Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Beyond Austen and Shelley

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Beyond Austen and Shelley

Article excerpt

Remarkably, Frankenstein was Shelleys first novel. It was published anonymously, although with enough clues to her identity that word got out. Sadly, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were Austens final works of fiction, brought out by surviving family members. Her brother's biographical notice named her, for the first time, as the author of six novels, including Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816). The 1810s were quite a decade - and 1818 was an exceptional year- for literary history and female authorship.

We don't think of Frankensteins gripping story of an ambitious male scientist's creating life from death and Persuasions aging heroine who gets a second chance at love as being in the hands of some of the same readers, mere months apart. Yet when we talk about Austen (1775-1817) and Shelley (1797-1851) in tandem, similarities come into view.

The two share an unrivaled staying power, akin to Shakespeare's. Their names, works, and characters remain omnipresent in films, television, children's books, and video games, as well as on jewelry, posters, and puzzles. There is a Jane Austen College and a Mary Shelley Pub. Both authors continue not only to win over and entertain readers but to wow discriminating critics and invite acclaim. Austen, whose bicentenary was commemorated in July, was last year chosen to grace the Bank of England's new ten-pound note and two-pound coin. It happened after a campaign that sought to bring a woman other than the queen onto that country's male-dominated currency. What's believed to be the world's first statue of Austen was unveiled in Basingstoke, England.

Shelley seems poised for just as much acclaim. Her stature will be strengthened by bicentenary celebrations this year of the first publication of Frankenstein (Jan. 1), with hundreds of events planned in libraries and schools. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour's film Mary Shelley, with Elle Fanning in the starring role, is scheduled for a 2018 release and seems likely to bring kudos to director and actor alike.

Just how did Austen and Shelley stand the test of time, when so many of their female author-contemporaries - hundreds of them - were forgotten not long after the period we now call the Romantic era (1770-1830)? It's an exceptionally difficult question to answer. Sometimes we take a stab at it by saying Austen and Shelley were geniuses whose works dealt in universal themes. There's certainly something to that. Austen's humorous, entertaining stories - not to mention her memorable characters - tackle family conflict, courtship and marriage, female dependence and independence, and social change. Pride and Prejudice is the tale that launched a thousand Mr. Darcys in wet white shirts. (Warning: there's no wet whiteshirted hero in the original!)

Shelley's multilayered account of scientific ambition and its horrifying consequences has prompted readers to consider life and death, creation and procreation, good and evil, ethics and curiosity, and care and responsibility. It's bizarre that Frankenstein has so morphed and respawned that many mistakenly believe it takes its name from its monster-creation, rather than from Shelley's scientist-creator protagonist, Victor Frankenstein.

Another thing that's kept both Austen and Shelley alive are the mesmerizing, and often totally false, yarns about them as authors. Each woman is associated with an outsized, mythical life story that has kept audiences entranced. Austens life story is one of success writ small and modest. She's described as a lone, lonely genius who chose a quiet, sheltered life. And then there's the fact she remained single. We ask, "How did a woman who never married come to write so brilliantly about falling in love?" One would hope we re now in a position to recognize that a great deal can be learned about romantic love without marrying! Nevertheless, every so often a new book comes out claiming some real-life love in Austen's life. …

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