John Kessel’s expansion of his award-winning 2008 novella, Pride and Prometheus, is an exercise in the hypothetical. The year is 1815, and Victor Frankenstein has come to England to perform the most odious task of his life. He must construct a mate for his creation, the creature he reanimated. While he is in London, he makes an unexpected friend: Mary Bennet, who has lived with her parents and sister Kitty for 13 years after the events of Pride and Prejudice. Mary has never met a man like Victor Frankenstein. She is immediately infatuated, attracted to both Frankenstein’s intellect and his seeming interest in her. However, as Mary gets to know Frankenstein, she begins to notice his irregularities—and learn his secrets.
Pride and Prometheus is, at its core, a work of speculative fiction, and not just one about how Mary Bennet and Victor Frankenstein might interact. It is an exercise in what could happen to Mary and Kitty Bennet. Rather than just take what we do know about them from Jane Austen’s work, Kessel does something more—he lets the Bennets grow. Mary isn’t just a moralizing social disaster, but rather a lover of science who will turn down a bad match because she would rather be happy than safe. And Kitty isn’t just Lydia’s silly hanger-on. As she approaches old-maid status, she has become someone her sister can respect.
But while Mary has had 13 years to mature, Victor is still in the midst of his struggle. He is still the man horrified by what he has managed to do, and his creature is still the bitter, lonely child trying to figure out what it means to be alive. Both are still occasionally thoughtless and needlessly cruel. The contrast between the more mature Bennet sisters and the increasingly unstable Frankenstein shows that Kessel knows what readers will believe and what they will not. A brief sojourn in England makes for less character development than 13 years, after all.
The way Kessel handles character growth makes the slightly disappointing part of the novel—the portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet—that much more unfortunate. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have hardly changed in 13 years. Yes, perhaps Mr. Bennet is more bitter and perhaps Mrs. Bennet is a bit more silly, but they haven’t grown. That is, until partway through the novel, when both characters seem to do an about-face, saying things they should have said 13 years prior but, in the context of Pride and Prometheus, seem forced. However, the disappointment is a short-lived one and is easily overshadowed by Mary’s story.
Beyond the what-could-have-beens, what makes the book interesting is that, for the most part, it reads like a modernized version of a comedy of manners as well as a gothic novel. Far from being forced, the crossover is easy to accept because Kessel uses the formats and textual cues of both genres. In Mary’s chapters, he emulates the third-person narration of Austen without the older style that would dissuade many modern readers. In those of Frankenstein or his creation, his writing reminds readers of Shelley’s work. This alone would make Pride and Prometheus worth the read.
Kessel sets his readers’ expectations and then twists them as far as he can go—and then just a little bit further. His author’s note tells us that he will play within the constraints set by Frankenstein, but he constantly dangles the possibility of something else. We know how it ends, and yet we keep reading anyway because the way Kessel gets us there is just so much fun. And because we want to believe that there is a chance, even a small one, that Kessel might change his mind and that things might turn out differently.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Behind the Book essay by John Kessel on Pride and Prometheus.