Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? – John Milton, Paradise Lost
When Mary Shelley handed in her Frankenstein manuscript, one of the most banned and censored books since its publication, this is the epigraph she used. As an interesting aside, John Milton wrote his poem during the English Civil War as he watched Cromwell and Royalist forces tear his country to beyond recognition. In the quote, Adam is lamenting his fate as one who was unwillingly brought into this world by a higher power before subsequently being abandoned. Frankenstein abandons his creation when the latter does not turn out as expected. As punishment, the monster who craves love and companionship more than anything and did not ask to be born takes revenge on his ‘father’.
He never gave me a name
This the monster cries in the 1994 film adaptation. It is a chilling representation of what we know today as attachment or reactive attachment disorder.
Frankenstein is the only novel I can think of when the womb is not used to bring forth life. It is women that grow, give birth to and nurture babies. In Frankenstein, we find the total annihilation of that role with the severest of consequences.
Fast forward exactly 170 years to Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child. Do you want to be scared? This is the book for you. I read it in 5 hours about 20 years ago. Lessing was born in Iran in 1919 to British parents. When she was 6 years old, her family moved to Zimbabwe where she grew up. She moved to England as an adult. She was not a good mother and abandoned her two children from a first marriage, rationalising it;
For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.
It is interesting then that the mother in The Fifth Child, against all odds, is a very good one. She is so remarkable that I have long remembered her and feel deeply sorry for her. The novel is set in 1960s England. Harriet and David reject completely the new era of baby boomer liberalism. They create the white picket fence home of bliss and are incredibly happy. But then something happens. Harriet becomes pregnant with her fifth child. The old warnings of be careful what you wish for or be happy with what you have become extremely apparent. The pregnancy is not like the others and when Harriet gives birth, well…
Large and ugly, violent and uncontrollable, the infant Ben, ‘full of cold dislike’, tears at Harriet’s breast. Struggling to care for her new-born child, faced with a darkness and a strange defiance she has never known before, Harriet is deeply afraid of what, exactly, she has brought into the world…
What does the womb bring forth? There is a reason I revisited The Fifth Child this month. In 2001, a documentary was released called Neanderthal. I came to greatly admire this human. I would any species that survived for 300,000 years in Ice Age Europe, enduring the harshest climate the world has ever known. They started to die out 30,000 years ago when our species Homo Sapiens arrived in Europe. It was long assumed that we wiped them out. The caves of Gibraltar were one of the last outposts of the Neanderthal. Interbreeding was dismissed as scientists assumed any offspring would be infertile in the same way that a mule is.
It’s not so. I have learnt this week that Neanderthals and Home Sapiens interbred, the biggest hotspot in modern day Italy. 1% and 4% of the DNA of modern Europeans and their descendants on other continents is of Neanderthal origin.
Perhaps the mysterious presence in Ben was genetically inherited Neanderthal traits? Doris Lessing was certainly ahead of her time when she wrote her novel. Though it turns out she may not have been generous in her assumptions. Neanderthals held the FoxP2 gene for language. They were incredible tool makers. They used make-up to distinguish friend from foe and may even have buried their dead with funeral offerings.
She felt she was looking, though him, at a race that reached is apex thousands and thousands of years before humanity, whatever that meant, took this stage. Did Ben’s people live in caves underground while the ice age ground overhead, eating fish from dark subterranean rivers, or sneaking up into the bitter snow to snare a bear, or a bird – or even people, her (Harriet’s) ancestors? Did his people rape the females of humanity’s forebears? Thus making new races, which had flourished and departed, but perhaps had left their seeds in the human matrix, here and there, to appear again, as Ben had?
Here’s what the reader does know. Ben came from Harriet and refused all the affection she gave him. She even rescues him from an asylum where he is banished as a last resort even though this leads to the destruction of her family. He is in no way thankful. And in a final act of love, Harriet sets him free, knowing she’ll never see him again. Ben is the opposite of Frankenstein’s monster.