I’m often a bit skeptical about retellings of classic novels. So when my book club The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White as our next book, I wasn’t super thrilled. There’s a lot of Mary Shelley inspired work out there, did we need to read another one? Of course, I was wrong.
When young Elizabeth Lavenza entered the Frankenstein home, she believed becoming Victor Frankenstein’s friend was her only chance at survival. She spent her childhood learning how to read his expressions and please him, learning how to become Victor’s Elizabeth.
When Victor leaves for university and his father begins to tally Elizabeth’s expenses, she feels her grip on life slipping. She must find Victor and once again prove herself indispensable so she won’t be thrown out on the street. She’ll do everything she can to manage Victor’s temper and appeal to him. Behind her soft tone and white dresses, she has the calculating mind of someone determined to secure her place in the world. She is a survivor, and she’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive… even as her world grows darker.
Let’s get into it…
This novel starts off a little slow as it introduces Elizabeth and establishes her back story. (It has to do this, though, since we get very little of it in the original Frankenstein.) But it immediately settles into a dark, gothic tone that I loved. (The audiobook narrator has a charming British accent that I’m sure helps.) The way White includes, and perhaps more importantly excludes, certain details feels very true to Shelly.
Once the story begins to line up with Shelly’s Frankenstein, things really get going. You get to see the same plot points but from an alternative perspective. This feels like a reward for knowing your classic lit. Yet, when events don’t transpire exactly as Victor narrates them in Frankenstein, you’re left wondering what those differences mean. This increases suspense and drives the plot forward.
Now, aside from finding the premise and plot engaging, I also enjoyed the questions of agency this novel brings up. How responsible is Elizabeth for the bad choices she makes when she has so little agency as a woman of obscure background? How responsible is she for Victor’s actions as the one who taught him to obscure his emotions? And is she responsible for the governesses’ fates as the one who invited Justine into the Frankenstein home?
These questions are related to the setting’s concept of gender roles. Madam Frankenstein brings Elizabeth into her home to be a companion to Victor. And when Madam Frankenstein dies, Elizabeth takes on some of the roles of the woman of the house (though she leaves mothering the youngest Frankenstein boys to Justine), yet she does not have the family name or the privileges it comes with.
Really, if I had more time, I would love to pair reading this with reading Frankenstein. I appreciate both in a very academic literary way. I think it would be fascinating to examine The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein in the context of Shelly, gothic fiction, and trends in YA lit.
Final thoughts: Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is as dark as the original and offers much to consider. It contains fascinating insight into the mind of a teenage girl driven to protect a dangerous mind for her own survival. Add in questions of agency, independence, love, and family, and you’ve got quite an entertaining read.