In the Shadow of the Creator: Ghostwriting Mary Shelley
by Mary Shelley
My dearest Margaret- I know nearly a month has passed since my last letter, whence I did promise to return to England, but o! the events that have transpired since are both dreadful and magnificent. I pray your husband and children have made you happy as you anxiously awaited my news. It is with utmost seriousness that I apologise for the injustice I have caused in disappearing so soon after I promised to return. Now, with resolve I must tell you what hath occupied my nights since the passing of my new friend, Victor Frankenstein and, my beloved sister, I ask that you keep an open mind and a warm heart whilst I propose the grave favour of which I am about to speak.
As I did write to thee before, I relented to my men and did agree to turn back when the ice broke. However! It was not possible for me to convey my grief at the loss of Frankenstein nor my sense that I must do something more to avenge his disastrous life and untimely demise—not to you dear sister, not even to myself as I despaired over the loss of a man I was just beginning to call friend.
And so, that night, after the bizarre creature had sprung from the vessel and vanished into the wilderness, I retreated to my cabin in a daze. Devastated by these losses and by the story of this hideous creature’s life, I knew not how to rectify the horrible mistakes that had been made. To abandon a life that could be fixed in the name of vengeance for another was bitter, and too much life had been lost already. I tossed and turned, dear sister, lamenting the miseries of mankind, desperately wishing to return home and yet bearing the weight of duty to set things right. And then! A realization shone down upon me! The root of Victor’s troubles, yea, the root of his progeny’s as well, was loneliness! The singular sadness that set upon each, causing him to make his mistakes and wound others—the opposite of his desired end! With a solution quick at hand, I settled in for the remainder of the night.
The next morning, I sprang into action! The ice had retreated, but rather than return home in failure and shame, I recruited my men to push onward and form a search party! I would find this creature, and welcome him back into society. Alas, for Victor’s death and the tragic events that preceded it, there would be no practicality in attempts to give the creature more of his own. But as I have seen in your house, Margaret, there is no shortage of love or family or humanity in this world, at least, there should not be, and thus I propose—but I am too eager, ahead of myself with excitement. Before I should ask of you so great a task, sister, I must divulge the events that came to pass.
I had not the time to explain to my men the revelations of the night, and so I did ask them to trust me wholeheartedly, and like good men they did indeed as I asked. We drove the vessel forth, in the direction I had seen the creature leap. We sailed onwards, each day exploring the coastline and icy depths for this remnant of Frankenstein. At last, one evening as we were about to surrender hope and the crew was urging me to consider turning back, just before we came aboard for the night, a mate spotted a smoke column twisting up from the earth in the near distance. I motioned the men back to the vessel and ventured forth alone, not wanting to alarm the creature and risk his disappearance. I crept towards the fire and the sight before me was desolate. The creature, alone, huddled over a small fire, weeping to himself. He startled when I approached but was indeed eager for company, as you can imagine. When I made clear that I came peace, we began to speak.
“Why thou didst not surrender thyself to the icy depths?’ I inquired. The sympathy I felt for this poor creature was astonishing, and I hoped to offer him what comfort I could. “I was not able to sacrifice myself in honor of my creator, sir, though it may have been the noble thing to do. For though I suffer in agony and misery, I wish to improve, not to die.” I began to address the creature, but struggled to address he who had no name. “Let me help thee, and let us decide on a name that thou might be welcomed into society.” He desired to be called Adam, but I, feeling this altogether too common, did suggest he take on a surname. Thus, Frankenstein’s creature will be known as Adam Raphael, man and angel, creation and instrument of the creator. What I offered him next, Margaret, does require your consent. For I did say,
“Raphael, thou wilt return with me to England and my family shall welcome you as their own. Henceforth, thou shalt not suffer of loneliness or despair. In the church you shall be baptized and your sins forgiven, and thus life shall begin anew.”
Now, Margaret, my dear sister, I can only imagine your revulsion at this prospect but I know you to be a better woman than most and I would encourage you to think long and hard about this opportunity. Should your husband and children welcome Raphael, and in so doing welcome my return, the horrific wrongdoings detailed to you in earlier accounts might, if not be set right, at least prevent future horrors and provide good lessons to all.
