliciously the horror destined forever to haunt the souls of the Romantics, so unforgettably put in the monster's defining declaration that "evil thenceforth became my good."

So?

"Maurice" is no great addition to the body of literature. The text of the story itself takes only 40 pages and can be read swiftly. Clair Tomlin's explanatory essay is, in fact, longer. It helps set the circumstances of the piece but is a bit too long on begats and too short on the context of Mary Shelley's richly narrative mind. The volume also includes a number of facsimiles of manuscript pages and other documents interesting mainly to scholars.

But spending an evening reading the tale aloud - and perhaps drifting then into "Frankenstein" - could be a nourishing alternative to haunting the streets for tricks and treats next Saturday.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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