Saturday, January 21, 2017

Catherine Reef

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life, and other highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

Reef's new book is Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Many of us recall Mary Shelley as the eighteen-year-old girl who produced a startlingly original book that went on to become a horror classic. We may have heard that she was the daughter of two influential writers of the late eighteenth century, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (who died soon after giving birth). We may also know that she ran off to Europe at sixteen with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley; that following Percy’s wife’s suicide, he and Mary married; and that Percy drowned in 1822, when he was twenty-nine and Mary was twenty-five.

But Mary Shelley hardly faded into obscurity after her husband’s death. Left with a son to support, she relied on her pen. Although she produced nothing to rival Frankenstein in lasting popularity, she authored several novels, short fiction for ladies’ magazines and other outlets, and nonfiction, including essays and entries for biographical dictionaries. Because I am writing a book on Mary Shelley, I have been reading her lesser-known works.

In her later fiction Shelley sometimes presented idealized or intense father-daughter relationships, causing some readers to speculate that she was responding to her difficult tie with her own father. Godwin had been outspoken in condemning institutions that hinder individual freedom and growth, including marriage. Still, he married twice himself, and he turned his back on Mary when she eloped, fearing public disapproval, and this hurt her profoundly. He resumed regular communication with Mary and Percy Shelley after they were married, only to hound them for money. Godwin believed wealth was meant to be shared and saw himself as deserving. He knew that his son-in-law was in line to inherit a large estate and overestimated Percy’s access to ready cash, possibly deliberately.

The novel Falkner (1837) explores the relationship between the orphaned Elizabeth Raby and the guilt-ridden Rupert Falkner, who adopts the six-year-old girl after she prevents his suicide. The two are peculiarly devoted to each other. As Shelley wrote, “Falkner felt a half remorse at the too great pleasure he derived from her society; while hers was the sort of rapturous, thrilling adoration that dreamt not of the necessity of a check, and luxuriated in its boundless excess.” Regret for a past act draws Falkner toward death, but his responsibility for Elizabeth and her devotion keep him alive, in true melodramatic fashion, through a war, shocking revelations, imprisonment, and a trial. In the end Elizabeth earns her father’s acceptance of her marriage to the man she loves as Mary Shelley was never quite able to do in life.

Falkner takes place in Shelley’s own time, but she set the novel The Last Man (1826) in the late twenty-first century. In it she presents a world where England’s monarchy recently has been abolished and an elected lord protector—Lord Raymond, a character likely modeled on the Shelleys’ friend Lord Byron—holds power. A war for Greek independence (much like the one that claimed Byron’s life in 1824) and a creeping pestilence kill off humanity until one man, Lionel Verney, the protagonist and brother-in-law to Raymond, appears to be the sole person left.

The Last Man has to be one of the strangest futuristic novels ever written, if only because Shelley gave no thought to where science might lead humanity over the course of two and a half centuries. The England of 2092, as she envisioned it, is a nation where balloon flight represents the height of technological achievement and people rely on horses and carriages to get around on land. I find myself thinking that this may point to a failure of imagination, because I doubt Shelley was uninterested in the advances that science might make possible. Keep in mind that bold experimentation was such a pivotal aspect of Frankenstein. In any case, the story ends optimistically, with Verney rescuing great works of English literature and searching the world for others of his kind.

Shelley placed some of her short fiction in fairytale settings: the court of the queen of Navarre, for example, or the Genoa of long ago. Her story “The Dream,” though set in England, takes place during the reign of Henry IV. These stories involve the kinds of adventures found in fairytales, in that they feature the triumph of faithfulness, a deal with a devil, and a miraculous dream.

Early in her essay “On Ghosts,” Shelley seems to lament the passing of a world peopled by enchantresses, fairies, witches, and spirits. By 1824, when she wrote this piece, much of the earth’s territory had been explored; humanity believed it had entered a wiser age. “Yet,” Shelley asks, “is it true that we do not believe in ghosts?” She presents as evidence two ghostly encounters described to her by friends. One close acquaintance, an Englishman, reported nightly visits from someone dear but departed who glided into his bedchamber and stroked his cheek. The second friend, an Italian, claimed to have seen a mangled apparition, the ghost of a youth who took his life in a violent way. Shelley ends her essay on a lighter note, retelling a story by M. G. Lewis, an English writer whom she had met, that features talking cats. The reader is left to ask, do the mysterious and wondrous have a place in the modern world after all?

We are still reading Frankenstein; the answer has to be yes.
Visit Catherine Reef's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Catherine Reef & Nandi.

The Page 69 Test: Frida & Diego.

My Book, The Movie: Noah Webster.

The Page 99 Test: Florence Nightingale.

--Marshal Zeringue