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Book: Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein

March 8, 2008
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I just sort of happened upon this book while at the library last week. Since I’m home sick, with a pounding head, what better time to finish it, right?

Well. It was a lovely distraction.

The book is a re-telling of Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel, written by a prominent (and local!) Shelley scholar, Theodore Roszak. The book jacket advertises it as a ‘feminist’ re-telling, the story that “Mary Shelley could not, at that time, write.” I don’t know anything about that, but it was pretty good and worth reading if you liked the original novel, which I did.

Short summary: Elizabeth, an orphan, is adopted by the enigmatic Baroness Frankenstein and taken home to Switzerland to be the companion and life-long love of her son, Victor. The Baroness is a high priestess in a secret coven of ‘cunning’ women, and she initiates both Elizabeth and, to a lesser degree, Victor, in the old ways. Simultaneously, she begins to train them in the ancient arts of alchemy, particularly the Chymical Marriage (or Union). Eventually, of course, this all goes wrong and Victor goes mad and creates the monster, and Elizabeth becomes literature’s most unlucky bride.

When I brought this book home, Terri mentioned that she’d heard of it, but couldn’t remember why. I think I know why: alchemy figured prominently in her dissertation, and alchemy is central to this book. I know what you’re thinking: Alchemy? Turning lead to gold? Yes, but it’s much more than that, and much more than I can explain, I only know what Terri’s taught me and what I’ve read in Jung (not much). Presented in this book, it’s the transformation process, of turning something base into something higher, more pure. This alchemical reaction can apply to many things in life, not just metals. The Chymical Union is a mystical union of man and woman… which can affect the whole world. Or something like that. Maybe it was just my befuddled head, but I didn’t quite get exactly what he (the author) was getting at. It doesn’t really matter — all the deeper alchemy stuff was basically an excuse for Elizabeth and Victor to mess around, supervised by the high priestess (and then, unsupervised, where all the trouble begins… doesn’t it always?).

I liked the book, and I thought it was fun. I do wonder why whenever a book is retold from a ‘feminist point of view’ it invariably has pagan rituals and lots of woman-centered sex (as in, the woman has a good time, until she doesn’t — because men always ruin it — at least, in these retellings). I mean, I am all for these things — plop a pagan ritual into a story and immediately I like it better — but feminist? I guess to me Feminism (with a capital F) means something else. This sort of retelling is more… I don’t know. Woman-centered? Maybe I’m just getting caught up in semantics. Whatever. I’m thinking of Mists of Avalon — another ‘feminist retelling’ with lots of pagan rituals and woman-friendly sex (until things go bad, as they always do… those darn men!!).

Umm.. what else? The set-up is similar to the original — the explorer/scientist who narrated Frankenstein’s tale is back, this time with Elizabeth’s diaries and letters. That setup works to a large degree, although sometimes it was a bit obvious. Of course, the 1800’s narrator could not believe that a woman was capable of all this degeneracy… again, whatever. I haven’t been feeling well this week and couldn’t really get worked up about ulterior motives on the part of the author. I just enjoyed the story and the alchemical references, the conversations with the monster towards the end of the book, and of course, the pagan rituals.

A fun book, maybe I didn’t appreciate the lofty intent (something about the masculine Science wiping out the feminine Nature), but it was a good read and made me want to re-read the Mary Shelley book.

Speaking of, I found the list of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. I found that I have read 84 of them (Frankenstein being one of them). 84 out of 1001 is not much, but it’s still something. I did notice that I liked each of books that I read that were on the list, so maybe I’ll use it as a guide for future expeditions to the library.

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