John Kessel is one of those much-lauded authors (with two Nebula Awards and a Shirley Jackson Award to his credit, among sundry other accolades) of whom I’d never heard before I was offered his latest book to review. Is Pride and Prometheus representative of his work and career? I don’t know, but I hope so. This is a fine, measured novel, deeply interested in the social conditions and conventions of its setting, and deeply interested, too, in human nature and human frailty.
It’s not nearly as fun as Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (Saga, 2017), which is working with some of the same influences—revisioning 19th-century popular fiction from a point of view that emphasises women’s choices and agency, and which interrogates the assumptions of the original texts. Kessel, while providing plenty of entertainment and an appealing female protagonist, falls more towards the literary genre’s examination of interiority (and examination of the interiority of screwed-up men) than Goss’s more gleefully and energetically penny-dreadful influenced novel. I’m comparing it to Goss’s novel in part because it’s the most recent similar approach I’ve read, and because both Alchemist’s Daughter and Pride and Prometheus are books that set out, in their own ways, to do something specific with their influences, and they each do it well.
I should also probably admit that I’m in the category of readers who have, in their lives to date, read neither Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice nor Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. (I’ve seen adaptations, both for stage and screen.) Yet the cultural valence of each of these works is such that Pride and Prometheus operates on the reader with an instant familiarity—and Kessel’s choices, then, also upend some of that familiarity.
There are three main points of view in Pride and Prometheus. The most interesting, by my lights, is Mary Bennett, younger sister of Elizabeth Bennett. Several years have passed since the end of Pride and Prejudice, and Mary has passed thirty years of age and is entering into spinsterhood. She has an interest in natural philosophy, especially fossils, and feels as though she should find a man to marry, but does not feel as though there is a man who will marry her. When she encounters Victor Frankenstein, a young man haunted by some secret of his past, she finds herself oddly compelled by his presence. Mary’s part of the narrative is told in the third person, unlike the other two narrators, who recount their parts of the story in the first person. This matches the approach of the original narratives.
Victor Frankenstein and the creature—eventually, at least to Mary, “Adam”—provide the other two narrative strands. Frankenstein is a very intelligent young man, but one whose self-absorption and self-regard gets in the way of his connection with other people. Frankenstein is fundamentally uninterested in anyone but himself and his view of his creation as a monster—savage, without human feeling—creates his own tragedy, a tragedy of self-involvement. Adam is Frankenstein’s mirror image, dogging Frankenstein’s footsteps to London to force him to create a woman to be Adam’s helpmeet and peer, so obsessed with making Frankenstein end his loneliness (and revenging himself for the slights and injuries of his exclusion from human company) that he doesn’t see other options for himself. He, too, is self-absorbed—albeit in a different fashion.
Adam’s quest for a mate, and his exclusion from society that would challenge his intelligence lies in parallel with Mary’s ambivalence about her marriage prospects and her exclusion from masculine intellectual activities. When Frankenstein steals the body of Mary’s younger sister Kitty (untimely dead) to make a mate for Adam, Mary sets out to pursue and eventually to confront Frankenstein about what he’s done—and what he’s told her. Her journey takes her out of her sphere of relative privilege, and brings her and Adam together in temporary unity of purpose. But at the end, neither Victor Frankenstein nor Adam can transcend their individual obsessions, though the novel held out hope of it.
This is an interesting book, a meditation on human nature and human nurture. It’s also, most interestingly for me, Mary’s coming-of-age: Mary Bennett takes risks and enters into maturity and decides what she wants for herself. (It turns out that what she wants in the end is an independent life involving fossils and a life of the mind, and not men like Victor Frankenstein, so I feel entirely in sympathy with Mary Bennett by the end of the novel.)
Readers who have low tolerance for unreliable narrators and self-absorbed men may find Pride and Prometheus an unrewarding read. But it is a measured and compelling narrative, and one that interrogates its influences from interesting angles. I enjoyed it. You might, too.
Pride and Prometheus is available from Saga Press.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.