There are few more seductive figures for biographers than Mary Shelley. The daughter of the radical philosopher and novelist William Godwin and the great feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft (who died a few days after giving birth to her), she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at 16; wandered through Europe with him; bore their four children; married him; became the friend and companion of the other Young Romantics and their lovers; and at 18 wrote the classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Scholars, writers and biographers from Muriel Spark to Miranda Seymour have been drawn to her story, and to the moment when, in the summer of 1816, at a villa on Lake Geneva, Byron challenged Mary, Percy and their friend, the painter Polidori, to write competing ghost stories.
Frankenstein was conceived then, but delivered two years later, and published anonymously on New Year’s Day 1818. Mary would write a revised and expanded version in 1831, plus five other novels and many stories; but none was as innovative, archetypal and aesthetically influential as Frankenstein. Its bicentennial this year is the occasion for an explosion of conferences, annotated editions, plays, TV adaptations, films and books, including this new biography by the poet Fiona Sampson.
The book opens with an engaging description of the 1931 film of Frankenstein as a ‘mixture of hilarity and horror’, especially at the moment the scientist sees his creature begin to move: ‘It’s alive, it’s moving. It’s alive! It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive! It’s ALIVE!’ In the book, Sampson points out, the moment of creation is more private and less exultant. Dr Frankenstein beholds his creature with anxiety, and ‘the novel gives us a scene not of success but of failure’. Feminist critics have generally interpreted Frankenstein as a ‘birth myth’, in the words of Ellen Moers, in Literary Women (1963): a tale reflecting maternal fears, dangers and literary affiliations. But Sampson tacitly allies it instead with tragic and promethean horror stories, in which men of science attempt to create and perfect life, but can only produce monstrosity and death.
Sampson declares that her interest in Mary Shelley lies chiefly in the ‘real person, full of living contradictions’. She wants to know how this ‘unmarried teenage mother’ became a major writer instead of a silent muse; how she drew on ‘extraordinary resources’ at the start of ‘a sometimes heartbreakingly difficult life’ to create ‘two of our culture’s most enduring archetypes’—the maker and the monster. Her bold and ambitious goal, she announces in her introduction, is ‘to bring Mary closer to us, and closer again, until she’s hugely enlarged in close-up’. Sampson achieves her close-up by magnifying the details of Shelley’s journals and letters, plus the composition notebooks of Frankenstein, and subjecting them to minute interrogation and surmise.
She also, however, seeks to create an illusion of immediacy and intimacy by writing in the present tense throughout, a device which quickly becomes awkward; and by heavy dependence on psychological speculation and too many large rhetorical questions. The words ‘probably’, ‘possibly’ and ‘presumably’ are frequent, along with phrases such as ‘it’s reason-able to assume’, ‘it’s hard not to suspect’ and ‘it would be nice to think’. Sampson does not limit her conjecture to Mary alone, but to the inner lives and unconscious motivations of all the players in her life.
Sometimes these interruptions and digressions are illuminating. Did Mary realise, for example, that to leave England at her husband’s insistence, just as her novel was getting serious critical attention, was to sacrifice her chance of being accepted in her own right as an artist and intellectual? Or was she simply naive about how literary reputations are made? But more often the blow-ups are distractions from the complicated narrative, and would be less confusing if they were presented as interpretations, rather than as guesses about intention.
Sampson emphasises the drama of Mary’s dazzling girlhood, and her determination to educate herself as a serious writer and intellectual, but she is especially effective describing her womanhood and widowhood. While her husband was alive, Mary moved constantly, holding the family together during his multiple affairs and as his literary career ascended and hers declined. By the spring of 1820, having lost three children, and still nursing Percy Florence, the son who would survive to adulthood, Mary had to face the disintegration of her domestic life and the difficulties of living with an ‘increasingly successful fellow author’.
In July 1822, at the peak of his fame as a poet, Shelley drowned in a reckless sailing adventure in Italy, and Mary spent the rest of her life unsupported by his family, exploited by her own, memorialising and editing her husband’s work, earning money to enable their son to become a solid conventional citizen, and lamenting the failure of her hopes ‘to be something great and good’.
In Sampson’s eyes, however, she was ‘a great survivor’; and while her biography will not be the last word on the real Mary Shelley, it is a passionate demonstration of the elements that have kept her story vibrant for 200 years. It is moving, it is alive, it is a success.