Bride of Deconstruction

By Diana FussJuly 20, 2014

A Life with Mary Shelley by Barbara Johnson

FANS OF FRANKENSTEIN; or, The Modern Prometheus, today the most popular and widely taught novel of the Romantic period, know its origin story well. Mary Shelley’s 1818 tale of a scientist who animates and then abandons a creature made out of dead body parts was gestated entirely on a dare, the product of a ghost story competition among a circle of four friends. Less well known is the tale of how Frankenstein came to be, a century and a half later, not merely a favorite creature of popular “low” culture but also a critical touchstone of academic “high” theory. Within the American academy, where recognition of Mary Shelley’s literary reputation was certainly long in coming, we can thank both feminism and deconstruction for fully bringing this novel to life in the 1970s and 1980s. The publication of a new book from Stanford University Press called A Life with Mary Shelley, by the late Barbara Johnson (1947-2009), shows exactly what was at stake in the reclamation of Mary Shelley’s absorbing novel about a scholar and his rejected offspring, not just for this “Yale daughter” (as Johnson once called herself) but for a whole generation of young women in the academy feeling rather outcast themselves and seeking to be heard. 

“The Yale School has always been a Male School,” Johnson drolly observed in the early 1980s, referring to a circle of prolific Yale literary critics — all Romanticists — that included Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and Paul de Man. Their influential manifesto Deconstruction and Criticism (1979) took Percy Bysshe Shelley’s last poem, “The Triumph of Life” (1822), as a central object of study, and in so doing helped to launch a mode of critical and rhetorical close reading that has shaped protocols of textual analysis ever since.

Given the all-male lineup of this Yale School joint publication, anyone on the outside looking in would never know about the women who were then practicing and teaching deconstruction, talented scholars like Shoshana Felman, Gayatri Spivak, Margaret Ferguson, and Barbara Johnson herself. Johnson, a French department student and then faculty member at Yale, was already on her way to a long and distinguished career at Harvard when her “Gender Theory and the Yale School” went to press in 1984. In this serious yet sportive essay, Johnson, with notable critical modesty, does not simply critique the male members of the Yale School for avoiding the question of sexual difference. More memorably, she bravely takes to task her own 1980 book, The Critical Difference, for also ignoring women writers and critics and for unwittingly repeating the erasure of gender. 

It is here that we learn how the women of deconstruction hatched their idea for a rival venture to Deconstruction and Criticism, a companion volume based not on Percy Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life” but on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Johnson’s essay lamented that this female counter-manifesto, which she dubbed the Bride of Deconstruction and Criticism, did not come to be. Like the aborted female monster in Shelley’s gothic novel, it was dead in the water, never brought to term as a living companion to its powerful predecessor.

With A Life with Mary Shelley, the Bride has finally arrived. Looking smart and trim and inevitably less monstrous than she might have appeared to the world 30 years ago, this small electrifying book was well worth the wait. To be sure, the plan for a manifesto of a female Yale School has changed a bit from its original inception — the cast of characters is different, the practice of deconstruction is no longer new, and the presence of women in the academy is thankfully greater. Yet reading Johnson’s A Life with Mary Shelley is no less compelling for the very reason that it so strikingly reveals what this 19th-century woman novelist meant over time to a scholar and teacher deeply committed to bringing a whole range of critical differences (gender and race chief among them) into our scholarship and our classrooms.

The volume’s centerpiece, Mary Shelley and Her Circle, is very much Johnson’s own brainchild, her last book finished only weeks before her death in 2009 of cerebellar ataxia, a rare condition not unlike multiple sclerosis. Also included are reprints of three of Johnson’s earliest essays on Mary Shelley that helped to launch her career as one of the most inventive literary critics in the American academy. Like the original edition of Frankenstein, which bears a preface covertly written by Percy Shelley, A Life with Mary Shelley is not solely the work of a single creative genius. There are other hands in the mix, carefully editing and deftly framing a manuscript that was written, as Shoshana Felman tells us in her elegant afterword, by a woman in a literal race against time. For someone in the final stages of a painful neurological disorder, there was simply “no spare time for stylistic polish or for flourishing revisions.”

Judging from the book that has emerged — a work of tremendous economy, wit, and insight — we should all be so fortunate in our rough drafts. Johnson has long been an undisputed master of short-form academic criticism, no small feat in a field known for its density. Something of a modern-day Mary Shelley herself, repeatedly drawn in her previous eight books to the uncanny life of dead things (a wooden leg that dances, a headless corpse that runs, a burning bush that speaks), Johnson has always been stylistically precise and pithy, lucid, and lively. Her final book is simply more of a good thing: feminist deconstruction pared down to its essentials and written for an ever-widening, and appreciative, audience. 

But this is not just a book for Barbara Johnson addicts (of which, in full disclosure, I am one). Anyone with an interest in those brilliant, charismatic, outrageous Romantics will find this a readable and valuable book. It charts the relationships and influences that surrounded Shelley during the moment she composed her “hideous progeny”: Mary’s lover and soon-to-be-husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his new friend and fellow writer Lord Byron (who first proposed the writing contest), Byron’s traveling companion and physician John Polidori, and Shelley herself, the daughter of two literary luminaries, the political philosopher William Godwin, acclaimed for his An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), and the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, infamous for her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). A very young Mary, who would see only one of her children live beyond infancy, had to contend not just with the ambitions of illustrious parents (one who died giving birth to her, the other who for a time disowned her) but also with a group of men more infatuated with each other and their literary careers than with the many women who adored them. Passion, despair, incest, and infidelity were no strangers to this crowd, the free-love libertarians of their day.

