August 2014

Nina Gibb


A Life with Mary Shelley by Barbara Johnson

Within moments of beginning to read A Life With Mary Shelley, I recognized Barbara Johnson's work. It would be difficult not to. Johnson's essay "My Monster/Myself" is a central and seminal piece of feminist literary criticism, a piece of writing that adhered to the novel Frankenstein as tightly as damp paper left to dry on a table, so that even when the text was taught outside of the realm of gender studies -- in a survey course on science fiction say, or horror and abjection, or even cinema and interpretation -- Johnson's paper remained glued over the top, forming yet another layer in the palimpsest of writing that adheres to Mary Shelley's book.

Johnson was a cultural and critical theorist and Harvard professor of many and distinguished fields (including law), who became attached publically, by virtue of her interdisciplinary scholarship and involvement in the translation of Derrida, to the Yale School, but Johnson will be best known as being among the women, including the pioneering Gilbert and Gubar, who thrust the second wave of feminism into American and English academia with a concerted refusal to stop worrying at hallowed vestments of The Canon. Johnson's game-changing contributions began with her involvement in a course (and field of inquiry) on life writing, which she was among several voices in critiquing for containing no women writers, a war waged with such success that it produced a profound about-face: today such a course would more likely be an arena where the diaries and paintings of Frida Kahlo might be read in contrast with Rousseau, Montaigne, Sylvia Plath, Albertine Sarrazin, with perhaps a little Sappho and Agnes Varda thrown in for good measure. The dictum that the personal is political (is aesthetical) has been heard loud and clear by the academy, and, like the privileging of literature (and poetry in particular) over prose, cinema or painting, the framework of gender and its political implications has been gleefully taken to heart.

There is no need here, for me to go into a detailed breakdown of the mechanics and effects of post-structuralism, feminism and its sister "-isms" -- interchangeable lenses for the opera glass of cultural studies -- on the content and even the appearance of the academy. People who have had even the slightest run-in with culture over the last forty years will have felt their influence, whether they know it or -- like my friend -- prefer to stick their fingers in their ears and make a squealing noise to block out the implications. One of this collection's many strengths is Johnson's talent for producing highly astute, informed and even (perhaps) revolutionary writing that is both entertaining and accessible. The academy was never going to be the end point for Johnson's work, and this collection is no exception.

The premise of Johnson's paper, possibly her most famous, is that Shelley gave birth to herself via her hideous progeny, the novel Frankenstein, in an arguably flawed attempt to colonize a part of her own life and self for herself. In this work and others -- and especially in her last book (Mary Shelley and Her Circle) -- Johnson uses what Shoshana Felman in her afterword calls a "unique methodology" to fuse a retelling of Mary Shelley's biography with an analysis of her most famous novel, in order to produce a new reading of Shelley's work. And what a biography Johnson had to work with! Mary Shelley was undoubtedly the product of her extraordinary milieu. She was the child of formidable literary and social activist parents -- the vacillating philosophical anarchist and polygamist William Godwin and free-loving revolutionary, potentially suicidal, and proto-Feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who is also the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and died as a result of the birth of her daughter Mary, leaving her to be raised in an extraordinarily fraught environment, the least favorite of many children in a home run by her dead mother's conservative replacement. Shelley grew up into an equally formidable adult circle that included her lover, and eventually, husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the club-footed raconteur Lord Byron. By any account, Mary's young life was extraordinary. To begin with, and in opposition to the usual habit of the time, Mary was highly, and radically, educated. The social milieu in which she was raised was politically and creatively extraordinary: an environment we might call culturally privileged today. There are tales of Mary sneaking out of bed as a young girl, to hide behind a couch in her father's parlor to listen to Coleridge recite early drafts of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." And then there's the elopement. In her late teens, then Mary Godwin, she packed her bags and ran away to Switzerland with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a still-married romantic poet, and Claire Claimont. And even in this they were countercultural. Rather than eloping to be married in a nice inn somewhere, Mary and Percy honeymooned without ever being married, walking over Swiss hills and sleeping in the forest.

