A Life with Mary Shelley

A Life with Mary Shelley

by Barbara Johnson

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In 1980, deconstructive and psychoanalytic literary theorist Barbara Johnson wrote an essay on Mary Shelley for a colloquium on the writings of Jacques Derrida. The essay marked the beginning of Johnson's lifelong interest in Shelley as well as her first foray into the field of "women's studies," one of whose commitments was the rediscovery and analysis of works by


In 1980, deconstructive and psychoanalytic literary theorist Barbara Johnson wrote an essay on Mary Shelley for a colloquium on the writings of Jacques Derrida. The essay marked the beginning of Johnson's lifelong interest in Shelley as well as her first foray into the field of "women's studies," one of whose commitments was the rediscovery and analysis of works by women writers previously excluded from the academic canon. Indeed, the last book Johnson completed before her death was Mary Shelley and Her Circle, published here for the first time. Shelley was thus the subject for Johnson's beginning in feminist criticism and also for her end.

It is surprising to recall that when Johnson wrote her essay, only two of Shelley's novels were in print, critics and scholars having mostly dismissed her writing as inferior and her career as a side effect of her famous husband's. Inspired by groundbreaking feminist scholarship of the seventies, Johnson came to pen yet more essays on Shelley over the course of a brilliant but tragically foreshortened career. So much of what we know and think about Mary Shelley today is due to her and a handful of scholars working just decades ago.

In this volume, Judith Butler and Shoshana Felman have united all of Johnson's published and unpublished work on Shelley alongside their own new, insightful pieces of criticism and those of two other peers and fellow pioneers in feminist theory, Mary Wilson Carpenter and Cathy Caruth. The book thus evolves as a conversation amongst key scholars of shared intellectual inclinations while closing the circle on Johnson's life and her own fascination with the life and circle of another woman writer, who, of course, also happened to be the daughter of a founder of modern feminism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[R]eading Johnson's A Life with Mary Shelley is no less compelling for the very reason that it so strikingly reveals what this 19th-century woman novelist meant over time to a scholar and teacher deeply committed to bringing a whole range of critical differences (gender and race being chief among them) into our scholarship and our classrooms . . . [A] work of tremendous economy, wit, and insight . . . Johnson has always been stylistically precise and pithy, lucid, and lively. Her final book is simply more of a good thing: feminist deconstruction pared down to its essentials and written for an ever-widening, and appreciative, audience . . . In the end this animated book brings to life the very thing Mary Shelley could herself hardly have imagined: the critical difference a supportive circle of women writers can make . . . This collaborative publication featuring the last words of a ferociously gifted literary scholar may well be, in the decades to come, the Yale School we remember, and miss, the most."—Diana Fuss, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Johnson's real gift was to tackle the 'dead white males' of the canon and reread them, looking for the women, ever alert to what she called 'muteness envy' in canonical poetry . . . [Johnson's] essays stress critical and creative vitality in the midst of death, and are still life-giving today, still radical, angry and passionate, yet always disciplined. Johnson asks acute questions, inserts the personal into her academic essays, and gives us new ideas about 'how to read'."—Lesley McDowell, Times Literary Supplement

"This animated book brings to life the very thing Mary Shelley could herself hardly have imagined: the critical difference a supportive circle of women writers can make."—Diana Fuss, Los Angeles Review of Books

"One of this collection's many strengths is Johnson's talent for producing highly astute, informed and even (perhaps) revolutionary writing that is both entertaining and accessible . . . [I]t is the collected writing of a superb, generous, and talented writer and academic, on the subject closest to her heart—to which she returned over and again—and which is so fascinating that our own culture can't let it go. This is an academic book, but it isn't inaccessible: anyone whose imagination has been hooked from those first chapters when we meet the ailing Victor Frankenstein on the arctic wastes will find something worth engaging with. However you feel about this book, in the end it's worth reading, primarily because it does something exquisitely rare in academic literature, which is that it both feels as though you've somehow come to eavesdrop on somebody else's very interesting conversation, and also that it opens the discussion to the reader. Johnson's gift—the most precious of gifts—which is the talent of a teacher who invites her audience to actively, critically, and passionately participate in the conversation she has started, is apparent in every page of these works."—Nina Gibb, Bookslut

