Monstrous Women

I was recently in a bookstore that had a special section devoted to boxed sets of books packaged with their movie adaptation. A little girl picked up Frankenstein and handed it to her mother, who rolled her eyes. “You don’t want that. That’s for boys.”

I assume the mother had never heard of Mary Shelley.

Dear Mary Shelley, we are so grateful for you.

Mary Shelley’s creation had a profound impact on the creation of not one, but two genres: Horror and Science Fiction.

Mentioning Mary Shelley on this blog may seem to be a departure for me, since she was not strictly connected to the Pre-Raphaelites. However, Dr. John Polidori, uncle of Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was there the fateful night that Byron suggested that all those present at Villa Diodati write a ghost story.

Taking up the challenge, Mary Shelley began Frankenstein and Polidori wrote The Vampyre.

Returning back to Frankenstein, I was amused at first to hear a mother label Frankenstein as just for boys, especially when it was created by a woman.

 It seems that by some, Shelley is forgotten and all things monstrous and ugly are designated as male things. While girls are assigned the world of Barbie and Disney Princesses.

I’m a gal who has always reveled in my femininity – and also adore Frankenstein and respect Shelley’s masterpiece. I grew up with a healthy dose of Edward Gorey and I’ll always choose an old Hammer Horror film over the latest romantic comedy. If you give me a choice between Pride and Prejudice and ,say, Silence of the Lambs my answer will be “I can love both”.

And I do.

Art and literature give us many examples of monstrous women, such as Lamia, who transforms from a serpent to a beautiful female.

'Lamia', John William Waterhouse
Lamia, John William Waterhouse

Burne-Jones’ The Finding of Medusa also depicts a woman we should fear.


Nimue in The Beguiling of Merlin (Burne-Jones) manipulates and takes control of Merlin.

'The Beguiling of Merlin', Sir Edward Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Recently, I blogged about Rossetti’s image of Andromeda that depicted her longing to see Medusa’s head.  Andromeda represents the good-natured woman we should aspire to be, while Medusa is a being so monstrous that she can turn you to stone if you simply look at her.

What if they were two sides of the same coin?  We are complex and nuanced beings. We can not all be innocent, pure Ophelia. Neither are we Gorgons.

Lady Lilith
Alexa Wilding as Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rossetti’s Lady Lilith is beautiful, yet something powerful and fearsome lingers under the surface of that beauty.

“Beware of her fair hair, for she excels
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”
– Dante Gabriel Rossetti

To the little girl whose mother told her Frankenstein was for boys: My wish for you is that you learn that women can be strong, innovative creators. Some things we create are pretty and some are not. You can enjoy them all without fear of boundaries created by generations past. Don’t let assumed constraints weigh you down.

“The beginning is always today.”

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

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