The Civic and Parish Church of Bournemouth

Mary Shelley – Women and Power by The Rev Professor June Boyce-Tillman

SERMON – St Peter’s Bournemouth 20th Oct 2019


The kingdom of heaven is within – within whom and within what? Is there a difference between human beings and others? 

A friend of mine has just been given an Alexa.  He says: “Alexa, turn on the lights” and they come on.  He said that he was about to say “Thank you” and got halfway through before he wondered whether he should. This is a question started by Mary Shelley concerning our relationship with the world of artificial intelligence. 

1. Mary Shelley’s life

Mary Shelley’s life has a curiously contemporary feel . She faced many of the same dilemmas as we face today in balancing a sense fo vocation and family life. Her life (1797–1851)  started with the death of her mother Mary Wollstencraft who died ten days after her birth. Her mother was famous for the seminal text on women’s rights,  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  As a result, Mary became very close to her father William Godwin, who was also concerned with justice in his book Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. She had more education than most women of her day. Her father saw  her as a feisty woman; but he  did not approve of marriage so she fled to France  with her sister.  She had a difficult story of childbirth. The losses of two children left her in a deep depression and probably deep confusion as her mother had died after her own birth. The grief isolated her from Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote in his notebook: 

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
Do thou return for mine. 

Mary found comfort in her writing. One son did survive and she did try to care for him. She tried to continue her mother’s  principles in writing a novel which was rejected at first  because it was by a woman. She also gave help to women who were marginalised by society, such as Mary Diana Dods, who was a single mother and a Lesbian.

Her writings are filled with the dilemmas that still plague women today. She often focuses on the importance of the family within society and women’s role within it. But, of course, she had not much experience of this as a child, because of the death of her mother. She was particularly concerned with women’s capacity for compassion and the place of feeling in their role on the family. She wrote powerfully about how society really needed these virtues.  Within this thinking, she stressed the need for cooperation over competition, mutual dependence and sacrificial love.  

Bearing in mind these concerns, it is surprising that only one novel – Falkner – explores these virtues within the family.  It concerns the beneficial effects of the triumph of these, what she saw as feminine, virtues when they overcame the destructive nature of violent masculinity. Men also would then be free  to express compassion, generosity and empathy. Despite, or perhaps because, of her own family experience, Mary became taken up with the idea of loving bourgeois family. In this way, she was a staggering mix of radical concern with women’s power and yet conservative views on their place in the family in which women were in general unequal. In Frankenstein, she sets out the consequences of rejecting the idea of a family. She critiques male-dominated institutions and praises domesticity, compassion, mutuality and romance. 

Like many of us today, she seeks out the positivity of interconnectedness, which she sees as essential for human happiness. In this, she is concerned with mutuality and in tune with writers like Martin Buber (1970)  with his concern for I-thou relationships rather than I-it encounters. The deepest spiritual and biological fulfilment, even reality, lies in I-Thou relationships (Bauer and Blanchard 2010 p73).

2. Challenge and Nurture

This is echoed in my own life-story (Boyce-Tillman 2018) , when I see how up to the age of eleven, I was prepared to be a ‘proper woman  – cooking, sewing, embroidering, knitting.  But when I went to Grammar School, I gave up cookery to do Latin and sewing to do German.  For much of my life, the idea of being a proper woman has haunted me.  I should have found looking after a house all fulfilling and caring for children and their grandparents – if I were a real woman. But I had been to Oxford, become a teacher, and conducted choirs and orchestras.  I missed all of that. I had felt a confident professional. But when I was alone in a house, with a collection of people who needed a lot of physical care from me, I became depressed, probably because my preparation for these roles had been so long ago, and I was better at other things. Deep inside, I often felt I was not a proper woman.

Although I believe that we were right to fight for our entry into the upper echelons of the workplace, I now feel that we should have fought equally for the valuing of the role that women traditionally fulfilled – nurturing, whether it be children, the elderly and the disadvantaged.  It is a significant theme for the contemporary world when philosophers like Hannah Arendt say that we – especially within Christianity – are oppressed by  the patriarchal theology that has shaped our culture (Gage 1893). There is a strong sense that the dominant patriarchal traditions (Lerner 1986) have been very challenging for women – whether this is in the relationship of women to the doctrines of original sin, the demonization of women’s bodies, the stress on the maleness of God or the glorification of human suffering to name but a few of the challenges.  The judgemental God of such pieces as the Dies Irae of Cardinal Newman makes women’s position fragile, fragmented and ambiguous (Jantzen 1998 p170).

The theologian, Grace Jantzen (1995, 1998) also highlights how Western society is based on violence and death rather than birth and growth. She calls on her readers to ‘think otherwise’ and critiques the necrophilic models of theology (Arendt 1958 p246), which have generated a culture valuing war and destruction.  She suggests a model of theology based on natality rather than mortality, drawing on the work of the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1958).

