Kiersten White’s latest, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, is the chilling story of a girl whose life depends on the boy whose family lifted her from poverty to become his companion. That boy is tortured, erratic genius Victor Frankenstein, and the girl is wily survivor Elizabeth Lavenza. She shares with Victor a powerful bond, but even her limits are tested by his strange and spiraling appetites. White explores their relationship in a novel she refers to as “a conversation” with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s immortal sci-fi Frankenstein.
On the occasion of the release of Dark Descent, White discussed her love for Wollstonecraft Shelley, why she wrote the book, and why Percy Shelley was as much of a monster as any frightening fictional creation.
Two hundred years ago, two poets decided to challenge everyone on vacation at their villas on the shores of Lake Geneva to write a scary story. They were rock-star poet renegades, wanting only the sublime without the messy details of reality. Along for the trip was a woman of just eighteen, who was mourning the loss of her first baby and trying to find her place alongside her older lover, Percy Shelley.
Her name was Mary Wollstonecraft, and under these odd and tragic circumstances, she created the odd and tragic monster who resonates with us to this day. Frankenstein was inspired by a nightmare, and informed by grief and questions of our place in a world seemingly abandoned by its creator.
I’ve long loved the meandering, tragic tale of a scientist and his eloquent, tortured creation. So when Wendy Loggia and Beverly Horowitz at Delacorte Press asked if I would be interested in writing a retelling for the two-hundredth anniversary of Frankenstein, I jumped at the chance. At their heart, retellings are a conversation with the original, and I had so much to talk about with Mary Shelley.
My first question came after reading both her own and her husband’s introductions to her novel: Oh, girl, why him?
I’ll be honest; I hate Percy Shelley. Mary Shelley loved him so much that, after his death, she kept his calcified heart wrapped in his poetry. But even badass goth geniuses can have bad taste in men.
Percy pursued Mary young—sending her passionate letters, threatening to kill himself if she didn’t become his lover, and taking her as his lover when she was just sixteen and he was a twenty-two-year-old married father.
Mary Shelley was a great author in her own right. However, without the inspiration of Percy “Stop Being So Sad That Two of Our Kids Died Within a Year of Each Other—I Need You to Worship Me” Shelley, I don’t think we would have Victor Frankenstein. We wouldn’t have a monster made by a vain, hubris-soaked man. And we wouldn’t have a book filled with women who are nothing but angelic victims.
The women in Frankenstein exist to be destroyed by the men and monsters around them. Which, in retrospect, was very true to Mary’s life. Her mother died shortly after childbirth, and her father was cold and distant. Percy’s first wife committed suicide. He couldn’t get custody of his children from that union, so he left them behind. Mary’s niece Allegra—the illegitimate daughter of Mary’s stepsister and Lord Byron—died in the convent where he disposed of her. At least one miscarriage nearly killed Mary, and three of Mary’s four children died in their infancy.
In short, everywhere she looked, men were failing women. And yet, where else could they turn but to the men in their lives?
All this made me look closer at Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s doomed bride. She’s taken in by the Frankensteins and given to Victor as a gift. What would that do to a girl? How would that shape her, knowing everything in her life was owed to another? That her very survival was dependent on the whims of a boy her own age?
I don’t believe Mary deliberately wrote the men of her life into Frankenstein. But she wrote what she knew. And so I decided to write what I know: that sometimes, in order to survive, in order to be loved, girls pretend to be what those in their lives who have power want them to be. They turn a blind eye to the violence and injustice around them because at least they are safe, for now. And, in doing this, sometimes they inadvertently help to create monsters.
Frankenstein endures to this day because of the questions it asks. Mary asked, “What makes a monster?” In The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, I wanted to explore who makes a monster.
So, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, badass goth genius inventor of science fiction: thank you for your monster and for your questions. I guess I can give Percy a pass.
(Just kidding. I never will.)
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is on sale now.