"Of singular importance as a set of contributions to theoretical debates, and filled with humanity, this book plays a major role in the transmission of Barbara Johnson's work. Johnson was brilliantly insightful, outspoken, witty, and endowed with an incredibly strong intelligence. These qualities are present at every turn of A Life with Mary Shelley, including the essays that frame her early and late writings."—Evelyne Ender, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Library Journal
This title examines Mary Shelley's life (1797–1851) and work (Frankenstein) through the lens of her prominent family and friends, and is a nod to the New York Public Library's Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. The late Johnson (English, comparative literature, Harvard Univ.) was one of the handful of scholars responsible for bringing Mary Shelley and her work to the prominence that they enjoy today. Shelley had, until articles published by Johnson and her colleagues in the 1980s, been overlooked as no more than an appendage to the two eminent contemporary thinkers and writers who were her parents—Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin—and to the famous Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she married. Here Butler (Maxine Elliott Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature, Univ. of California, Berkley) and Felman (Robert Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French, Emory Univ.) compile those seminal articles, including previously unpublished pieces. There are also analyses of and reflections upon Johnson's Shelley-related oeuvre, written by some of the feminist-theory scholars who, with Johnson, brought Shelley and her writing to renown. VERDICT Obligatory for libraries supporting graduate-level English programs, but a pass for lay readers, who will find the literary criticism too academic.—Megan Hodge, Virginia Commonwealth Univ. Libs., Richmond
Publishers Weekly
Mary Shelley and Jacques Derrida are presiding geniuses in this uneven anthology commemorating the late Harvard literary critic Johnson (1947–2009). Comprising Johnson’s works on Shelley, plus new essays by distinguished colleagues, the volume presents Johnson as a significant figure in the academic study of Shelley and the Romantic Movement. Thus, three of her classic essays, reprinted here, are credited with helping to canonize the Frankenstein author as a major English novelist. In reading them, though, beware a certain esotericism—as they are classics not just of Shelley studies but of Derridean deconstruction, and oracular in the style of that school. Elsewhere, commentaries by Johnson’s colleagues are sometimes more daunting than Johnson’s works, which they explicate. By comparison, the more accessible new work, “Mary Shelley and Her Circle,” narrates the lives of various Shelley cohorts, depicting a collaborative model of Romantic creativity, thus contradicting the “solitary genius” myth that clings to Shelley’s husband, Percy, and his friend Lord Byron. With this rebuttal to Romantic egotism, Johnson collaborates in Shelley’s own projects—since in her telling, Shelley is a proto-feminist engaged in a “deconstruction” of myths of (male) Romantic authorship. Framing the careers of novelist and critic in parallel is a major theme of this often recondite anthology, whose subject is indeed Johnson’s life with Shelley—not, primarily, Shelley herself. (July)

Product Details

Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Life With Mary Shelley

By Barbara Johnson


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9126-7


The Last Man

Barbara Johnson

When considering a subject as broad as "the ends of man," one can only ask oneself: Where to start? Where to start speaking of the end? But on the other hand, isn't it always from the end that one starts? Isn't every narrative in fact constructed beginning with the denouement, as every project is constructed beginning with its goal? Isn't the end precisely that which never ceases to be repeated, which one is never done with? If man is truly, as Derrida says, "that which relates to its end," he is also that which is never finished with ending. Thus the question would not be to know how to begin speaking of the end, but how to finish speaking of it, how to narrate something other than the interminable death of the penultimate, how to be finished with the end?

This is perhaps the question that Nietzsche poses in Human, All-Too-Human when he writes, under the heading of "First and Last Things," "We look at everything through the human head and cannot cut this head off; while the question remains, What would be left of the world if it had been cut off?" The end of man would seem then to be that which cannot be lived by any man. But what exactly is "human" in Nietzsche's statement, "we look at everything through the human head"? The human, here, is apparently something that says "we." And what if men were reduced only to "I"? Would the word "man" still have the same meaning if there were only one left? Would the end of man take place before or after the death of the last man? Would the final cut take place only after the death of the last man, or would it consist of his testimony, his unprecedented experience of survival? In other words, what would be the relation between the last representative of the human race and the end of man?

