STARRED REVIEW
February 13, 2018

Merging the worlds of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley

Behind the Book by

Mary Bennet and Victor Frankenstein in love—shocking at first, but as author John Kessel reveals in Pride and Prometheus, it makes sense for these two outsiders to connect. Kessel, husband to novelist Therese Ann Fowler and the director of creative writing at North Carolina State University, shares a look behind his new book and how he combined two of our favorite classics.

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Mary Bennet and Victor Frankenstein in love—shocking at first, but as author John Kessel reveals in Pride and Prometheus, it makes sense for these two outsiders to connect. Kessel, husband to novelist Therese Ann Fowler and the director of creative writing at North Carolina State University, shares a look behind his new book and how he combined two of our favorite classics.


I got the idea for Pride and Prometheus while sitting at the critique table of the 2005 Sycamore Hill Writers’ Conference, during my comments on Benjamin Rosenbaum’s wonderfully surreal deconstruction of Jane Austen in his story “Sense and Sensibility.” It hit me that Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein were published only a few years apart. Despite big differences in content and sensibility, the two books would have sat on the same bookshelves in 1818. Yet I had seldom heard them spoken of together.

This resulted in my bringing a story titled “Austenstein” (later Pride and Prometheus) to next summer’s conference. After my critique, fellow workshopper Karen Joy Fowler suggested to me that it should be a novel. I resisted. I did not think I could find a novel’s worth of story in Mary Bennet’s brief encounter with Victor Frankenstein and his Creature.

But 10 years later I returned to the idea, realizing that the novelette was only the middle of the story, and by starting earlier and carrying past the end, and adding the perspectives of Victor and his Creature, it would make a book.

Fusing the worlds of Austen and Shelley presented problems if I was not simply going to write some superficial parody. Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein are antithetical books. Austen maintains a cool distance from her characters; she treats them with irony and leavens even the most extreme situations with wry humor. There’s plenty of psychological distress, but for the most part, the most violent thing that happens in an Austen novel is an overheard conversation or someone getting caught out in the rain.

Frankenstein is full of histrionic excess, chases and murders: An artificial human is created from dead tissue, a child is strangled, a home is burned down in vengeance, a woman is hanged for a crime she did not commit, and a man chases a monster to the north pole. There are no jokes.

Frankenstein’s monster does not belong in a Regency drawing room. Mary Bennet does not belong in a 19th-century laboratory.

But the very challenge of mating these disparate tales made it a fascinating project, and the more I got into Shelley’s and Austen’s characters, the more interesting the project became. For one thing, making Mary Bennet the heroine meant I had to evolve her from the sententious, clueless girl she is in Pride and Prejudice. I set my story 13 years after the end of Austen’s novel, placing Mary on the verge of spinsterhood and allowing time for her to mature, to gain a little self-knowledge and sympathy.

It pleased me to tell what’s become of various characters from Austen in the decade after her novel ended. Of course writing sequels to Pride and Prejudice has become something of a cottage industry in recent years, but I hope I have provided as true a vision as they. So here are Kitty Bennet and Mr. Collins, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Darcy and Elizabeth, Uncle and Aunt Gardiner, and even a servant or two, a little older and perhaps even, in some cases, a little wiser.

Moreover, since my novel occurs during the course of Frankenstein rather than after it is finished, I had to work my story into the gaps in Shelley’s. Pride and Prometheus grew into a secret history of Frankenstein, elaborating on events that occur in that book, adding new ones. What would the Creature think upon observing a ball in London society? How might Frankenstein converse with the Bennets at Darcy’s dinner table? My job with Victor and his Creature was to extend what we know of them from the novel, to go deeper into their characters, to explain some things that are left out and imagine why and how they do the things they do.

In the process I got to contrast the worlds of realism and the fantastic, the novel of manners and speculative fiction, the two kinds of stories to which I have devoted my career as a teacher and writer. It turns out that these distinct visions of the world have things to say to each another.

I hope the result is as thought provoking to read as it was to write.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Pride and Prometheus.

Photo credit John Pagliuca

John Kessel

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