- The Frankenstein of 1790 and Other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France by Julia Douthwaite
Douthwaite’s book deals with literary history. In each of four chapters she explores a major event of the French Revolution, followed by contemporary journalistic and iconographic representations of the event, then literary treatments of it from the last decade of the eighteenth century and early years of the nineteenth, and finally later and more indirect retellings of the event by authors of literary classics. As she herself puts it, each analysis proceeds through a series of concentric circles from the central event outward through layers of literary portrayals.
The first chapter deals with the march on Versailles by the women of Paris in October 1789. Douthwaite studies both the feminist and misogynistic reactions this act provoked. For conservatives and even some radicals, it was considered unnatural for women to play an active role in political events. The poissardes and amazons, as they were called, and their leaders, like Théroïgne de Méricourt, were held up to ridicule as grotesque anomalies. Differing reactions extended beyond the borders of France. While Edmund Burke decried women protesters as exemplifying the worst excesses of the rabble, Mary Wollstonecraft celebrated them as pioneer combatants for the rights of an unjustly disenfranchised gender. Two novels that closely followed upon events were Roussel’s Le Château des Tuileries (1802) and Madame de Suremain’s Melchio ardent (1800). The former presents a sympathetic view of the royal family during their forced residence in Paris and a critical perspective on female political agitators. The latter, possibly but not for sure by a woman author, adopts a more problematical though comic approach to male/female relations and pretensions to dominance over the other on the part of both genders.
Crossing the Atlantic and a century in time, Douthwaite finds a celebration of the spirit of the March on Versailles not only in the American suffragist movement but also in the writings of L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz. Son-in-law of pioneer advocate for women’s rights Matilda Joslyn Gage, Baum defended the cause of women’s suffrage in his journal column Our Landlady. In his novel The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), he expresses a more ambiguous opinion on the role of women in society, a combination of anti-amazon satire and a sympathetic recognition of women’s potential to make a positive contribution.
Douthwaite’s second chapter is about a novel published in 1790 by François-Félix Nogaret titled Le Miroir des événemens actuels, ou La Belle au plus offrant. In it an inventor named Frankénsteïn creates an artificial human. The work was written to promote scientific progress and technological advance in a new society governed by talent. The heroine is a symbol of the nation, and the author is proposing a political agenda for [End Page 231] the future. Douthwaite places this work in its contemporary political and social contexts. She mentions the law passed by the Assemblée Nationale in 1791 protecting the rights of inventors. She also describes at length the popularity of mechanical devices, especially automatons, in the late eighteenth century. She then studies a number of texts forming a transition between Nogaret’s novel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Most notable for both its sociopolitical and metaphysical implications is E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman (1816) about a naïve young student’s infatuation with the life-size doll Olympia. Douthwaite sees in Shelley’s classic an inquiry into what went wrong with the French Revolution as it moved from a utopia to a terror. In the later editions of her work, Shelley stressed the failures of human agency as the cause of the tragic events in her tale as well as in recent history rather than any hidden spiritual forces.
The third chapter deals with Louis XVI’s failed flight and arrest at Varennes in June 1791 as well as with depictions of his last hours with...