The sphere of work reflects the values of the dominant culture (Boyce-Tillman 2007) .  It is mostly competitive and  challenging and nurture is very seldom present or valued.  Capitalism only values clearly defined products that can be sold for an appropriate price. Nurture has no such clear outcomes and is much more based in processes which are either unpaid or have low pay.  The dominance of the myth of the male heroic journey (Boyce-Tillman 2000a) have led to a profoundly challenging society.  The greatest financial rewards are given to those able to meet and set the challenges for those who may well fall at the hurdles without some degree of nurture.  The journey – modelled on Homer’s poem The Odyssey –  was only ever open to rich, young, able-bodied men while women stayed at home keeping the family show on the road. There are many calling for a revision of the dominant value system which devalues nurture in favour of more challenging roles that have traditionally been male. 

The hymn (see below)  We sing a love presents us with the two sorts of lovethe love that does nurture and but also the love that stands ‘alone and undismayed’. When do we care for others, but when do we choose to follow our own vocation despite the views of others?  These two loves have been sometimes gendered with women being cast in the role of the caring love and men in the strengthening love.  

3. Frankenstein and Prometheus

If we turn our attention Victor Frankenstein,  he also rebels against tradition and can be compared with Satan and/or Prometheus. He finds himself able to create life  and control his own destiny but these do not have positive outcomes. He abandons his family and refuses to create one for the monster. 

Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was aged 18-20 – 1818. It was, in the end,  published anonymously.  It was written when she was with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron indulging in a competition for a horror story. Although she received it in a dream, it draws on contemporary scientific experiments originating in Darwin and Galvani.   The creature created is variously called  a “fiend,” “monster”, “daemon”, “wretch”, “abortion”, and “it”. 

The themes in the novel of loss, guilt, and the results of defying nature all draw on Mary Shelley’s own life, such as the loss of her mother, the death of her first child and her loss of parental guidance.  It has been suggested that Mary was eaten up with guilt over the loss of her first child, which made her feel she had failed Percy. There is also the guilt about having in some strange way killed her own mother, as well as having failed at being a mother.  In the book,  a man produces life in an unnatural way, without a woman, and also fails as a parent. 

The creature is never named. There is a lack of honour  and respect for the monster. Mary saw a relationship between Frankenstein and Prometheus. Prometheus was the Titan, who followed Zeus’s order to make human beings in the image of the gods.  He taught humans  to hunt and stole fire from the gods to give to human beings. This angered Zeus who tied him to a rock for eternity while an eagle pecked out his liver which would regrow each day.  Mary Shelley saw Prometheus not as a hero but rather as something like Lucifer or Satan. Satan is the most skilled of the angels and is thrown out of heaven because of his arrogance. We need to be careful how we use or misuse our power.  

The book asks questions about meaning in life, but it is underpinned by Christian theology as the dream which generates it shows:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. 

Mary believed that absolute power was dangerous, and could destroy society.

4. Meaning and Purpose

Mary asks in Frankenstein: What is a human being? It asks us: What about AI? What about robots? Do they need love and respect like human beings?  The monster had no name and no respect and no companion – which leads to his monstrosity.  How should we treat robots and post humans?  If there is  an animating force in everything, as Hildegard (Boyce-Tilman 2000b) and the pre-Enlightenment theologians believed, is that present in post humans and machines?  Is the kingdom or rather the kindom of heaven within them?  It is a profoundly important question for our age. Should we be saying thank you to Alexa and treating her with respect? 


Arendt, Hannah (1958), The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 

Bauer, Joachim and Blanchard, Tsvi (2010), In my flesh I see God: A neurobiological perspective on being human, Tikkun, January/February, pp43—5, 72-3. 

Boyce-Tillman, June (2000a) Constructing Musical Healing: The Wounds that sing London: Jessica Kingsley

Boyce-Tillman, June (2000b). The Creative Spirit – Harmonious Living with Hildegard of Bingen. Norwich: Canterbury Press.

Boyce-Tillman, June (2007), Unconventional Wisdom, London: Equinox

Boyce-Tillman, June (2018). Freedom Song: Faith, Abuse, Music and Spirituality: A Lived Experience of Celebration. Oxford: Peter Lang.

Buber, Martin, trans Walter Kaufmann (1970). I and Thou. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 

Gage, Matilda Joslyn (1893 republished 1998), Woman, Church and State: A Historical Account of the Status of woman through the Christian ages with reminiscences of the matriarchate. Ed by Sally Roesch WagnerAberdeen South Dakota: Sky Carrier Press

Jantzen, Grace M. (1995), Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jantzen, Grace M. (1998) Becoming Divine: Toward a feminist philosophy of Religion. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Lerner, Gerda (1986), The Creation of Patriarchy, New York: Oxford University Press