14 May, 2018 • • 37.4BiographyLiterary CriticismLiteratureWriters

Email This Article Print This Article

A Strange Assemblage

Nicolas Liney

Fiona Sampson

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein
Profile Books
£18.99 (hbk)







As the story goes, there were two people responsible for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. It was Byron who suggested, one fabulously weird evening in Lake Geneva, that the vacationers “each write a ghost story”; and it was a conversation between Byron and Percy about “the nature of the principle of life” that gave Mary her starting point. Both Frankenstein and Mary’s reputation as a writer have tended to be construed as a vessel and conduit for her male counterparts; Mario Praz thought nothing more of her than as the “passive reflection of some of the wild fantasies which were living in the air about her”. Then there is the issue of Mary’s formidable parents, the radical intellectuals and writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, who lingered as perennial shadows, to varying degrees of discomfiture. Like the monster of her novel, Mary has often resembled an amalgam of various parts and pieces not entirely of her choosing, as damningly encapsulated in Leigh Hunt’s couplet: “And Shelley, fourfam’d,—for her parents, her lord | and the poor lone impossible monster abhorr’d”. Over time, the original Frankenstein has been subsumed by its reception in theatre and in Hollywood, and as for Mary’s later novels, the consensus has been to close curtains on them, relegating them to the shadowy realm of footnotes and appendices. Mary has often played the footnote herself; even in 1945, Frederick L Jones, editor of the Shelleys, could write churlishly of an edition of Mary’s letters, “a collection of the present size could not be justified by the general quality of the letters or by Mary Shelley’s importance as a writer. It is as the wife of Percy Shelley that she excites our interest.”

The story also goes that Mary’s reputation was saved by Muriel Spark, whose fiery biography, published in 1951 to mark the centenary of the author’s death, argued firmly for Mary’s status as a writer, freed from her Shelley-Godwin deadlock. Since then, numerous biographies have recast Mary’s life and literary output, recalibrating the levels and sources of influence that have traditionally been ascribed to her, and examining her life, journals and letters with fresh rigour, most adroitly in Miranda Seymour’s 2000 Mary Shelley. However, because Frankenstein has, ironically, assumed a cultural life of its own, it has remained slightly askew of the general spectrum of a biographer’s focus, and has instead typically been explained away as a cathartic, grotesque expression of Mary’s accumulated guilt and loss, a sui generis aberration in its own right.

Mary’s most recent biographer, Fiona Sampson, aims to redress this lacuna, employing Frankenstein as the lens through which to examine Mary’s life. This would be justifiable from the point of literary criticism alone: formally, Frankenstein is a strange book, a hybrid assemblage—epistolary novel folds into fable folds into biography—and Mary’s writings, both published and unpublished, certainly provide many clues for the novel’s oddities. But more than this, the novel, for Sampson, “changed [Mary’s] life just as it changed our cultural imagination.” Mary was famously young—just eighteen—when she wrote Frankenstein. It would make sense not only that, like a chrysalis, the novel should leave behind the shell of a crucial period of Mary’s development as writer and woman, but also that it should actively shape her; it isn’t just psychoanalysts, or Jesuits, who believe that the child is father to the man, as Sampson protests.

We are treated to an intense close-up of Mary as a young girl and woman, from her early years in Number 29, the Polygon, under the aegis of her father, the complicated, idealistic and ultimately estranged Godwin, to her marriage to the complicated, idealistic and ultimately drowned Shelley. The biographical mold is familiar, but Sampson animates it in interesting ways, psychologically. Mary’s story oscillates particularly between two themes: pregnancy and loneliness. Mary was first pregnant by Shelley at sixteen. The baby lived for eleven days, and then we read in a letter to Thomas Jefferson Hogg: “Found my baby dead…I am no longer a mother now.” She was pregnant again several weeks later, and a son William was born in 1816; a girl, Clara, followed in September 1817. Within a few years, both were dead. Coupled to this tragic cycle was the lingering, tacit accusation of Mary as matricide, unwittingly responsible, simply by being born, for her mother’s death. It has been common practice to find the parallax of this constant dance between motherhood and its abnegation directly in Frankenstein, the compulsion towards “the animation of lifeless matter” rubbing up, cruelly, against Mary’s continual trauma of infant death.

