12 Winters Blog

Preface to ‘Mrs Saville’–2021 Reboot

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 15, 2021

My novel Mrs Saville was published in 2018, although it had begun to appear two years earlier in serialized installments at Strands Lit Sphere. It was important to me that the book come out in 2018, the bicentennial year of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, because, as the cover makes plain, Mrs Saville is “a novel that begins where Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ends.”

I thought it was appropriate homage to the novel, and the author, that inspired my sequel; and I hoped it would be a statement readers would find intriguing. In retrospect, tying Mrs Saville so overtly to Mary Shelley’s classic may have been a marketing misstep. Mrs Saville has been languishing without readers for going on three years — a situation I hope to ease in 2021.

I’ve been teaching Frankenstein for more than twenty years, and I always begin our study by noting that students probably think they know the basic story already, but in fact what they know is a greatly simplified misrepresentation of what Mary Shelley wrote as a profoundly depressed, yet highly motivated, as well as eclectically educated, teenager. The novel was published anonymously in January 1818. In spite of a small initial press run, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus caused an immediate stir among readers and reviewers alike.

Several editions soon followed, as did stage productions that proved highly profitable (not to Mary, however, as modern copyright laws did not yet exist). Beginning with the stage adaptations and continuing with screen adaptations almost the moment cinema was invented (Thomas Edison’s film company produced the first Frankenstein movie, a silent film, in 1910), the novel was reduced to a simplistic horror story about a mute monster terrorizing his creator and anyone unlucky enough to encounter him.

This basic narrative was solidified in the cultural psyche with director James Whales’ wildly popular 1931 movie Frankenstein, and Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the creature (bolts in his neck and all) became emblematic of Mary Shelley’s novel, even though the movie and the monster have little to do with what she created on the page. In the film, Karloff’s creature is an inarticulate fiend, unable to control his emotions and his strength.

The Whales film, like the adaptations that came before and the majority to follow, misrepresented Frankenstein, the novel, as a story about a frightening, out-of-control monster. So, perhaps, my tying Mrs Saville directly to the novel may encourage would-be readers to think my book is just the further exploits of a monster running amok. Such an assumption about Mrs Saville would be as far from the truth as the stage and film adaptations have been from Mary Shelley’s original.

Readers who open the pages of Frankenstein soon find out just how watered-down the story has become in the popular imagination. Scholar Susan J. Wolfson covers the misrepresentation well in her introduction to the Longman Cultural Edition of the 1818 text. Frankenstein is

a vibrant intersection of interlocking cultural concerns: the claims of humanity against scientific exploration; the relationship between ‘monsters’ and their creators; the questionable judgments by which physical difference is termed monstrous; the responsibility of society for the violent behavior of those to whom it refuses care, compassion, even basic decency; the relationships between men and women, and parents and children (and the symbolic version in care-givers and care-receivers); and the psychological dynamics of repression, doubling, and alter egos.

Wolfson’s description accurately represents the novel for which I wrote a sequel. A lot is going on in Frankenstein, and (I like to believe) a lot is going on in Mrs Saville. That said, I don’t want to make my novel out to be a dry, introspective treatise. Far from it. Nor was Mary Shelley’s. Regarding her book’s genesis, she tells us in the introduction to the novel’s 1831 edition:

I busied myself to think of a story; . . . One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror–one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.

In writing Mrs Saville, similar goals were foremost in my mind as well. Otherwise, my sequel would be unworthy of its connection to Frankenstein, a book I have loved nearly all of my adult life.

When a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wrote that Mrs Saville is “a fantastically chilling psychodrama intelligently woven into literary history,” I felt that I had hit my mark. Moreover, in an unsolicited review, the novelist Spenser Stephens said of the book: “The author fits the pieces together with a seamless and terrifying logic. He shows a nuanced understanding of the darkness that lives within us all.”

I was gratified by these early assessments, and further gratified when Mrs Saville began to receive some critical distinctions. It was a quarterfinalist for the ScreenCraft Cinematic Novel Award in 2018, and the same year the novel was a finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award. Then in 2020 Mrs Saville won the Manhattan Book Award in the category of literary fiction.