As we have journeyed on the ship, I have come to know Raphael as quite wise. Indeed, how can we say he is not human when he knows so much of suffering, the very essence of humanity?
I pray that you will find it in your good soul to allow me to bring Raphael into the fold of our family.
I have received your last communication with joy and exaltation, beloved sister! We are less than a fortnight from the shores of England, as we were forced ashore by a savage storm and fell into favour with the locals midway along the trip. O, I was cautiously optimistic that thou might agree to what I did so heavily propose and my wishes have been realized! Raphael is eager to join our household and meet your husband and children, too. I believe his desire for family will provide structure for his behavior. I understand your concern for the children, given the horrific history which I did relate to you, but I have ascertained that Raphael is remorseful and resolute to amend his past behavior with future good deeds. It is my opinion that he will regard our family with the utmost respect and caution, and in fact be a helpful asset to the household.
Now, I feel that I must give thee fair warning, sister, that while I personally have become rather accustomed to the admittedly gruesome features of our friend, you and the children must prepare yourself for quite a start. I fear it is rather worse than the average hideousness of hunchbacks and vagrants, and I would not want the children to be cruel because they feel threatened.
We eagerly anticipate joining your company shortly.
* * *
“Uncle Walton, Uncle Walton! I found these, your letters to Mama, from the year before my birth! Is this the story of how Raphael came to be with us? I asked Raphael himself, but he would not tell me and said that dark history is not for young boys and turned back to tending the roses. But I am not a young boy, not anymore! Is it a very dark story? Oh, do tell me, Uncle! Do tell!”
Timothy had come bounding into my study late in the afternoon, just as the tea was being set aside and the sun was sinking over the horizon.
“My old letters? You scoundrel!” I teased him. “What were you doing in the attic trunks? Talk about no place for a young boy. Get thyself over here and onto this knee. Or are you too big for that too?”
And though he was perhaps getting a tad large for my old knees, he clamored over immediately and sat patiently while I told my tale.
“Well, my boy, you’ve read the letters, what more do you want to know?” I asked him.
“Was I there? What did he say when he first saw the estate, Uncle? And when he first saw me? And what did Mama say, and Lindy? Did they all like each other so very much at first?”
“Not at first, son, no. And you weren’t even there! Well, not really. When we first arrived back at the estate, we’d just come off a long train ride from the shore. Raphael was tired, because he’d had a long night. The other gentlemen on the train weren’t very nice to him. So we trudged up from the gate and we were dirty and smelly. And since Lindy was a small girl and your mother had not seen me in a very long time nor had she met Raphael at all, he waited outside with Mr. Clearwater, who was the butler then. And when I went in, your Papa and Lindy met me at the door and we were very excited to see each other, and they asked me where our new friend Raphael was.
“He’s outside waiting with Clearwater. Go on and meet him and this beautiful little lady here can take me to see my lovely sister.”
So your Papa went outside to meet Raphael and Lindy led me towards the drawing room, where your mother was waiting for me. And when I saw her, I was beyond words with shock, for her stomach was big and round and in all our letters never once had she mentioned that she was with child. But as we were reuniting, I saw a look of panic cross her eyes. I turned to see your Papa in the doorway with Raphael. But Mama, as you know Tim, is a strong woman. She is brave and she welcomed Raphael into the home, and Lindy, as curious children do, got to know all about him by asking a hundred questions. Though the family was cautious at first, it was after you were born that Raphael became a true part of the family. He was respectful, helpful, and quiet. He did all he could to make up for his appearance, and he was grateful. But he was distinctly different from us and, as I did mention, it is thanks to you that not a soul on this estate gives him a sideways glance to this day.”
“Tell me how I did it, Uncle!” Tim bounced on my knee.
“Well,” I continued, “you had only been born just recently when both your father and I were called away on business and remained away for various reasons for nearly a year. In that time, you became aware of yourself and the world, and Raphael was a part of that world. You never knew him to be so different—to you, Tim, he has always been just Raphael. He played with you and entertained you, and he was able to get close to you in a manner that Lindy was already too old to allow. One afternoon you had just been fed and your Mama, needing the help, asked Raphael to take you so she could nap. He entered the drawing room and before he could reach to lift thee, you in fact did reach for him, crying ‘Ray!’ It was your first utterance. From that day onward, it was as if a new spirit had taken over the family. They saw what the unblemished innocence of a child was able to do for humankind and they were in awe of it. In awe of you, my child, for seeing Raphael as the changed good and king man that he was rather than running from his appearance. So that, my little Timothy, is the tale of how you came to be so special and why your Uncle Raphael does treasure you so much. Are you satisfied?”
