Pride and Prometheus, John Kessel (Saga 978-1-4814-8147-2, $27.99, 384pp, hc) February 2018.
One of many things that come to mind in reading Pride and Prometheus, John Kessel’s thoroughly enjoyable full-length expansion of his 2008 Nebula- and Shirley Jackson-winning novelette, is that Pride and Prejudice might have made a pretty suitable title for Frankenstein, at least from the unfortunate creature’s point of view. After all, he’s the product of Victor Frankenstein’s pride and the victim of everyone else’s prejudice, and he does tend to go on about this a bit much. But that’s likely not the only reason that Kessel chose to combine characters from two of the most beloved, chewed-up, adapted, revised, travestied, and otherwise appropriated novels in the English language. Not only were they published less than five years apart, but they both basically sprang from the imaginations of teenage girls; Shelley famously began writing her story at 18, and Austen was apparently only 20 when she wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice. Their chronologies are close enough to each other that it only took a little fudging on Kessel’s part to make them work out, and Victor’s trip to England and Scotland in Shelley’s novel provides a convenient opening to introduce characters from Austen – most notably Mary, the sister who seemed to have the least to do in Pride and Prejudice and was thus ripe for development.
The main challenge facing Kessel, then, is not so much one of plot, character, or chronology as one of tone. Austen very nearly set the standard for elegant wit and irony in the novel of manners, while Shelley, for all the brilliance of her ideas, was consciously working in the often lurid tradition of the Gothic melodrama. These are, to put it mildly, not styles which mesh seamlessly. Kessel addresses this problem in an ingenious and for-the-most-part satisfactory way: third-person chapters following Mary’s point of view, alternated with somewhat more feverish first-person narratives from the creature and Victor himself. The basic template is Frankenstein – the action of Pride and Prejudice is some 13 years before Kessel’s story begins – and Kessel doesn’t hesitate to make use of some common Gothic devices, such as unlikely coincidences, arduous travels, and all-consuming passions. Conversely, the story is framed at the beginning and end with more Austen-like chapters that touch upon class divisions, snobbery, courtship, and sensibility, as Mary’s interest in fossils leads to her acquaintance with the real-life Victorian self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning (who was also the inspiration for Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful novella “The Science of Herself” a few years ago). But Elizabeth Bennet, the lively mouthpiece for much of Austen’s wit, barely makes it onstage at all (though Darcy does get to bring off a couple of timely rescues).
All of this is a lot of fun for readers of Austen and Shelley, but at the same time a novel such as this needs to work almost as well for readers who know Frankenstein mostly as a trope and Austen mostly as an attitude. From this point of view, Pride and Prometheus moves pretty quickly and efficiently into thriller mode. After an opening chapter shows us Mary’s interest in science and her not-quite-courtship with Charles Woodleigh – whose arrogant dismissal of Anning reveals him to be an insufferable snob – the viewpoint shifts to the creature, trying to figure out a way to pursue Victor to England, where he has fled with Henry Clerval. At a ball in London, Mary meets and hits it off with Victor over their mutual interest in science (they discuss Humphrey Davy and Erasmus Darwin), and afterward both catch a glimpse of the hulking form of the creature standing motionless outside, watching. This sets up the main dynamic of the plot, which is basically a pursuit tale: Victor, trying to stay one step ahead of the creature while making plans to create the mate that he had promised, makes his way to Scotland and eventually the Orkneys, while Mary, clearly attracted to him, tries to suss out his dark secret.
The central crime of the story, involving one of the Bennet sisters, will be familiar to anyone who has read the novella, but the long denouement, which involves an arduous (and somewhat overlong) journey, highwaymen, surly Scotsmen, the fate of Clerval, and an unlikely alliance between Mary and the creature, takes the tale in some unexpected directions. Kessel skillfully ratchets up the suspense while developing a particularly complex and nuanced portrait of the creature himself, who eventually names himself Adam. No doubt we’ll be hearing a lot about Frankenstein in this bicentennial year of its publication, but Kessel treats his source with the care and intelligence it deserves, offering a kind of secret history that slips seamlessly into Shelley’s original tale without once violating its spirit.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the March 2018 issue of Locus.
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