Mary Shelley — the girl who wrote Frankenstein

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Two hundreds years on since a young female author wrote one of the abiding classics of English literature, the scene is ripe for a retrospection with feminist spectacles.

2018 is the bicentennary of Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein’.

It is June 1816. The setting is Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. The house has been rented by the poet Lord Byron. Visiting are John Polidori (an aspiring writer and doctor), Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley), and her half-sister Claire. It is an unusually cold summer. A volcano has erupted in the Dutch East Indies, creating a kind of volcanic winter around the world. One evening, the group sits in lamplight, reading ghost stories to each other. Byron sets down a challenge — they must each write a ghost story of their own. Mary is 18 years old. The story she writes is Frankenstein, which she will publish anonymously when she is 20. By the time she’s 25 she’ll be a widow, would have nearly died from a miscarriage and lost three children. For most of her life she has suffered an orphan complex, her mother — the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever days after giving birth to her. Besides this, she has had to endure the suicides of her half-sister and Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. Tough breaks for a woman of any generation.

Fiona Sampson, a poet and violinist with a deep fascination for the Romantics, has written a rich, intimate biography of Mary Shelley — (Profile Books).

What she finds most shocking about Mary’s life is how recognisable so many of the things she experienced are for us today. Not so much the child mortality and dodgy midwifery, but the sexual and emotional double standards. “Like many women writers, “ she says, “Mary had to fend off the problem of Muses: the model in which women cannot themselves be artists but are all-too readily available as romantic partners. She struggled for money and the opportunity to write the books she wanted, and was forced into a great deal more anonymous literary hackwork than any male peer would have been after a success like Frankenstein.”

 

 

Percy overshadowed her — in life and after. What Sampson calls “The Percy Lobby” remains ever strong — disbelieving that a mere girl could have produced a novel that has become one of the classics of English literature. Percy doesn’t come off as the most endearing character in this biography. He’s pushy with his vegetarian and free love ideals, egocentric, and quite disregarding of his children’s safety. But he is not without some charisma. Sampson believes there was a manic edge to his intensity. “Mary and his friends treated him as both a leader and yet strangely delicate. And we know he had ‘episodes’: the reading of ‘Christabel’ with Byron at Villa Diodati in 1816, his premonitions before his death in 1822. He told Polidori that his father tried to have him committed to a lunatic asylum when he was still a schoolboy.”

Nevertheless, Mary called him her “sweet elf,” clung to him despite his writing mushy poems for other women, and is largely responsible for his posthumous legacy. If you had to study ‘Indian Serenade’ in school as I did — “Oh lift me from the grass!/ I die! I faint! I fail!,” you might get a sense of the drama about this man.

 

 

Together, they were quite the literary “it” couple. Sampson draws clever connections between diary entries, travel books and letters. “Because they were Romantics,” Sampson says, “they recorded themselves constantly. Large numbers of letters and journal volumes survive. This means that, working on them, one constantly has their own words in one’s ear — it’s like having their own voices. So you have the trace of their ideas developing in tandem; and because it’s so easy to date their work, it’s wonderful seeing what they were writing as it were side by side.”

Sampson’s fascination for the Romantics runs through this book — their apprehension, their questions of how to live, their insistence on beauty. For her, they represent the very start of modernity, in the shadow of which we still live. “They created many of the ideas we still retain in Europe about countryside,” she says. “They are many of them atheists, who are trying to live a good life despite having to create a new moral system to replace the older, religiously-generated ones they mostly grew up with. They believe in progress. They are internationalist in outlook. All these ideas — and yet they are also very feelingful!”

 

 

The reason why the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster still haunts us today is because an 18-year-old girl was able to catch hold of these anxieties of modernity — the fears of progress, machinery, technology — the question of whether we can cope with what we make — and turn it into a fable. Sampson believes the archetypes of the overreaching innovator and the not quite-human he created speak to us today and always will. It is also a story about ethics — how Frankenstein overreaches when he fails to think through the consequences of his knowledge, and politics — the othering of the desperate, the outcast.

Reading this book draws you into conversations that were happening two hundred years ago, and which are still happening. Sampson is marvellously adept. She creates tableaux, adjusts the lighting, brings us into drawing rooms and trains and lamp-lit evenings in Swiss villas. She wanted to make Mary a real person — not a literary appendage as Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin’s daughter, or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife. To do this, Sampson takes risks, asks questions, refuses the biographer’s usually reserved stand. “The most enduring image of Mary’s Frankenstein,” she writes, “is, for me, her story’s ending in which the creature goes out, alone again, onto the Arctic ice to die. It is the original ‘fade to white’. If we’re not careful, the same thing happens — again and again — to the woman who created that image. I want to rewind the film: to bring Mary closer to us, and closer again, until she’s hugely enlarged in close-up. I want to see the actual texture of her existence, caught in freeze-frame. I want to ask what we do in fact know about who and how and why she is — who she is — and about how it is for her.”

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