By Tom De Haven
May 05, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein

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Following close on the heels of Kenneth Branagh’s misbegotten remake of Frankenstein, here comes still another exhumation of the world’s most famous monster story. Written by history professor and novelist Theodore Roszak (The Making of a Counter Culture, Flicker), THE MEMOIRS OF ELIZABETH FRANKENSTEIN is a murky brew of metaphysics, erotica, and 18th-century proto-feminism. But readers also expecting a grisly tale of horror will be disappointed. In this version, the stitched-together lab creation of Victor Frankenstein appears just briefly during the last several chapters, skulking around only long enough to befriend the eponymous heroine, and then to strangle her on her wedding night.

As an infant, Elizabeth Lavenza — illegitimate, motherless, and rejected by her father — is placed in the care of a wandering Gypsy. Nine years later, she’s adopted by the enigmatic wife of wealthy Baron Alphonse Frankenstein. Brought to live in a sumptuous but labyrinthine castle, the girl discovers that Lady Caroline Frankenstein belongs to a secret witches’ coven, and that she has taken Elizabeth into her home to be the intellectual companion to her favorite son.

Young Victor Frankenstein is ”a restless spirit, a born devotee of uncharted places,” and a downright beautiful boy. He is also a budding scientist, taking equal glee in the dissection of animals, the rigors of calculus, and the meticulous observation of electrical storms. Under the tutelage of a crone named Seraphina, Elizabeth and Victor are systematically taught the ”women’s mysteries,” including a series of ”erotic devotions” meant to illuminate the ancient secrets of life. Victor, however, proves to be a reluctant pupil, spurning magic, sensuality, and instinct in favor of aggressive intellect. To dramatize his choice, he betrays Elizabeth’s trust, and shatters their friendship, by raping her.

Although the narrative often gets buried under a Swiss avalanche of alchemical lore, arcane sexual rites, and the pompous commentaries of a fictitious 19th-century scholar, it’s not difficult to figure out what Roszak is up to here. He’s constructed a New Age parable trickily disguised as a high gothic novel. And the sorrowful lesson to be learned is this: Just as video killed the radio star, ”masculine” science — once upon a time and forevermore — annihilated the older ”feminine” wisdom. You can argue with Roszak’s notions (at least I can) and still admire his novel — for its passion and sheer inventiveness, but especially for its superb full-length portrait of the unluckiest bride in literature. B

The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein

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