Formidable intelligence and futuristic free-thinking were wound into the DNA of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She was born in 1797 to radical political philosopher and atheist William Godwin and pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Although her mother died within a month after giving birth, Mary inherited her mother’s restless intellect and received an exceptional “masculine education” from her father (William Godwin’s words, not mine).
William’s progressive parenting backfired when his sixteen-year-old daughter fell in love with Percy Shelley, an atheist and radical free-thinker so much like William that they naturally detested one another. William’s antipathy to Percy might have had something to do with the fact that the poet was still married to his original wife, Harriet. Despite this technicality, Mary and Percy eloped to France in 1814.
Upon their return, Papa Godwin promptly cut them off from all financial support, which forced the couple to return to the Continent in 1816 in order to live on Percy’s meager income. It was then that they met Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori and participated in that fateful contest at the Villa Diodati. Later that year, Harriet Shelley obligingly drowned herself, thereby clearing the way for her successor to marry Percy. Together, Mary and Percy had four children before Percy’s untimely demise in 1822. Alas, only one of their children, Percy Florence Shelley, survived to adulthood.
Mary Shelley first published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818, thereby securing her literary immortality. Although none of her other work would ever achieve such lofty recognition, she continued to write and publish books throughout her lifetime, including The Last Man, one of the first post-apocalyptic dystopian novels in science fiction, a genre she essentially invented. Although she died of a brain tumor in 1851 at the age of 53, she long outlived all three of her male counterparts from that celebrated Villa Diodati ghost-story competition.
In the following story, “Mary” weaves together many of the same themes that endowed Frankenstein with such timeless relevance—the sinister double, the creation of artificial life, the infringement of science and technology on the spiritual realm—while incorporating a cautionary feminist moral that would have made her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, proud.
MY DEAREST ADIELA
(as channeled by Kelly Dunn)
“You may open your eyes now,” my husband said.
I looked at the figure before me in amazement. “Why, it’s my very likeness!” I cried. It really was startling to see a machine that resembled me in so many respects. It sat in a chair at my worktable, leaning slightly forward as if eager to communicate with me.
Glimpsing it for the first time in the dim morning light caused me a momentary shock, for I thought I’d got caught in a dream and could see myself sitting in front of me. I confess I jumped a little, much to my husband’s amusement.
Dominik kissed my hand, his eyes sparkling with the success of his surprise. “Merely a plaything, dearest,” he said. “Its beauty but a pale imitation of your own.”
“But—how on earth—?”
“I constructed it, sweetest heart,” he told me. He went on to say that, as his family’s manse was so isolated, that he thought it would be amusing for me to have a sort of companion. Dominik had often lamented—more than I had—that my father’s objection to our marriage had painfully separated me from my small, proud clan. I chose never to speak of my loneliness, but it seemed Dominik had divined it.
“You ought to have someone about who is not a servant or a menial,” Dominik went on. “One who is like unto yourself, who can be a bosom friend, even a teacher for you, if you like.”
I looked more closely at the automaton’s finely modeled features, the hair that matched the chestnut shade of my own. I could easily see why my father had so valued Dominik’s skills as watchmaker and artist, for these were united in the automaton I saw before me. I pointed to it. “So you made it—for me?”
He smiled. “For you. And her name is Adiela, the same as yours, my love.” Seeing me hesitate, he added, “She cannot harm you. She is here for your improvement, your peace of mind.”
I moved closer to my namesake, examining the lace on its dress, its faintly blushing cheeks, its smooth tapered fingers. It almost looked as if it could breathe. A work of art, truly. No one had ever given me so precious a gift.
“Well, go on,” he encouraged. “Bid her good morning.”
I ignored my husband’s command, looking instead into his handsome face. “It’s very beautiful, but why should I need another companion when I have you?”
He didn’t answer, and I knew I had done what I’d tried so hard not to do—said the very thing to vex him.
“You will find her a useful friend when business calls me away, dearest. And you know that time is at hand.” He gestured in the direction of the front door, where a long box had already been strapped to the waiting carriage.
I did not want to appear ungrateful, had no wish to provoke his frown. “Is it—she, I mean—really so accomplished?” I asked.
“Of course! Try her and see.” He showed me how to activate the motions of the automaton, and how to command it to perform. Filled with the pride of creation, he seemed to find it easy to brush away my tears as he got into the carriage that morning to deliver a custom-made “marvelous machine,” as Dominik called his automatons, to a far-off princely patron, and to receive his further orders.
For my part, I would far rather have had my husband with me than any machine, no matter how intricate. Even my pet canary seemed a preferable companion, being a living thing with feelings, even if of the avian variety. But after days upon days of communing with the little bird, and giving unnecessary orders to my husband’s well-trained servants, and looking out the windows to the barren icy fields and dark woods beyond, I found myself drawn to her—the new Adiela.
I went into the day parlour, where the automaton still sat poised at my worktable, and gave the command. She straightened her posture and looked at me. “Good morning, Adiela,” she pronounced in sweet accents. “What shall we do today?”
The moment I heard that dulcet voice, my fears vanished away. What harm would it do to pretend, to play best-of-friends with the machine my husband had crafted with such care? I smiled at her, a gracious hostess. “Shall we begin with our embroidery?” I placed a threaded needle and hoop into her hands, and to my amazement, the new Adiela began to sew.