It is the limit-narrative of decapitation, of the cutting off of the human head with which we look at all things, that Mary Shelley attempted in a novel entitled The Last Man. This very long narrative, written by a woman whose birth coincides with the bloodiest moments of the French Revolution, is one of the first versions of the idea—which has become so commonplace in our atomic age—of the total extinction of the human species. Postrevolutionary but preatomic, this prophetic novel could perhaps tell us something about the strange temporality of the end of man.

In fact, in the current context Mary Shelley merits our interest in more than one respect. If she risks appearing somewhat marginal today, it's precisely her marginality that has always earned her a certain celebrity. That marginality was of two kinds: one, she lived surrounded by writers whose works strongly marked the thought and literature of the epoch: her father, William Godwin, liberal philosopher and author of Political Justice; her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Romantic poet and disciple of Godwin; and the many friends of Shelley, in particular the poet Byron. Aside from this marginality in the very center of the Romantic circle, Mary Shelley knew a second sort of famous nonexistence as the anonymous author of Frankenstein, a novel that she wrote at the age of nineteen and whose mythic power has only increased since, independently of the name and even the notion of the author. In the shadow of her parents, her husband, and her own work, Mary Shelley thus lived the Romantic period through its folds and margins. If I put the accent in this way on her marginality, it's not in order to discover for her a new centrality, but in order to analyze the new manner in which the question of marginality is inscribed in and agitates her work.

To speak of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is immediately to approach the question of man indirectly through what has always been at once excluded and comprehended by its definition, namely, the woman and the monster. It's undoubtedly not an accident if the conjunction of these two categories of beings has traversed history under the reassuring form of fables of the "beauty and the beast" genre—which always end by confirming the superior glory of man, since the beast is transformed into a man with whom the woman falls in love. In Frankenstein, the end of the story is far from reassuring, but it is precisely because the monster is not monstrous enough.

Frankenstein, as everyone knows, is the story of a scientist who, trying to create a man in his laboratory, succeeds in manufacturing a monstrous being who ends up turning against his creator. It's the creator who is called "Frankenstein" and not the monster, who has no name, but the universal tendency to call the monster by the name of its creator is far from insignificant. Contrary to what the cinematic versions of Frankenstein have led us to believe, Mary Shelley's monster is not manufactured with a criminal's brain, and its creator is not crazy. Aside from a certain physical ugliness, Shelley's monster is the exact realization of the dream of its creator, to whom the project of discovering the secrets of life and of making use of them to manufacture a man had seemed the consummation of science and an inestimable benefit for humanity. But there is one detail which the creator had not foreseen: his own reaction to his creature. When he sees the yellowish eye of the one he had constructed and animated with so much effort open, Frankenstein is seized with horror and flees from the laboratory, abandoning the giant newborn to his fate. This creature whose features are roughly sutured but whose heart is good tries to find a place among men, but men always reject him with horror. Choosing to reside in the shadow of a country cottage, unknown to its inhabitants, the monster acquires a full humanist education by listening to the French lessons given by the country folk to an Arab woman. The monster, who has developed a tender sympathy for these country people, finally tries to win recognition from them, but like all human beings, they are incapable of enduring his monstrous appearance. Made furious by loneliness, the monster leaves in search of his creator, whose youngest brother he strangles when he unluckily turns up along the way. When the monster finds Frankenstein, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, he tells him his story and begs his creator to make him a wife of the same species as himself. Touched in spite of himself, Frankenstein the creator agrees to the monster's request and sets about gathering the necessary materials for this new piece of work. But suddenly the image of a new, monstrous Eve forces itself upon him and, frightened by his vision, Frankenstein ends up destroying the rough draft of the female monster. The monster, who has watched this entire process, will never forgive him for the destruction of his mate. Instead of attacking his creator directly, he murders, one after another, all those who are dear to Frankenstein, until the creator is reduced to the same isolation as his creature.