This biography is exactly what makes Johnson's collection and the later -- and previously unpublished -- Mary Shelley and Her Circle so perplexing; at the very least, her biographical detail is presented in a strikingly uncritical, unreferenced, and strongly biased way. Johnson seems to take conjecture and apocryphal stories as fact, developing character according to what seem like the author's own peculiar antipathy or liking for each of her subjects. This would all be good and well -- the collection is repeatedly presented as Johnson's life with Mary Shelley, which I suppose may mean that the book is as much about Johnson's take on the scenario as anything else -- but given that the author is a respected and renowned academic, and that she extrapolates much of her analysis of the texts she references directly from biographical information (her unique methodology) this seriously undermines the critical value of the work. What's more, Shoshana Felman lauds collected biographies contained in Mary Shelley and Her Circle as "an innovative genre of literary criticism" -- but is it? What self-respecting biographer discounts the influence of a circle of artists on one another or attempts a biography without some critical appraisal or consideration of the influence of an artist's internal, social, and intellectual life on her work? Who could write a biography of Simone de Beauvoir and discount the intellectual development and preoccupation of Camus or Sartre? Even though Johnson's biographical book leans away from straight biography and into a kind of freeform interpretive mode, mashing the lives and works together more baldly than does, say, Janet Malcolm in her still-controversial biography of Plath, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Johnson's dreamlike bio-interpretive mode arguably does more damage than good -- both to any understanding of Johnson's subject, as well as to the credibility of the author -- especially after considering that some of the critical judgments or interpretations are apocryphal at best.

In addition to this, the secondary articles in which the collection is embedded are uncritical to the point of being slightly sugary -- they laud Johnson with no hint of rigorous analysis of her work -- simply situating her in her historical context and providing a scholarly gloss of the writing, without offering a serious analysis about where the field has gone after Johnson's contribution, or how our perception of her work might change. But there is a reason for this. The clue is that Mary Shelley and Her Circle is Johnson's last work. She was dying as she wrote it. In this context, the excessively laudatory framing essays begin to make sense: they are loving and respectful eulogies to a respected friend and distinguished academic. Which is a shame, because Johnson's work doesn't benefit from it. Sigmund Freud famously -- or perhaps not quite famously enough -- was at pains in his introduction to "Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes" to acknowledge that the work he was publishing was half-baked because he was dying, and because he was dying, decided that if he thought he saw "something new" in his field of study -- something he had been struck by and was keenly interested in, he was "uncertain whether I can wait for it to be confirmed." Freud acknowledged the implications of these later theories as flawed, as supposition and theory, which wanted more research and confirmation before they were used in analysis. Freud, however, was justified in publishing, because it would have been a tragedy -- at the very least for the good of the furious argument around Freud and feminism -- had he not. In Johnson's later work, this same shadow of mortality -- the race to get down a lifetime's thought and theory on paper before it was lost forever -- is equally strong, and her work here suffers from it just as much. What is remarkable is that this does not for a moment undermine the pleasure there is to be had in reading it, or the great value of the free form and often stunning leaps of connection Johnson makes in her writing. In the same way that "anatomical distinction" may be absurd but is certainly virtuosic, this -- Johnson's most flawed writing -- is nevertheless an engaging, generous, and inviting work. And given the merging of Johnson's own biography -- at least the biography of the parts of her life that were enmeshed with the lives of the Romantics -- perhaps the flaws make it more readable than ever. This is not credible as a work of straight biography, or even as a critical work, but it is masterful as a creative work. If we read Johnson's last writing in particular as a dual biography and autobiography, and we understand autobiography in this sense to be something like an invention of the self, then Johnson's work begins to shine. She does something a little like Joan Didion here: ostensibly telling us all about herself and in fact telling only about something else: the private self eclipsed and seen only by its absence. Johnson writes about Mary Shelley, but in the holes, gaps, and blindness, the refusal to follow protocols of academic reliability or attribution, we see something of Johnson's own mind: her passions, dislikes, and the things and people she championed.