“Not really, Uncle. Until today, the world seemed to be a delightful place full of mud worms and stormy afternoons when Mama cancels lessons and Lindy and I play hide-and-seek with Raphael on the third floor. But you have painted me a picture of a world in which my dear friend is not welcome, and for no reason that I can understand. I do not like it. It seems we are only safe here at home. And so I shall simply never leave! Thank you for entertaining me with a story. I know you are very busy. I’ll run back to Raphael in the garden. Maybe he’ll let me eat one of the tomatoes off the vine. Goodbye!”
And with that, Tim scuttled out of the study and through the window I glimpsed him dashing across the lawn.
For my final project, I decided to do a creative writing exercise in which I would “ghost-write” a sequel to Frankenstein as Mary Shelley. The exercise is above, so you’ll have to decide for yourself how successful I was. Would you believe that Mary Shelley wrote it?
This project arose out of the various notions of identity that we faced in GIST this semester, first in relation to gender (the sense that gender is a performance rather than something that is innate) and then again with chat room/online personas vs. “meat-space” ones. To ghostwrite is essentially to perform someone else’s identity successfully enough that your own identity is invisible to the outside eye. But through the process of writing this, I’ve come to feel that each ghostwriter faces so many decisions and challenges that, particularly if they do not collaborate with the person for whom they speak, it is impossible to avoid leaving a distinct mark on the work. This challenged my original thesis that because identity is performed, anyone can take on anyone else’s and the identity itself is invalid.
I faced many challenged with this project, the first of which was the form. Frankenstein was a novel with many chapters, something that I did not have the time or resources to tackle. So I settled on condensing my tale into a short story, but looking back, without the space to develop and expand ideas and characters, it feels a little expository.
I also fell into a very interesting trap of ghostwriting, which was to make choices for the style or plot of the story based on my own interpretations of Shelley rather than choices she herself might have made. I found myself attempting to speak for her subconscious rather than her public voice, perhaps because I found it more interesting. I tried to mimic the language and diction of Frankenstein, but since I ventured into new territory with the plot, I had to made choices based on something. In Walton, the two most critical characters to me/Shelley were Margaret and Tim. I wanted to use Margaret, who never actually speaks in the story, to show how women like Mary Shelley were not offered any freedom of choice in their lives. Walton puts this horrible request on Margaret and she never really has any option but to agree—he’s already halfway home with this creature! Margaret doesn’t have her own voice, but is spoken for by the men in her life. She is also centrally a mother and her pregnancy would have been important to Shelley, since children and motherhood were of utmost importance to her.
The story hinges on little Tim and the idea that children see the world differently. He was important to what I thought Shelley might have written because she was so focused on children and suffered the loss of so many of her own, even at the risk of her own life. Tim represents hope, and to Mary Shelley, children were her hope in the world. It’s important that Tim is raised to love this creature that no one else can accept and is therefore destined for a lifetime of disappointment, because for Shelley, a child as hope and as disappointment were permanently entangled.
One other critical decision that I made in this story was to name the creature. As an exercise in identity, it felt crucial that the previously unnamed creature be identified. The name, which was admittedly a little expository, was meant to have come from Paradise Lost, which he read in Frankenstein, because I wanted it to be a name he would have known. I think giving him a name really changes the character, which was essential to establishing a new life for him in this story.
I don’t actually know much about Mary Shelley, though I did some research on her life and read some of her journals before taking on this task, so I wonder what the experience of ghostwriting would feel like if I “knew” Shelley more intimately. I felt that this was an extremely worthwhile exercise, as it allowed me to think about the choices she made in her writing, how her life might have affected these choices, and what they mean for her readers today. It was less about assuming her identity than trying to understand it—and after all, isn’t understanding the key to enlightenment? If we all took a moment to perform someone else’s identity and see that our own identity could be transitive and mutable, we might have a more peaceful, co-operative society in which everyone was less focused on being unique or better than others and more interested in what makes someone else who they are, whatever identity they may take on.