Frankenstein and Other First Novels

I look forward to a package of fresh books this week, all review copies I have requested from one publishing house or another. Meanwhile, I’ve been finishing up the last of the books I originally brought south with me, and expect to polish the last of them off next week.

I’ve just now finished Frankenstein, and yes, it is a first novel and sometimes clunky, as iconic as the story has become, but the (arguable) problems with it derive less from Shelley herself than the style of writing of the time. With respect to Austen, romantic aka pre-Victorian literature is not known for being tightly-plotted.

The 160-page novel, if you cut out all the exposition on the Swiss countryside, unnecessary back story of irrelevant minor characters, and long, melodramatic monologues by Victor Frankenstein (who, by all accounts, never was a doctor at all), you might have a decent 30-page short story (or a short graphic novel).

The 19th-century style, particularly for the pre-Victorians, is to drag out narrative, then pile it on when it comes to surprise, suspense, and terror, sometimes to the point where character behaviour makes little sense. Frankenstein brings his monster to life and as soon as it twitches, what does he do but literally run out of his own house and not return until the confused life form has stumbled off into oblivion.

He doesn’t see the monster again for a year, though we are told to believe he has maintained a frenzied sense of dread that entire time. The first few months are spent bedridden and near death, of course, since that brief glimpse of his awakened creation apparently shut down his immune system.

This is rather over the top. How frail were people in those days? Every time something unfortunate or simply unseemly happens, our poor Victor either has a nervous break-down or faints away into a coma. Either way he awakes in bed, prison, or a sanitarium to find three months (at a minimum) have gone by.

It’s certainly a lot easier to simply tell the reader a scene was horrific beyond imagination rather than actually developing dramatic tension and earning one’s emotional pay-offs. Maybe Shelley should have written teen dramas for television.

(For an example of pre-Victorian done well, although it’s faux-pre-Victorian, Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is pretty good once it gets going. At nearly 800 pages, though, its even less concise and to the point than the works it is inspired by.)

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