In The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, Kiersten White refocuses Mary Shelley’s original narrative structure on Elizabeth Lavenza and conjures a much darker and more cunning vision of Victor Frankenstein’s devoted wife-to-be.
White’s Victor Frankenstein is prone to violence and rage, and a young Elizabeth is given to him as “a gift” so that she can control his darker impulses. Elizabeth is no stranger to contempt for those around her, and she teaches young Victor how to wear a smile as a disguise. She feels a kind of monstrous love for the only person who presents a path toward a stable future for her. As an orphan and a woman, she longs for agency and independence but sees marrying Victor as the only means to long-term security.
As Elizabeth spends long stretches of the original novel unobserved by the narrators, White has a lot of opportunities to speculate about what Elizabeth was doing behind the scenes. She knows more about Victor’s darker desires than she lets on, and helps protect him from judgment from others who wouldn’t understand — and to prevent them from taking Victor away from her. This version of Elizabeth is desperate just to live, to exist in peace without the threat that she could be discarded and sent back to a life of poverty, and has to rely on a violent and temperamental man to find any kind of security. More than in Shelley’s original version, Victor Frankenstein (and the patriarchal and oppressive power structures he represents) is the real monster of White’s story.
White also expands the role of Justine Moritz, making her one of the only people for whom Elizabeth feels genuine affection, and adds a new female character so Elizabeth isn’t surrounded in this version by men. These changes make Elizabeth a much more complex character, one who is strong but can be manipulative, myopic, and makes many mistakes.
Fans of the source text will be happy to see that White’s affection for, and thorough knowledge of, Shelley’s work is evident. The chapter titles, like Shelley’s epigraph, all come from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and she blends influences from both the original 1818 and revised 1831 editions. As a superfan of Shelley’s novel, I was thrilled to be able to ask White a few questions about her new book, and her relationship with Frankenstein.
What do you think makes Frankenstein necessary to be revisited and retold, particularly now?
Mary Shelley’s genius was both ahead of her time and timeless. Her themes—what is a soul, what makes a monster, what happens when we refuse to take responsibility for our creations—are still questions that deserve exploration. Aside from the fact that it’s the 200th anniversary of the original publication, I think now more than ever the particular questions of whether we create monsters through our own hubris and neglect, and what our responsibility is if we’ve inadvertently done so, are worth exploring.
In some ways The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is assuming a degree of familiarity with the novel (even your chapter titles are referential) — how did you balance appealing to long-time fans of Frankenstein with making this accessible to people who’ve never read the novel? How do you anticipate a different experience for both types of readers?
I think any retelling is necessarily a conversation with the original. When I was deciding what type of retelling to do, my intense love of Frankenstein led me to a very faithful retelling rather than a looser one. I think either direction—familiarity with the original and then exploring my retelling, or discovering my retelling and then going back to the original to see how I changed things—is exciting.
One thing I did have to take into account was how much storytelling has changed in the last two hundred years. Initially, I tried to write an epistolary novel—complete with frame story including Robert Walton!—but there’s a reason epistolary novels fell out of fashion. It’s a format that is incredibly hard to write with any amount of tension. If I had had several years, I might have been able to do it. In the end, I decided on a straightforward format, rather than one that was more faithful to the original. Any retelling has to balance devotion to the source and awareness of audience. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of writing them.
Elizabeth and Henry Clerval are quite different (in history and in personality) in the original 1818 version of the novel and in Shelley’s 1831 revised edition. Was it a conscious decision to draw more heavily from the 1831, and if so, why did you feel that this version of the story was a better source for your novel?
It was a conscious decision, yes. First of all, the 1831 edition is the more familiar one to me and most readers, as it is most often used in school. Secondly, I know a lot of people prefer the 1818 version, feeling it’s “truer” to Shelley’s vision. But Shelley herself did most of the edits for the revised edition. As an author, I respect that. She had grown as both a person and a writer and adjusted the text accordingly. I’d be mortified if someone in the future found my first drafts and presented them as the definitive, more pure versions of my work!
Also, from a narrative standpoint, I preferred Elizabeth’s origin as a foundling child rather than as a cousin. It worked better for my story’s needs.
Many literary critics read Shelley’s biography into her work, from the suggestion that Victor is based on Percy Shelley, to the assertion that Frankenstein’s themes of birth and death stem from the deaths of Shelley’s own children. Did you look to Mary Shelley’s life at all for inspiration for characters, themes, or events in Elizabeth Frankenstein?
The inspiration for this version came from the introduction to the book, written by Percy Shelley. In it, he directly dismisses Shelley’s work, implying that if people knew it was written in the company of Lord Byron and himself, they’d obviously prefer to read those pieces, instead. The fact that in the introduction to her own book, Shelley was shuffled to the role of a side character, frankly made me livid. So when I saw Elizabeth, shuffled to the side of Victor’s story, I knew whose story I wanted to tell.
What informed your characterizations of Elizabeth and Justine? Shelley’s Elizabeth is practically a saint, and yours certainly is not!
It makes me sad that Shelley, a champion of women’s rights and an incredible innovator, couldn’t see the women in her story as anything other than tropes—angelic innocents to be sacrificed to the ambition and cruelty of men. Shelley herself was fairly radical in defying societal expectations. I wanted to create an Elizabeth who would make her proud. Since on the outside Elizabeth and Justine were exactly who they were “supposed” to be, I decided to make Elizabeth’s interior life one of desperation, anger, and manipulation.
You explore Elizabeth’s relationships with familiar characters like Justine, Victor, and Henry Clerval, as well as with a few new characters. What are the pros and cons of (or perhaps the contrasts between) reinterpreting characters and relationships created by Shelley, and having her characters interact with those you’re introducing to the Frankenstein mythos?
First, Victor’s reinterpretation was the easiest. Since the narrative of Frankenstein is related by him, I can declare him an unreliable narrator. There’s a line in the original where he says, “Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?” There’s a lot he’s not saying there! Henry and Justine were relatively minor characters, so there was plenty of room to flesh them out. It’s a fun challenge taking what’s on the page and animating it with new life. The only major character addition I made was Mary (named for our Mary but not meant to be her), simply because I do not like books with more men than women, and I knew someone as fierce as Elizabeth would find other clever women.
You make some allusions to tropes from adaptations of the novel (such as a reference to an angry mob with pitchforks). Is there a particular adaptation that’s your favourite, or that particularly informed the novel?
I generally don’t care for Frankenstein interpretations that render the monster a lumbering, language-less thing. The monster in the novel is eloquent and verbose. It makes what he does so much more understandable and horrifying. I liked Penny Dreadful’s version, though my only real influence was the novel itself.
Thanks to Kiersten White for answering my questions! You can pick up The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein from Delacorte Press on September 25, 2018.