If Mary Shelley thus elaborates a work of science fiction which seems to caution us against the fictions of science, it is not, however, only in order to suggest that there are limits which man has no right to overstep. For far from marking the limits of the human, Shelley's monster is nothing but the perfect realization of the humanist project par excellence: mastery of the knowledge of man. The chemical details of Frankenstein's experiment are only the literalization of the desire to give oneself a total representation of man, to master the origins of man to the point of being able to create one. The monster is thus not what remains exterior to the humanist conception of man; it is the figure of that conception itself to the extent that "man" is precisely a creation of man. This perfectly reasonable monster, whose wickedness is entirely explained by the injustices that are inflicted on him, is a perfect example of man such as he was created by the Enlightenment philosophes, for whom the human being par excellence was Western, rational, and masculine. It's no accident if the humanist-creator can't or doesn't want to create a woman equal to her man, or if the monster's education is presented as a Westernization. (The lessons he overhears are those given by Europeans to an Arab woman. It is also interesting to note that, in order to recover from the shock of the catastrophic creation, Frankenstein begins to study, precisely, Oriental languages.) Thus if Mary Shelley's novel constitutes a critique of humanism, that critique is directed not against the hubris of the humanist who takes himself for God, but against the blindness of the humanist who can't see himself. In gathering and sewing materials with the design of creating a human, Frankenstein never doubts for an instant that he knows what a human is. But the creature only has to open his eyes, the object only has to become subject for Frankenstein not to recognize him anymore and for him literally to lose consciousness (or knowledge—"connaissance"—Tr.). The unknown is not located in the object of humanism, but in the desiring humanist subject. That which the humanist remains blind to in his efforts to know man is the nature of his own desire to know man. That blindness is moreover represented within the novel by the total lack of explanation concerning the motives which led the creator to reject his creature so violently. This explanatory ellipsis has always been considered a grave defect in the novel by readers who were looking to follow the psychological logic. But it is precisely by this sort of logical flaw, this blind spot in the explanation of human desire, that something like psychology can be elaborated.

The humanist's blindness in relation to his own desire to know is illustrated in an exemplary way by Rousseau in the preface to his Discourse on the Origin and Causes of Inequality Among Men, by the way in which he understands the meaning of the inscription of Delphi, "The most useful and the least advanced of all human knowledge seems to me to be that of man; and I dare say that the inscription of the temple of Delphi alone contained a precept more important and more difficult than all the thick volumes of the moralists." As opposed to Rousseau's project, the story of Frankenstein seems to affirm that if one translates in this way the command to know oneself as a command to know man, one risks losing contact monstrously with what one doesn't know. Curiously, in the article by Jacques Derrida on "The Ends of Man," one finds in an unexpected way this idea of monstrosity linked to the critique of a tradition deformed by a humanist view:

After the war, under the name of ... existentialism ..., the thought that dominated France presented itself essentially as humanist.... [T]he major concept, the theme of the last analysis, the irreducible horizon and origin is what was then called "human reality." As is well-known, this is a translation of Heideggerian Dasein. A monstrous translation in many respects, but so much the more significant.

Would this Derridean monster be the modern reincarnation of Shelley's monster? Would monstrosity always exist as a function of humanist translation? Are there nonhumanist monsters? nonmonstrous translations?

In our day the myth of Frankenstein is ceaselessly invoked by the newspapers apropos of babies conceived in a test tube and, more recently, apropos of the creation of new forms of bacteria by the recombination of their genetic codes. In the context of debates over the commercial and juridical status of these new forms of life, the question of man finds itself curiously reopened. Having to decide whether the law governing the distribution of patents applied or not to the invention of living beings, the Supreme Court of the United States decreed that life was indeed susceptible to be patented since, in the words of former Chief Justice Burger (quoted in Time), "the issue is 'not between living and inanimate things, but between products of nature—whether living or not—and humanmade inventions.'" In other words, it's the opposition between man and nature which here takes over from the worn-out opposition between life and death. All the more so in that, in our day, the legal status of death is itself submitted to the opposition between natural means and technological means of maintaining life. Thus if man is indeed that which is determined beginning with his end, his end is, more and more, that which can be determined only beginning with man.