I felt that the accolades, modest though they be, vindicated the artistic risks I took with the novel. I wanted Mrs Saville to seem an artifact of the same time period and the same place as its impetus; that is, London at the dawn of the nineteenth century. I tried to achieve this effect primarily through two means. Like Mary Shelley’s original, I used an epistolary structure (a novel told via a series of letters). I also imagined Margaret Saville, my narrator, as a woman similar to Shelley in that she was largely self-educated via her own voracious reading.

My novel also needed to be in British English, as opposed to American English, meaning spellings, expressions, punctuation style, syntax, and so forth in the manner that Mary Shelley used in the early 1800s. I found that I had difficulty composing while keeping in mind British English’s differences from modern American English, so I decided to write the first drafts as I was accustomed to writing; then to convert my Americanisms into nineteenth-century British vernacular in the processes of revising and editing. I found, then, that the unfamiliar style didn’t impede my creativity.

In spite of the work I’d put into writing Mrs Saville, and its good reviews and modest accomplishments, finding readers for the book has proven a considerable challenge. I wasn’t able to capitalize on its winning the Manhattan Book Award to any great extent because I was notified of the prize in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was peaking again. Furious debates were raging everywhere about opening up businesses, etc., and whether or not schools should open in August. Everyone, including me, was distracted by weightier matters than a novel’s winning a prize.

I promoted Mrs Saville on social media, and I purchased advertisements here and there (spending more money than I care to recall . . . in the thousands of dollars), but none of it accomplished much as far as attracting readers. Nearly every writer is facing this challenge. It is estimated that more than 3 million books are published each year, and yet only a handful of authors account for the vast majority of books sales, according to EPJ Data Science.

Writers trying to build a readership face a classic catch-22: Librarians and bookstore managers are reluctant to devote shelf space to an author that readers don’t recognize; and readers don’t recognize these authors because librarians and bookstore managers are reluctant to devote shelf space to them.

So, instead of relying on social media and costly advertising, for this promotional reboot I’m targeting book clubs in hopes of getting Mrs Saville directly into the hands of readers. From the start, however, there’s an obstacle. Book clubbers don’t tend to buy books, preferring to borrow them from libraries — therefore, if libraries haven’t acquired your title, book clubs will most likely pass.

To overcome this obstacle, I’m happy to send interested book clubs copies of Mrs Saville. I’d much rather spend money on getting my books out into the world, as opposed to buying a few meager inches of expensive and inconsequential advertising space. Moreover, I’ll be happy to speak with groups, in person or via Skype or Zoom, etc. I’m happy to do readings and interviews — essentially anything to connect with potential readers.

Here is the novel’s description:

Margaret Saville’s husband has been away on business for weeks and has stopped replying to her letters. Her brother, Robert Walton, has suddenly returned after three years at sea, having barely survived his exploratory voyage to the northern pole. She still grieves the death of her youngest child as she does her best to raise her surviving children, Felix and Agatha. The depth of her brother’s trauma becomes clear, so that she must add his health and sanity to her list of cares. A bright spot seems to be a new friendship with a young woman who has just returned to England from the Continent, but Margaret soon discovers that her friend, Mary Shelley, has difficulties of her own, including an eccentric poet husband, Percy, and a book she is struggling to write. Margaret’s story unfolds in a series of letters to her absent husband, desperate for him to return or at least to acknowledge her epistles and confirm that he is well. She is lonely, grief-stricken and afraid, yet in these darkest of times a spirit of independence begins to awaken. ‘Mrs Saville’ begins where Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ ends. The paperback edition includes the short story “A Wintering Place” and an Afterword by the author.

It’s important to note that even though Mrs Saville is a sequel to Frankenstein, it’s not necessary to have read Frankenstein in order to understand and (I trust) enjoy my novel.

Anyone interested in talking with me about using Mrs Saville for their book club or another literary function, please contact me through my website — tedmorrissey.com — or email me, jtedmorrissey [at] gmail [dot] com.

I’ve always written, and I’ve always written in the same state as most writers — largely without readers. I will always write, but some readers would be nice.

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