There is a sense in all of the writing represented in this collection -- in "The Last Man" and "Gender Theory and the Yale School" -- of eavesdropping on a colorful, lively conversation with which you are not obliged to agree, but on the condition that should you speak up, you must be prepared to argue. From reading this collection, I get the sense that Johnson's lectures may have been a great pleasure to attend, argumentative, perhaps, but definitely informed, and creative, allowing for leaps of thought and interjection. I feel invited, as a reader, to disagree, and more often than not my good-humored scoffing turns to an uninjured, even a delighted, sense of about-face. Take, for example, what I first perceived as an outdated overburdening of passages with ideas about "his versus hers" language: "There may, however, be something accurate about this repeated dramatization of woman as simulacrum, erasure, or silence. For it would not be easy to assert that the existence and knowledge of the female subject could simply be produced, without difficulty or epistemological damage, within the existing patterns of culture and language." This is the field of theory which, when popularized, gave rise to the aberrant terms like "womyn," and "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun for use in formal writing. There is a sense of adolescent overcompensation in the now-historical works of the canon of second wave feminism. When Germaine Greer insists in The Female Eunuch that to be a real woman one must have first tasted somebody else's menstrual blood, or Erica Jong's narrative assertion in Fear of Flying that an entry into what was perceived as masculine and uninhibited sexual adventurousness -- "the zipless fuck" -- was a necessary precursor to female sexual independence.

At first the concern with the gendered-ness of language from her work, Johnson reads Shelley as being estranged from her life and work even at the level of language. Her central agonists are men (however made), and the female figures of the text are essentially emotionally stimulating furniture. This reads as a tiresome overstatement, perhaps; Shelley was simply using the conventions of language so her writing would not be clumsy and draw attention to itself by a lack of style rather than for its creative conceit.

A year or two ago, I read Anne K. Mellor's academic but fascinating Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, and I would recommend that any reader who encounters this collection of Johnson's work do the same, if only to experience the striking differences between the two. I'm not sure if there were advances in Mary Shelley studies since Johnson did her research, but it certainly feels that way. Johnson, for example, perpetuates the myth that after Percy Shelley died, his unburned heart was torn from his charred corpse by Edward Trelawney, who subsequently plunged into a fit of grief, and still clutching the gory relic, into the icy waters of lake Geneva, from where he had to be rescued. Johnson writes that "[w]hen Mary died in 1851, the heart was buried with her." But the stories of the final resting place of the hallowed organ -- which depending on your source was either with Mary Shelley (who must have carried it around all her life) or with some distant male descendent -- are known to be apocryphal: Percy Shelley's heart was burned and buried with Percy Shelley.

Similarly, Johnson's return, over and again, and especially in her later work, to Percy Shelley's authorship of an apologia in the guise of an introduction for the first edition of Frankenstein, presented as having been written by the novel's anonymous author rings alarm bells. Yes, the introduction was said (by Mary Shelley) to have been the work of her husband, but it was also said to have been written at the request of the publisher who feared that the book was too grotesque for public taste if it was understood to be the work of a woman, yet Johnson somehow neglects to mention that in the literally millions of copies sold since that time. Percy Shelley's anonymous introduction is only occasionally included and when it is, it has been as curio, and especially in current editions, as a kind of nod to the look-at-how-backward-we-were school of rubbernecking. Of course that first introduction is significant, but it is significant also in relation to the things that superseded it. Johnson pursues her analysis of Frankenstein as a palimpsest of texts, biographical as much as creative, with Percy Shelley's introduction as a central text describing the author's estrangement from her own life and work as an erasure. It neglects to mention what is common knowledge -- that the edition that contained the introductory note by Percy Shelley was a first edition of only 500 copies and was superseded within five years by a new edition, published under Mary Shelley's name, and with a new introductory note actually written by the author. Out of countless copies of the book made and sold, then, only 500 had the disclaimer, which was quickly abandoned as unnecessary. This is an especially interesting omission or refusal of acknowledgement since Johnson not only refers to a quotation from the second introduction, which was penned by the author, and in which Shelley proudly calls the book her "hideous progeny" on numerous occasions, but also in fact makes the quotation an underlying source of her most famous paper, "My Monster/Myself."

There is a strange disjunction between Johnson's focus on the introduction by Percy Shelley as central to the reading of the text as an object estranged from Mary Shelley, or rather, of Shelley's estrangement even from her own work, of her role as outsider, and of the ownership Shelley took of her actual unhallowed work, the monster of a story she had told, which she sent out into the world with full responsibility and under her own name and blessing. Johnson's analysis of Mary Shelley's identification with the monster as her monstrous self, at the same time grotesque and perfectly reasonable, both hideous and intelligent an aberration and sensitive, is profoundly satisfying even where it swerves into territory that stretches the reader's credulity, bending the text to its own ends. But it doesn't sit well with that other fixation of Johnson's on Percy's anonymous introduction or to what seems to be a peculiar and marked dislike of Percy Shelley the husband.

