Last November, for a local newspaper interview, I was asked, "Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with and why?" I answered, "[It] would be different if this question was in the context of a dinner party or desert island, but to spend a few hours stuck in a lift, my first choice would be a posthumous one - author Mary Shelley, whose own mother and first child died in childbirth, and whose novel 'Frankenstein' explores areas of medical debate and ethical controversy such as organ transplants and genetic engineering. I'd love to discuss her views on contemporary cesarean birth." So today when I came across this New Republic article by Ruth Franklin, I found it a very interesting read. For example, when Mary Shelley began writing her novel, she had already given birth in 1815 to a premature daughter who subsequently died, and also her own mother, Mary Wollenscroft, died just days after giving birth to Shelley in 1797.
Franklin explains how, shortly before her daughter's arrival, Wollenscroft had written in her diary, "I have no doubt of seeing the animal today”. She also explores how Shelley's own birth experiences are reflected in the language of her novel:
"Unsurprisingly, she was tormented by the loss: A journal entry in 1815 reads, “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lives.” The echoes of Frankenstein—in which the scientist, who hopes to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet,” at last sees it open its eyes and breathe—are unmistakable. And the birth of the “creature,” as he calls it at first, occurs only after “days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue”; later he refers again to the “painful labor.”
Of course we'll never know for sure how much Shelley's experience of childbirth influenced her creation or description of Frankenstein, but if like me, you enjoyed (or studied!) the novel, you might find Franklin's article interesting too.
[Or a visit to the exhibition: Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet]