Honestly, to be a fly on the dining room wall of author John Kessel when in between passing the potatoes he announced to his family that his next book would be an amalgamation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What a mischievous rogue he is. I was intrigued to discover if he could pull it off.
The story begins thirteen years after the close of Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Bennet and her two middle daughters, Mary and Kitty, both well on their way to spinsterhood, are on holiday in Lyme Regis—that famous Dorset seaside village renowned for its large stone Cobb seawall and its deposits of ancient fossils. Mary has matured quite a bit since her sanctimonious and mortifying youth. Her interests have shifted from the pious study of doctrinal extracts and observations of thread-bare morality to a more scientific vein of natural philosophy. Her mother is still determined to see her last two daughters advantageously married and is delighted when Mary beings an acquaintance with a fellow fossil hunter, Mr. Woodleigh, who she met at the local Assembly Rooms.
Kitty, on the other hand, is bored to tears with their small social circle in Lyme and dreams of dancing in London again. On their way to meet Woodleigh for dinner, the Bennets learn that a young woman has fallen from the Cobb and seriously injured herself. Never one to suffer fools, Mrs. Bennet is quick to point out that, “No well-bred young lady should trust a man to catch her if she goes leaping from public landmarks.” Put off by Mrs. Bennet’s judgments, Mr. Woodleigh soon announces his departure. Realizing that no offer of marriage for Mary is forthcoming, Mrs. Bennet caves to Kitty’s pleas to leave, and the party soon departs for London.
Across the channel on the Continent, a Creature is in pursuit of his creator. Stowing away on a cattle boat, he crosses the ocean and arrives in London without any knowledge of the language or customs, connections or the means to find the one man who has promised to create a companion for him.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet and her daughters are also in London attending the first ball of the Season where she directs her daughters attention toward rich, eligible young men with the precision of Wellington aiming “his cannon against Napoleon’s marshals in the Peninsula” Also, in attendance is the Rev. Mr. Collins, (the Odious One), a recent widow in pursuit of a reluctant Kitty Bennet, and, the reserved and brooding Mr. Victor Frankenstein, newly arrived from Switzerland. Mary is introduced to this handsome, younger man and soon they realize that they may be the only two people in the room who have a common interest in science. When Frankenstein also indecorously shares the story of the murder of his younger brother to a relative stranger, Mary is in turns drawn to, and cautious of, this enigmatic man.
Frankenstein soon discovers that the Creature has followed him to London. To avoid meeting him, he promptly departs for Scotland with his friend Henry Clerval. He knows that he must acquire the knowledge to create the monster’s mate before another member of his family dies.
Kitty’s cough develops into a troubling concern, prompting the women to return to Longbourn so she can recuperate. While at home, Mary has a serious conversation with her father who warns her of the sad fate of the female bookworm. “Beware, Mary,” he said impishly. “Too much learning makes a woman monstrous.” (foreshadowing?) While Mary realizes she is bound for spinsterhood, she knows that there is still hope for her younger, and still beautiful sister Kitty. Looking out for her, she encourages her father to let them go to Pemberley, the home of their elder sister Elizabeth in Derbyshire. He agrees, and soon she and Kitty are off in pursuit of husbands, or in the case of Mary, watching out for her impetuous younger sister.
Fate again intercedes, bringing Mary and Mr. Frankenstein together. Along the road to Scotland, he and Mr. Clerval arrive in Matlock, an ancient Roman town not far from Pemberley. Meeting at a local library and museum over a fossil unearthed in a local lead mine, they discuss Darwin’s theories of evolution and how the hand of God is everywhere. They walk with Kitty, Mr. Clerval, and Georgiana Golding nee Darcy, along the Derwent River to view the sheer cliffs along the banks. Mary observes the scenery and philosophizes on her place in the world. “These rocks, this river, will long survive us. We are here for a breath, and then we are gone. And through it all we are alone.” Frankenstein is amazed by Mary, who he thought was just another aging spinster. I, on the other hand, am remembering the, “What are men to rocks and mountains,” line in Pride and Prejudice.
Back at Pemberley, Mary asks Elizabeth if Messrs. Frankenstein and Clerval might be invited to be their guests while they are still in the area. She agrees and the gentlemen soon arrive for a short stay. At dinner, the local vicar, who was in his cups, shares a story of him interrupting grave robbers in his own churchyard. Many in attendance are shocked, not believing that such atrocities could happen in their community. (more foreshadowing?) Mr. Frankenstein is silent. The next day as Kitty and Mary are deep in conversation while walking the estate grounds, they are caught in a downpour, profoundly affecting both Kitty’s health and Mary’s trust in Frankenstein.
A Flash of lightning lit the forest, and Mary saw, beneath the trees not ten feet from them, the giant figure of a man. The lightning illuminated a face like a grotesque mask: long, thick, tangled black hair. Pale skin, milky, dead eyes beneath heavy brows. Worst of all, an expression hideous in its cold, inexpressible hunger. It was all the matter of a split second; then the light fell to shadow. (p 127)
The Creature has followed Frankenstein north and is lurking in the woods.
From its ominous opening line, “At the age of nineteen, Miss Mary Bennet had believed three things that were not true,” this Austen fan was optimistic that Kessel had taken his task of reverently setting the style and tone seriously. Combining two divergent novels—a romantic comedy and a Gothic horror—and creating a believable story from their union is an unfathomable accomplishment. As the story developed and the pages flew by, my confidence grew in Kessel’s skill as a storyteller, and as a writer.
The narrative alternates from the point of view of Mary, the Creature, and Frankenstein. Mary’s voice is in the third person, the form that Austen chose to use in her novels, and the Creature and Frankenstein’s are in the first person. At times the shift in voice by the three main characters was jolting, but I suspect that this was chosen for effect. In the first half of the novel, Austen fans will be frequently rewarded with witty, laugh out loud dialogue and enough Easter eggs from the original to keep them comfortably in situ. Kessel totally captures the characterization of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. With Mary, he has brought her out of that awkward, self-righteous persona that she was trapped in as the middle sister nobody wanted around. She is thoughtful, measured, and brave throughout Pride and Prometheus. A true heroine, surpassing even her sister Lizzy Darcy nee Bennet’s capabilities.
In the second half of the novel, Mary Shelley fans will be rewarded with a dark story deftly told. There are some twists in the plot that will really shock the tender-hearted Austen fan and delight those who are #TeamShelley. Readers from Scotland need to be forewarned bout the portrayal of Scottish hospitality, and those firmly in the Austen camp may be miffed that they do not get their Austenesque happily ever after for Mary. Kessel chose a denouement for his heroine that many will not anticipate yet was satisfying for me. The Creature and its creator land in the same icy circumstances that Shelley devised.
If you are in an adventurous mood and would like to experience lush, atmospheric, and compelling storytelling at its finest, I can highly recommend Pride and Prometheus. There are few writers who have the skill or talent to pull this type of mash-up off without making it a burlesque comedy a la Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The struggles of its characters, its themes, and its brilliant prose are nonpareil.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Pride and Prometheus, by John Kessel
Gallery / Saga Press (2018)
Hardcover, Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (384) pages
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Cover image courtesy of Gallery / Saga Press © 2018; Text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com