Much of the fun in reading Mary Shelley and Her Circle comes from watching Johnson divine in Shelley’s novels the spectral presence of each of these eccentric, fascinating figures. Shelley’s first and most famous work surely gets its sensational pursuit plot from her father’s Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), a detective thriller before its time, while its resistance to Enlightenment reason Shelley absorbs from her deceased mother’s unfinished gothic novel, Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (1798). Her final two novels, Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), owe an even clearer debt to Lord Byron, who provided Shelley with a ready-made model of the moody and mysterious romantic hero.

But Johnson believes, like others before her, that it was “poor Polidori” as Shelley called him, the doctor whose love for Byron was unrequited, who inspired the ghastliest detail of literature’s first eco-friendly experiment in human recycling. Since cadavers were hard to come by in John Polidori’s overcrowded medical school, he may well have furthered his education through a little grave robbing on the side. Polidori was the only other member of Shelley’s circle to truly make good on the writing competition, creating in his 1819 novel The Vampyre a new kind of vampire — not a vile inhuman creature but a seductive aristocrat bearing no small resemblance to Byron. Turns out we owe our current view of sexy and discriminating vampires to the long-since-forgotten Polidori, who before committing suicide took literary revenge on the man who unceremoniously tossed him over for a far superior intellect, Percy Shelley.

And what of Percy? Which bits and pieces of his life show up in his wife’s workshop of literary creation? An intellectually voracious man, Percy’s fascination with evil finds its counterpart in the self-education of Shelley’s monster, who just happens to be reading the very books Percy was perusing when Shelley wrote her dark tale. Johnson is careful to show not only how Shelley writes from within her circle but also how frequently she writes against it. Nowhere is Shelley’s independence more dramatic than in her sly critique of her narcissistic husband. “Known for his unreliable chemistry experiments and for his disregard for the life around him,” Percy, Johnson believes, is the real model for Victor Frankenstein in his obsessive, hubristic, deadly quest for knowledge. 

Percy, Johnson also intimates, served his wife best from the grave. After his drowned body washed ashore and every organ but his heart was cremated, Mary set straight to work building the myth of Percy Bysshe Shelley and securing her own position as guardian of the flame. Mary Shelley was born to be a widow (“she looked good in black,” Johnson quips). Indeed, Shelley’s novel The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance (1830), published eight years after Percy’s unlucky demise, might just as well be called, in one of Johnson’s funniest lines, “a vindication of the rights of widows.” Shelley took her role as Percy’s literary editor very much to heart and, according to family legend, kept Percy’s literal heart in her box-desk, wrapped in one of his last poems. Mary Shelley may have been supremely irritated with her philandering husband when he died, but there is little question that her love for Percy was, from the start, deep and abiding. 

One of the most touching parts of this intelligently conceived book, a book centering on Johnson’s own love affair with the Romantics, is the labor of love that animates its every page. I refer here not just to Barbara Johnson’s career-long attachment to Mary Shelley but also to the editors’ genuine affection for Barbara Johnson. The book begins with both a lovely general introduction to the volume by the Romanticist Cathy Caruth and a helpful professional biography of Johnson by the Victorianist Mary Wilson Carpenter. Also included, roughly a third of the way into the book, is an “afterword” by the philosopher Judith Butler, who locates in Mary Shelley’s monster run amok a figure of the Unconscious, always “running off in various directions, unmasterable and destructive.” In perhaps the volume’s most poignant moment, Butler punctuates her reading of the monster’s very human despondence with a devastating query: “Is this what Barbara Johnson meant to say?” Up to this point Johnson has seemed so vitally present in the book that such a simple question comes as a startling reminder of her absence. Perhaps this is why the volume contains not one but two afterwords, the first arriving sufficiently early to prepare readers for the book’s final afterword that puts all fantasies of reanimation delicately to rest.

It seems fitting that Shoshana Felman, part of the original Bride of Deconstruction circle, gets the last word here. We learn much from her thoughtful afterword: that in the last year of her life Johnson was rereading Proust, that when she died she was several pages into writing her autobiography (called Sentimental Education), and that in the final months she managed to keep writing by gripping a table for balance and slowly typing with one finger. In Felman’s view, Johnson was in a competition with her own disease, and she won. The volume may leave us with a portrait of Johnson as herself a romantic genius who died tragically before her time (a female Percy Shelley), but it no less movingly recognizes that her final work was a necessary act of survival, a “triumph of life.” 

In the end this animated book brings to life the very thing Mary Shelley could herself hardly have imagined: the critical difference a supportive circle of women writers can make. For an introduction to Barbara Johnson’s intellectual prowess and playfulness, and to the school of feminist deconstruction that counts her as one of its founding members, one could hardly do better than A Life with Mary Shelley. This collaborative publication featuring the last words of a ferociously gifted literary scholar may well be, in the decades to come, the Yale School we remember, and miss, the most.


Diana Fuss is Louis W. Fairchild Class of ’24 Professor of English at Princeton University.

LARB Contributor

Diana Fuss is Louis W. Fairchild Class of ’24 Professor of English at Princeton University. Fuss is the author of Essentially Speaking (Routledge, 1989), Identification Papers (Routledge, 1995), and The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms that Shaped Them (Routledge, 2004). In 2005 The Sense of an Interior won the MLA James Russell Lowell Prize for outstanding scholarly book of the year. Her most recent book, Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy, is forthcoming from Duke University Press. Fuss is also the editor of several volumes: Human, All Too Human (Selected Essays of the English Institute), Pink Freud, and Inside/Out, which won both the ALA and VLS best book awards.


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