Jeanette Winterson has based previous fiction on witch trials, her experience of growing up lesbian in a Pentecostal community, and her own affair with her agent. Jean Sergent reviews her latest novel, a reworking of Mary Shelley’s classic – and of Shelley herself.
I was so excited to read this book. Jeanette Winterson? Tick. Mary Shelley? Tick. Trans characters in literary fiction? Tick. Philosophical investigations into artificial intelligence? Weirdly enough, that’s a tick from me! You know sometimes you get your hands on a book and you’re so excited to read it that you feel a little bit like you want to eat it? That’s how I felt about this book.
Frankissstein is a 21st century postmodern retelling of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking Frankenstein, except it’s so much more than a retelling: it’s an entirely original renovation.
Frankissstein is a genre-bender, sitting somewhere in a snuggly threesome of literary fiction, science fiction, and feminist dystopianism. It is a knowingly postmodern story, bouncing between the 19th and 21st centuries to explore those cornerstone themes of life, love, sex, and death.
A quick precis of the facts and fictions:
Frankenstein is a novel about a lonely and grieving young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who builds and animates an eight-foot humanoid creature and then abandons it out of disgust. It was written by an 18-year-old grieving genius, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, who was on a rainy holiday with her husband. Winterson takes the premises of the novel, and of Shelley’s life experiences, as her leaping-off points for Frankissstein. With three S’s.
Frankissstein starts in the rolling lakeside hills of Geneva, where three heroes of literature, and two hangers-on, have gathered for a sex and wine holiday. Told through the eyes and heart of Mary Shelley, the legendary let’s-all-write-a-scary-story holiday becomes something more lush and dreamy. Winterson’s Mary Shelley is just as sensual and deep-thinking as I’d always imagined, yet there is such dripping humour in the damp dreaminess of Geneva.
The character parallels are pleasingly obvious: Mary, Byron, Claire, and Polidori of Geneva 1816 become Ry, Ron, Claire, and Polly in 21st century Manchester. Mary and Percy Shelly’s relationship transmutes through Mary’s relationship to her creation, Victor Frankenstein, and into Ry’s relationship with his puzzling, secretive lover Victor.
But there are plenty of in-jokes for Mary fans – which provides the very satisfying experience of nodding your head knowingly at oblique references.
In Memphis, Ry Shelley is checked into an AI conference by godly local Claire, who finds robotics as abhorrent to the glory of God as she does Frankenstein’s creature. Ry meets a sexbotics pioneer from Wales called Ron, for whom Winterson has crafted a 10-page monologue that makes me wish she wrote plays. The features of Ron’s sexbots, from the economy model to the deluxe, are built around assumptions about the nature of binary gender and sexual desire. Men, says Ron Lord, are driven only by the coital imperative, and women have no interest in sex. Ry, who is trans, says nothing.
The brilliant minds of Ry and Mary are connected in liquid eloquence and quiet investigation. In Mary’s description of her husband she says “he was not a cold man; he was a man” and wishes for a cat. Ry says of his lover Victor “I want his love to have enough salt in it to float me”. Both are in love with people who try to overshadow them; both are too bright to be dulled by such thoughtless but beautiful men.
The thematic connections between the worlds in the book support the story without condescension. Winterson’s craft is evident in every carefully chosen word, in every beautifully constructed sentence. When Mary and Percy make love and Mary sees their union as “the world in little”, my heart broke a little bit. But when Victor says to Ry “You hold out your hand. I take it in mine. You say, this is the world in little. The tiny globe of you is my sphere” I almost threw myself out the window because I was so into this book.
The story of Ry’s relationship to Victor Stein is not a rewriting of the Frankenstein story so much as a reexploration of author and invention. Sex, technology, and gendered embodiment are centred. Ry’s transness shows the complex simplicity of gender: he is a man because he says he is a man. Ron’s pedestrian transphobic naivety not only connects to Lord Byron’s sexist worldviews, but highlights the ignorance and stupidity of gender essentialism.
Sexist assumptions about technology and intelligence are flayed open like a cadaver on a slab.
Lord Byron is an ideal sacrifice for this purpose, given his well-known sexism. It struck me, thinking about the historical context that Winterson is playing in, that if Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace had not been geniuses, perhaps we wouldn’t be bothered to care about Percy Bysshe Shelley or Lord Byron anymore. Ada Lovelace hovers in the background of Byron’s life, yet she emerges into her own story illustrating the power of nurture over nature. When Ada returns to the story in later chapters, she is a pinnacle of women’s achievement, and admires Mary for her own extraordinariness for writing a genre-defining novel at such a young age.
Winterson bends her genres to make points about progress. Science fiction uses futurism to comment on issues of the present day. Winterson uses issues of the present day to draw comparisons to the past and highlight the cyclical nature of technological imperialism. See: Ron Lord’s Brexit concerns for Welsh factory workers, which echo Lord Byron’s Luddite sympathies, and the Shelleys’ concern for the Corn Laws.
Connections are drawn between LGBTQIA+ people and technology, not just through figures like Alan Turing but also through the advances in gender confirmation technologies. It makes for satisfying reading to have a trans character who rolls their eyes through the pages at the stultifying ignorance of their peers. Winterson takes swipe after swipe at stale gender identity norms and humiliating questions. Even Victor, who could possibly be described as the romantic hero of Frankissstein, is scrutinised for his obsession with his own masculinity and sexuality.
The hybrid nature of the narrative evokes the stitches binding together the body parts of Frankenstein’s creature, and while that is probably deliberate the weaving together of the biographical, fictional, and post-fictional story threads feels entirely organic.
The feminist reworking extends to biographical details. In Winterson’s reimagining, the death of Shelley is seen not as a romantic romp on the beach for the lads, getting drunk and farewelling their friend by snatching his heart out of the fire; but rather as the sudden, cruel destitution of a grief-hardened Mary.
Winterson’s Mary Shelley thrums with depression and desolation. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron were absolute fuckboys and can get wrecked as far as I’m concerned. Mary is a survivor, battered by guilt and grief but managing through the loss of parents, siblings, children, and husband to just stay alive.
Being a cyborg goth is a timeless expression of queerness. The sensuality in the writing makes the novel quite intoxicating at times. The book is philosophical, but I mostly found it simply electrifying.
Frankissstein: A Love Story, by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape, $37) is available at Unity Books.