This question of man suspended between life and death returns us finally to that second untimely meditation of Mary Shelley—untimely for her time but ardently timely for our own—namely, her other novel entitled precisely The Last Man. While Frankenstein was the story of the one who was superfluous in the world of men, The Last Man is the story of the one who is superfluous in a world without men. It's the story of the one who remains. Now, what does this remainder of humanity signify in relation to the question of the ends of man?

But first of all, a question is indispensable: Why couldn't such a story be entitled The Last Woman? Or rather, why is it that a novel entitled The Last Woman would be automatically interpreted—as one sees in the film of that title by Marco Ferreri—as the story of the last love of a man or else as a narrative of castration? Would the idea that humanity could not end with a woman have something to do with the ends of man?

In reality, although the narrator of this book speaks in the first person masculine singular, he belongs, like the monster, to a sort of third sex. He resembles neither the men nor the women of the novel. He serves the function of witness, of survivor, and of scribe. As we will see, it is the same role that Mary Shelley plays at the moment when she writes her novel.

The story of The Last Man takes place in Europe near the end of the twenty-first century. The main characters are few: aside from the narrator Lionel Verney and his sister Perdita, we count Adrian and Idris, children of the last king of England; Lord Raymond, hero of the Greek wars; and Evadne Zaimi, a Greek princess who lives in England. In the year 2073, the king of England, father of Adrian and Idris, abdicates to permit the creation of an English republic. The royal family withdraws to Windsor. After many sentimental and political vicissitudes, the narrator Verney marries Idris, the former king's daughter; the hero Raymond marries Perdita, sister of the narrator; Adrian, who had been in love with the princess Evadne, remains alone; and Evadne, in love with Raymond, disappears. Raymond, for whom the tranquil life at Windsor begins to be a burden, gets elected Lord Protector of England and throws himself immediately into innumerable projects for the good of humanity. By a series of accidents, Raymond rediscovers the Greek princess Evadne, reduced to a life of misery and still in love with him. Raymond, who tries to remedy her misery, doesn't speak of the princess to his wife Perdita, but she nevertheless begins to suspect something. As the misunderstanding between the spouses becomes irreparable, Raymond resigns his post and leaves England to join the Greek army once again. The Greeks are about to achieve victory over the Turks; the Greek army needs only to take Constantinople. The Greeks besiege the city. But the besieged city becomes more and more silent. Constantinople has fallen under the sway of the Plague. The armies separate without combat, making way for a plague-ridden peace.

England once again becomes the scene of the action. For several years, the English believe themselves sheltered from the Plague that devastates the entire Orient. But little by little this scourge takes over Europe and England until the last English survivors decide to leave their island to wait for death in a gentler climate. At every step, the circle of the survivors is circumscribed, but nothing stops the progress of the Plague, which is always fatal. Verney, the narrator, is the only one among all human beings to recover from it. He is thus more than a survivor; he is a ghost. When humanity is reduced to three beings—Raymond, Adrian, and the daughter of Raymond and Perdita—these three survivors decide to embark on a sailing ship for Greece. The boat is shipwrecked; Verney remains alone. Searching for a fellow creature, he goes to Rome, where he spends a year writing and waiting. Finally convinced that no one will come meet him in Rome, he climbs to the top of St. Peter's to carve in stone the following inscription: "the aera 2100, last year of the world." Then, accompanied only by his dog, he embarks for unknown shores.

The life of Mary Shelley was also a series of survivals. Beginning with her birth, which cost her mother her life. At the moment when Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man, three of her four children had died, her husband Percy Shelley had drowned in a shipwreck, and Byron had just died in Greece. At the age of twenty-six, she considered herself the last relic of an extinct race.


Excerpted from A Life With Mary Shelley by Barbara Johnson. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Barbara Johnson was Professor of English and Comparative Literature and the Fredric Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society at Harvard University. Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program in Critical Theory at UC Berkeley. Shoshana Felman is Robert Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Emory University.

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