That evening I discovered she could sing, and play the pianoforte, and soon I began to repeat the words and memorize the music made by her mechanical hands. At first, I considered the new Adiela a pastime to beguile the hours until hearth or husband should require me. But with each visit, another of her talents came to light. From her I learned the rudiments of French, German, Italian, and Latin—all languages my father had not deigned to teach me. From her mechanical gait I learned the walk and gestures of the demimonde, for I had always secretly longed to be a woman of fashion. Adiela’s smiles of beaming approval would reward me for each task I mastered. Many and many a time I thought, ah, how pleased Dominik would be, if only he could see me thus! And yet, with each new morning, I found myself eager to gain the approbation of the new Adiela.
As my husband’s absence extended from weeks to months, I found myself on many occasions looking deeply into Adiela’s artificial eyes, taking her cold hand, telling her the secrets of my girlhood and newly married life. To my amazement, the new Adiela seemed to understand! She would nod, her eyes reflecting mine, as I confided some childish peccadillo, or revealed to her my thoughts from the most noble to the deeply uncharitable. Whatever the case, she would reply with gentle words of advice, quoting the ancients and the wits of the day. I told her, too, of my increasing loneliness, how I had begun to feel quite weak as darkness came on each night—”Not on account of you, dear Adiela, but because Dominik has been away so long”—and her cold hand would squeeze mine in seeming sympathy.
I felt sure my bodily weakness would pass when I received word of Dominik’s return, but his letters said he could not tell when he would be home again. With each additional day of his abandonment my weakness spread, turning my limbs to lead and my resolve to fog.
One morning I found even leaving my bed difficult. I shook my head at my maid’s indifferent “Shall I call the doctor then?” No, a doctor could not help me. I dressed and slowly made my way downstairs. Only one countenance could cheer me; only one companion could re-energize my enervated frame. I directed my halting footsteps to the beloved figure sitting in her usual place at my worktable. “Oh, what shall I do, my dearest Adiela?” I cried, throwing my arms around her neck. “If only you could help me!”
As I clasped the automaton in my arms, I experienced the strangest sensation. A shock like electricity ran through me. I saw the gears and levers of the new Adiela all at once, experienced a feeling of melting, dissolving away, and then I found myself looking out through her eyes—a pinhole camera of near-blindness. But I could see well enough to observe my body falling like a heavy cloak and crumpling on the floor.
I do not know how much time passed. It seemed an eternity, but at last I perceived my husband, my Dominik, approaching me. Ah, how I wanted to run to him, but I could do nothing unless he chose to activate my mechanism.
“So it has happened,” he said. “Can you hear me, sweetest heart? Your essence has been absorbed into the automaton. Your body is quite used up, as you see—” and here he actually kicked my body which still lay insensible on the carpet—”and your spirit could not sustain it. Therefore you shall animate this machine, dependent on your lord’s commands.”
I could comprehend his words, but my false lips could form no protest to counter them.
He came to me, gently touching my face. I could not feel the caress. “You will speak to me in any language I choose, you will walk for me, and play music for me, my Adiela,” he said. If I could have run away on my mechanical legs, I would have, but I could not. I could only respond to his desires; I could not act on my own. And so my body and my voice did as he required.
At last he nodded, satisfied. “My automatons are the most lifelike in the land,” he commented, “but you, my dearest Adiela, surpass them all. You will soon be delivered to the Emperor himself, and I believe he will be very pleased indeed with all you can do! Once he possesses you, every crowned head in Europe will demand one just like you or better—though I must say, my dear, that will challenge my skill to the utmost.”
He placed me upright in a long box, arranging the packing around me himself and placing the parcel in the farthest corner of the parlour. After another eternity of activity and abyss, his manservant came in. “Your new machine is quite the masterwork, sir,” he commented, jerking his head toward the day parlour’s interior. Dimly, I could discern a pretty female figure—a new “marvelous machine” to replace me.
“That’s all right, Christian,” my husband responded as he entered the room. He waved his hand, indicating the neglected nook where the container confined me. “Merely nail the lid on that box there, and have it securely fastened to the carriage.”
Even as he spoke, Dominik was hurrying a young, well-dressed damsel into the chamber. “Not yet,” he teased her, playfully. “Not quite yet.” The youthful lady held her hands up to her face, yet darted her head about as if trying to catch the slightest sound or scent that might give hint to the surprise. How I wanted to call out to her! But my lips had been sealed against free speech forever.
The man who had been my husband smiled upon the new lady. “You may open your eyes now.”
She gave a little smothered scream of shock as she looked upon the adorable automaton posed charmingly at the worktable. “O! I thought for a moment you were hiding another woman in here! But—it’s—a kind of doll?”
“Only a plaything, dearest—” I heard him say as Christian cut off my view by lowering the box to the floor and positioning a lid upon it, shutting me in darkness. “—its beauty but a pale imitation of your own.”
Copyright 2016 by Kelly Dunn
The multi-talented Kelly Dunn is a professional journalist, editor, actress, and university instructor, to say nothing of her onetime stint as a hearse-rental dealer. Her fiction has appeared in such venues as The Dead That Walk, Midian Unmade, and the Bram Stoker Award-winning anthology After Death. In addition, she has published the urban fantasy novel Beloved of the Fallen under her pseudonym “Savannah Kline.” and edited the speculative fiction anthology Mutation Nation: Tales of Genetic Mishaps, Monsters, and Madness: Oh…and she also happens to be the love of my life! No wonder, eh?
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And don’t forget to read ALL of the chilling stories from the Villa Diodati! If you missed it check out Percy Shelley’s story, and come back to see what horrors “John Polidori” and “Lord Byron” dredge up. It’s more fun than a blind date with Dracula!
Until next time…STAY GOTHIC!