by Fiona Sampson
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is remembered above all for creating a monster – the grotesque but perceptive creature from her 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus – although, at the time, she was renown far more for her scandalous behaviour.
Following her death in 1851 she was immortalized as widow of the doomed Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and as daughter of the founding feminist philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft and radical theoretician, William Godwin. For some years thereafter the bulk of Mary’s literary output was tied up in a beribboned box marked ‘lady scribbler!’ and neglected by all but her most committed devotees.
Modern readers of the Classics are generally familiar with the basics of her biography, quite simply because there has been so much written about the influential literary and philosophical movement of which she was a part. It is likely, therefore, you will be aware her mother died shortly after giving birth to Mary in 1797; that she outraged Regency England by ‘eloping’ with her married lover; and she lived an unconventional existence surrounded by some of the foremost writers and radical thinkers of the day. In addition, you are almost bound to have some knowledge of her being widowed in 1822 when Percy drowned in a boating accident off the Kingdom of Sardinia (now Italy).
For quite some time, however, next to nothing was known of her inner life, intellectual influences or sizeable body of literary works. Muriel Spark did much to redress this bewildering neglect in her excellent 1988 life history, Child of Light: Mary Shelley, but there is now an accessible, insightful biography coming out in 2018 to coincide with Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary celebrations.
British poet and writer, Fiona Sampson MBE, attempts to understand the intensely private young women behind a novel of obsession, pride and hunger for love. She endeavours to “bring Mary closer to us”, ask what we know about “who and how and why she is” and “about how it is for her.” For instance, she examines how being pregnant and grieving over lost infants for a significant part of her married life reflected in Mary Shelley’s writing; and wonders from where an eighteen year old girl living in such a misogynistic era developed the strength of character and prowess to compose a unique Gothic masterpiece. Sadly, a trunk of her juvenilia was lost in Paris when she eloped in 1814, and many of her letters were subsequently destroyed, but Sampson’s detailed analysis raises a number of interesting questions and she works hard to restore Mary’s often maligned reputation.
While Percy was without doubt a talented, enlightened, beautiful wild child, he could also be self-serving, fickle, sexually incontinent and in many ways typical of his day in the treatment of women. Mary was his intellectual equal, but was seldom treated as such. You can at times detect something of Sampson’s exasperation at the selfish behaviour of the men and various female dependants in Mary’s life. In modern parlance, we might well describe her a ‘doormat’.
Mary survived her husband by almost thirty years, supporting herself and their only remaining son, Percy Florence, with her pen. She received little sympathy from those around her following the former’s death (with the possible exception of Lord Byron), and for the most part was left to cope alone. Nevertheless, her groundbreaking horror novel is now recognised as a landmark work of science fiction, and scholars regard her as being a major luminary of the Romantic movement.
In Search of Mary Shelley is an engaging and powerful portrait of a complex and often misrepresented figure. Indeed, it offers an ideal introduction to the life, work and times of an extraordinary woman.