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A conversation with ‘Pride and Prometheus’ author John Kessel

The Jane Austen Summer Program is pleased to add John Kessel to our lineup of speakers. Kessel, author of the Jane Austen/Mary Shelley mashup “Pride and Prometheus,” is a professor at N.C. State University, a few miles down the road in Raleigh. We had a chance to catch up with him about his novel, which called a “carefully thought-out crossover that shines with affection for both its sources, one that never goes for the cheap joke when it can go for the gut punch.”

What was it about “Frankenstein” and “Pride & Prejudice” that made you want to combine them?

John Kessel (2017 by John Pagliuca)

I got the idea for “Pride and Prometheus” while sitting at the critique table of the 2005 Sycamore Hill Writers’ Conference, during my comments on Benjamin Rosenbaum’s wonderfully surreal deconstruction of Jane Austen in his story “Sense and Sensibility” (reprinted in his collection “The Ant King and Other Stories“). It hit me that “Pride and Prejudice” and “Frankenstein” were published only a few years apart. Despite big differences in content and sensibility, the two books would have sat on the same bookshelves in 1818. Yet I had seldom heard them spoken of together.

I love Austen’s novels, but I would not have considered writing a novel based on “Pride and Prejudice” if I had not seen the opportunity to fuse Austen’s characters with the characters and plot of “Frankenstein.” I became intrigued as much by the differences between Jane Austen’s and Mary Shelley’s writing as by the similarities, and in writing the book thought a lot about the differences between the novel of manners and the gothic, and the odd ways in which they might speak to one another. Also, it was fun, a kind of challenging puzzle, to make them come together in a satisfying way without disrespecting either writer or her work.

You deftly weave the original “Frankenstein” tale and a “P&P” sequel. What was the hardest part of melding the two? Fusing the worlds of Austen and Shelley presented problems if I was not simply going to write some parody. “Pride and Prejudice” and “Frankenstein” are antithetical books. Austen maintains a cool distance from her characters; she treats them with irony and leavens even the most extreme situations with wry humor. There’s plenty of psychological distress, but for the most part the most violent thing that happens in an Austen novel is someone getting caught out in the rain.

“Frankenstein” is full of histrionic excess, chases and murders: an artificial human is created from dead tissue, a home is burned down in vengeance, a child is strangled, a woman is hanged for a crime she did not commit, and a man chases a monster to the north pole. There are no jokes.

Frankenstein’s monster does not belong in a Regency drawing room. Mary Bennet does not belong in a 19th-century laboratory.

The very challenge of mating these disparate tales made it a fascinating project, and the more I got into Shelley’s and Austen’s characters the more interesting the project became. Making Mary Bennet the heroine meant I had to evolve her from the sententious, clueless girl she is in “Pride and Prejudice,” allowing time for her to mature, to gain a little self-knowledge and sympathy.

The voices of the two novels are very different. I think I can manage an idiom that resembles Shelley’s, but getting into the ring with Austen, whose wit and deft social implication are far beyond mine, was scary. In the end I did not try to reproduce either Austen’s or Shelley’s styles, but attempted to deploy a style that alludes to theirs while being fundamentally modern.

“Pride and Prometheus” was originally a novella. In what ways did you expand it to a full-length novel? I first wrote the story as a novella titled “Austenstein” that I brought to the summer 2006 Sycamore Hill workshop. After my story was critiqued, fellow workshopper Karen Joy Fowler, author of “The Jane Austen Book Club,” among many other fine novels, suggested to me that it should be a novel. I resisted. I did not think I could find a novel’s worth of story in Mary Bennet’s brief encounter with Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. The story was published in 2008 under the title “Pride and Prometheus.”

But 10 years later I returned to the idea, realizing that the novella was only the middle of the story, and by starting earlier and carrying past its end, and adding the perspectives of Victor and his Creature, it would make a book.

Since my novel occurs during the course of “Frankenstein” rather than after it is finished, I had work my story into the gaps in Shelley’s. “Pride and Prometheus” grew into a secret history of “Frankenstein,” elaborating on events that occur in that book, adding new ones. This led me to situations where in essence I followed the characters through their reactions as much as making them do what I needed them to do. What would the Creature think upon observing a ball in London society? How might Frankenstein converse with the Bennets at Darcy’s dinner table? My job with Victor and his Creature was to extend what we know of them from the novel, to go deeper into their characters, to explain some things that are left out, and imagine why and how they do the things they do. With Mary I had more freedom, and so I could allow her to change more as the story went on. What historical research did you undertake in writing “Pride and Prometheus”? My novel is set in 1815, so I tried hard to make sure that my picture of that world is as accurate as I could make it given the requirements of my plot. This led to some improbabilities, and into a lot of research about the manners and practices of that time. Daniel Pool’s book “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew” was very helpful, as were various essays written by Austen readers and researchers that are available online.

I worked with the Oxford English Dictionary open on my desktop so I could check to make sure that my vocabulary was appropriate to the time.

Also, scenes are set in real places from Lyme Regis, London, and Matlock in England to Edinburgh and Thurso in Scotland, on to the Orkney Islands. I had visited Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland, and have been to England a number of times, but not to all of these towns, so that involved research into old maps and geographical descriptions. I found a detailed city map of London in 1800 that was invaluable.  

A few historical incidents and characters appear in the book, notably Mary Anning, a self-taught young woman who became one of the leading experts on paleontology of the early 1800s. She, and the great chemist Sir Humphry Davy (whom Mary Shelley had met), and various other topical references make their way into the story.

What were some challenges in writing this story compared with writing your other sci-fi novels? Writing science fiction requires, at times, a lot of research, and requires “burying” that research in the background and details of the narrative, something that historical novelists have to do as well, so in fact I was somewhat prepared for this kind of writing. The sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson says that science fiction is a form of historical fiction, with the clock turned forward rather than back.

One of the dangers of having to do so much research is the temptation of dumping all that fascinating stuff you have found out into the narrative, bogging down the reader with your knowledge. In science fiction we call this, “I’ve suffered for my art, now it’s your turn.” I worked to avoid this.

One unexpected problem I had was that some Austen readers have expected me to write an Austen novel, complete with the happy ending. My elevator pitch for “Pride and Prometheus” is that it is a story in which an Austen heroine falls into “Frankenstein,” and becomes involved in the gothic concerns, psychological observations, and tragic mishaps of Mary Shelley, which are not really compatible with the genteel veneer of Austen’s work. But despite Austen’s comedy, I think that she was fundamentally serious, and lots of hard truths lurk beneath of the surface of the charming stories she gives us. So I hope that is not a fatal problem.

My science fiction, such a my 2017 book “The Moon and the Other,” tends to focus heavily on the characters and on the social issues raised by technological change, so it was not as much a stretch as it might seem for me to make this shift. I pride myself on my ability to adapt my voice to the requirements of the project I’m working on. For the most part I very much enjoyed writing “Pride and Prometheus,” playing in the fields created by Austen and Shelley, and I hope that readers will take as much pleasure from reading it.


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