The blind spot feels like an exemplar of the faults with the book that Johnson pursued and developed multiple fascinating arguments, but they contradict one another, presenting opposed readings of the same text. Sometimes her conclusions seem to be drawn directly from Johnson's own projections onto her subjects, or even -- when it comes to extrapolating critical reading of work from biographical detail -- straight out unsupported conjecture. She characterizes Percy Shelley as a narcissist and hypocrite, as a vegetarian who harbored "murderous feelings," a son who abandoned his own father but "faithfully paid William Godwin's debts," as anti-marriage but twice married. She describes him as someone who felt it "was more fitting to his self-esteem to be an aristocrat who lacked money than to be a poor man,"which is in one sense a perfectly fair assessment: if you are at a bar you can slag off Percy Shelley as much as you like. You can do it in the hallways of an academic conference as well. But to use these accusations as the base of an academic critical analysis is just silly: Shelley was an aristocrat. Money or no, he could be and sometimes, was, a poor man, but he continued to pay William Godwin's debts as both a mark of respect for the man who would become his father in law, and despite his own growing dislike of the increasingly irrational and conservative Godwin, as an honor due to a someone who had once been a philosophical idol. Shelley was a poet. And what poets worth their salt hide an inconsistency? To be a vegetarian and have "murderous instincts" seems perfectly reasonable, and even, perhaps, like the kind of compensatory philosophical choice a man with the courage to face his murderous nature might make. The astute reader will notice that I have just answered Johnson's negative projection with my own positive one. It's worth noting that he may actually have been a jerk; Shelley also abandoned his pregnant first wife and neglected his children, but that Johnson's writing lacks balance is the point.

There are many supplementary pieces in the book, which I have neglected to write about here because while they give the book a deeper scope, and place it informatively in its historical time, they ultimately dramatically detract from the experience of reading the collection, largely due to the collective authors' eulogistic attitudes. There is too much praise here, and far, far too little criticism, which is a real shame, because it feels like an unintentional insult to Johnson to present her uncritically. She was among the first to shake the establishment's male-only literary canon, and her critical work opened doors, courses, and conversation all over the world. Johnson was among the guerillas that took over the campuses and opened the gates for what we now know as cultural studies and the phenomena of making and reading work that falls outside the canon with serious and dedicated intent. Johnson, if you like, is the godmother of both, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the rapturous underground reception of Chris Kraus's I Love Dick. The apologia and blind spots in the critical material that accompanies this text give the experience of reading Johnson's work a feeling similar to being in a room with a peevish invalid to whom everyone is too charitable and fiercely loyal to point out that she has soiled the bed. Which is unfortunate, because I get the feeling from reading Johnson that she would be the first to loudly proclaim that there was a god-awful stink in the room and what were they going to do about it?

So yes, there are flaws in this collection, but the flaws can't even begin to cancel out its great strength, that it is the collected writing of a superb, generous, and talented writer and academic, on the subject closest to her heart -- to which she returned over and again -- and which is so fascinating that our own culture can't let it go. This is an academic book, but it isn't inaccessible: anyone whose imagination has been hooked from those first chapters when we meet the ailing Victor Frankenstein on the arctic wastes will find something worth engaging with. However you feel about this book, in the end it's worth reading, primarily because it does something exquisitely rare in academic literature, which is that it both feels as though you've somehow come to eavesdrop on somebody else's very interesting conversation, and also that it opens the discussion to the reader. Johnson's gift -- the most precious of gifts -- which is the talent of a teacher who invites her audience to actively, critically, and passionately participate in the conversation she has started, is apparent in every page of these works, flawed or not. And in the case of Mary Shelley as a canonical writer, this is a reading experience even more worth having, because it was genuinely a conversation started by the author.

A Life with Mary Shelley by Barbara Johnson
Stanford University Press
ISBN: 978-0804791250
232 pages