A Frankensteinian Bluebeard Tale
A review of Kate Horsley’s The Monster’s Wife (Barbican Press, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille
While some would argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has some gothic elements to it, Kate Horsley’s The Monster’s Wife emphasizes these gothic characteristics. Set during the period where Victor Frankenstein travels to an island in the Orkney’s to create the female monster for his creation, Horsley’s tale expands upon this episode of Shelley’s novel, highlighting the complexities of Victor’s arrival in the Orkney’s and his treatment of others in his travels.
Horsley sets her tale on a far off island, highlighting the possibility of a gothic tale, emphasizing the role of the island as a symbol of isolation. She maps ideas of bigotry and backward behaviour onto the people living on the island, underlying an assumption that many authors make about island culture – namely, that it is cut off from the ‘civilized world’. Gothic novels tend to emphasize isolation, and the use of the island symbol helps to bring attention to this idea of isolation (which is one that Mary Shelley describes as characteristic of both Frankenstein and the monster he creates). She further brings attention to this isolation characteristic by having Victor move into a mouldy old manner house and isolate himself from all of the islanders, becoming the mysterious, strange, handsome man that is characteristic of gothic fiction. His choice of locale – the mouldy old manner house – is also a central aspect of the gothic novel.
If the mouldy house wasn’t gothic enough, Horsley further emphasizes this gothic element by also having secret rooms. The notion of the gothic house belonging to a strange, mysterious gentleman evokes the fairy tale Bluebeard, which is supposed to be a lesson about becoming too curious. In Bluebeard, a young woman marries a man with a blue beard and he tells her that she can go anywhere in his large house except for one room that he keeps locked. This, of course, makes her more curious and when Bluebeard leaves the house and gives her the keys, she is overcome by her curiosity and unlocks the door to that room and finds all of Bluebeard’s previous wives who he has murdered because they similarly became curious about that room. In Horsley’s The Monster’s Wife, the character Oona is similarly overcome with her curiosity and finds the keys to Victor Frankenstein’s hidden room, and I will leave the rest a secret for you to discover when you read Horsley’s book.
Yet, Bluebeard isn’t the only fairy tale that Horsley weaves through her tale. Characters in the tale understand themselves through reference to fairy tales, relating elements of their life to the tales they have been told and there is a mythic vein that runs through island life. Oona, in particular, regularly relates her notions of selfhood and her experiences to fairy tales about Selkies, seals who can take off their skins and become human and who frequently hunger for the human experience and will abduct people to be their wives. As much as The Monster’s Wife is a reimagining of Frankenstein… it is also a fairy tale retold and shaped through the lens of the monstrous.
Horsley weaves elements of gothic romance through her tale – the dark old house, the closeness of death, the romantic stranger with a dark past, people haunted by their past, and the ever present quality of secrecy. Yet, she doesn’t isolate that gothic nature to Frankenstein or the castle he occupies. Horsley’s isolated island is similarly full of secrets for the reader to discover and a buried past to uncover. People are shunned for their differences on the island and celebrated for their similitude. It is a community shaped by gossip. Oona herself is shunned for her heart condition, which allows others to assume that she is weak and vulnerable and easy to prey upon.
This is a novel where knowledge is danger and threats lurk everywhere. It is a tale full of grey areas where there are no innocents or heroes, only shades of villain.
To find out more about Kate Horsley, visit http://www.katehorsley.co.uk
To discover more about The Monster’s Wife, go to http://www.katehorsley.co.uk/project-view/the-monsters-wife/