The same goes for the increasing sense of isolation that pursued Mary throughout her life. Her elopement with Shelley so aggravated Godwin (financially dependent on the young aristocrat) that he refused even to greet his daughter in public. Shelley abandoned Mary in countless, silent ways: a fervent polyamour, as outlined extensively in his Epipsychidion, he was constantly absconding with Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont, who accompanied the couple at all stages of their peregrinations, leaving Mary to pick up the pieces. After Percy’s death in 1822, the couple’s circle of friends, slowly disintegrating, turned on Mary with varying degrees of malignity, with Leigh Hunt and Thomas Jefferson Hogg being the worst offenders. Her journal entry, “I am a lonely, unloved thing, serious and absorbed”, echo Frankenstein, but also represent the kernel of Mary’s later novels, Lodore and The Last Man. Sampson’s skill is not to find traces of Mary’s life in Frankenstein, but to scrupulously map out the overlaps, interchanges and channels of influence between art and life, which often reveal the unexpected and unfound. For as Mary remarked, later in life, her interior world was an entirely different space from everyday life: “whilst my life continues its monotonous course within sterile banks, an under-current disturbs the smooth face of the waters, distorts all objects reflected in it.”

One danger of connecting art and life so intimately, however, is the temptation to find in Mary’s youth a sweeping teleological arch aimed ineluctably at the composition of Frankenstein, a trap into which Sampson occasionally falls. Already as a young girl, Mary’s (imagined) self-deprecation in the hallway mirrors of Number 29 apparently presages Frankenstein’s revulsion at his monster, “a mummy again endued with animation…a thing such as Dante could not even have conceived!” Many of Mary’s early memories and experiences tend to dovetail perilously with her later writing; the description of Frankenstein’s workshop is compared to the room where Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth, and died, a neat observation in terms of literary criticism—a striking penumbra of life and death—but spurious in terms of biography.

These moments are rare, however. Sampson in fact paints sparkling and meticulous images of those wider contexts which nourished Mary’s physical and imaginative maturation. Her two-year stay in Scotland with the eccentric Dissenting family, the Baxters, was punctuated frequently by glimpses of the Dundee whaling fleet and its strange cargo, images that weave their way into the spectacular landscape of Frankenstein’s opening. The Shelleys’ first, abortive elopement to Northern Europe in 1814 gave rise to Mary’s first publication, History of a Six Week Tour (1816), but also introduced her to the Lower Rhine, steeped in its rich pastiche of mythologies, including those surrounding the ruined Burg Frankenstein. The fateful holiday in Switzerland with Byron impressed Mary with the vertiginous topography of the Alps, “a world of ice” that was reprised in Frankenstein’s sweeping descriptions of the sublime. The importance of Giovanni Aldini and galvanism, the eruption of Mount Tambora, the Napoleonic Wars and Abolition all converge to set the stage upon which the composition of Frankenstein evolved. Just as important was her literary world: William Godwin’s novels were crucial in Mary’s development as a writer, as was Shelley, but her meticulous journals map out a staggering literary constellation, which broached just about everything from Hesiod to Ernst Hoffman. Frankenstein is most commonly considered a Gothic novel,  but it was in fact to the slightly more sinister Schauerroman (“shudder” novel) that Mary turned, with its penchant for necromancy and the supernatural. And she was, ultimately, at the centre of a turbulent literary world, editing, reviewing and writing at a time when Leigh Hunt’s “Cockney School” was pitted against John Lockhart’s reactionary Blackwood’s Magazine.

Sampson’s strength lies most evidently in her nuanced, exacting portraits of relationships and characters. Much of Mary’s early life exercised a tension between unbending idealism and the real consequence of action, which Sampson is astute in describing. Initially, for Mary, “falling in love combines headily with moral and political conviction, and results in a kind of fierce clarity”, yet over time, principle and romance are forced to compromise or capitulate—often to Shelley’s “knee-jerk sexuality”—and the interstice between belief and deed often comes to the surface: “Percy has to mean, a great, undying love or else the sacrifices she’s already made are pointless.” It is easy to forget how young Mary and her circle were, and Sampson proves a sympathetic and sensitive reader, particularly of the often excoriated Claire Clairmont, without reserving judgment. However, Sampson invariably slips into the role of biographer as psychoanalyst, a reductive and often untoward approach: she judiciously casts Percy as “a type of highly gifted young man who receives a diagnosis of bipolar disorder but remains highly functioning”; at other times, he is “titivated or exasperated by [Mary’s] closeness to her father…and would like to see her explore [the] theme of father-daughter incest”—despite Mary being decisively alienated from Godwin at this point. Constant recourse to clinical language undermines Sampson’s often subtle, complex appraisals. Yet this does not devastatingly detract from what is, essentially, a rejuvenating and invigorating reappraisal of the young author of Frankenstein, a biographical galvanisation that brings new energy to both literature and life.

Nicolas Liney is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Christ Church College.