TITLE: Mary Shelley (Biography)
AUTHOR: Miranda Seymour
PUBLISHER: Picador, Pan Macmillan (November 2001)
ISBN: 0 330 37447 8
PRICE: A$23.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com)

If Mary Shelley were alive today she would be a “Famous Author”. Publishers would be fighting over the rights to all her work, she would travel the world on endless promotion tours and become rich on film rights. As a single mother she would be applauded; the hint of scandal in her private life could only enhance her reputation; and any connection to famously intellectual, philosophical and socially radical parents would probably be hushed up so as not to frighten off the masses.

Instead of this, in Mary Shelley’s own lifetime and for years afterwards the opposite was true. So now, although everyone has heard of Frankenstein (generally believed to be the monster), not many could tell you the name of the author of the book from which he came and very few would be aware of that author’s many other published works. As well as her novels – Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus, Matilda, Valpergo, The Last Man, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Ladore and Falkner – Mary Shelley published two plays, many stories for children and adults, travel writing, biographical essays of famous Europeans and numerous articles. She also edited and annotated several editions of her husband’s poetry and prose. Her husband was, of course, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Not all of Mary Shelley’s work, as Miranda Seymour notes in this excellent biography, was great work. Much of it was mundane hack-work which Mary undertook in order to support herself, her surviving son (Percy Florence Shelley), her father and step-mother and various other relatives who made claims on her. Throughout her life, Mary worked incredibly hard but only Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published in 1817 when she was only nineteen, was truly successful. Even this book was originally published anonymously and she made little money from it and none at all from the successful dramatization of it by Richard Brinsley Peake which appeared on stage in 1823.

So, if Mary Shelley’s later work was less brilliant than Frankenstein, why do we need a biography? Is it because of her marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley, her friendship with Lord Byron and her allegedly scandalous life? Is it because at sixteen, along with her fifteen-year-old step-sister Claire Clairmont, she ran away from home to live with a married poet whose pregnant wife later drowned herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park?

Miranda Seymour tells us frankly that her reasons for writing this biography began with the woman and with questions which her own life experiences raised about the usual picture of Mary Shelley. How, she wondered, could a young woman described as bad-tempered, a relentless social climber and a nagging wife also be someone whose hard work, courage and determination supported herself and her family and who was responsible for establishing her dead husband’s reputation as a poet. Mary was a woman whose intense loyalty to her friends survived their betrayal of her; a woman whose idealistic disregard of social conventions only made her own life harder. Consider, too, Mary’s parentage (she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in1792, and William Godwin, whose Enquiry Concerning the Nature of Political Justice was one of the most influential arguments for a society of equals of his time); she lived at a time when Europe was in revolutionary turmoil; she travelled widely and chose to live in Europe until forced to return to England; and she mixed with people like Coleridge, Byron, Scott, Trelawney, Disraeli, Lady Blessington and Caroline Norton. Seymour’s curiosity was piqued. The usual picture of Mary just did not seem right.

Clearly, this biography has been a quest for answers to some of the puzzles and contradictions which prompted Seymour to begin it. Equally clearly it has been a labour of love. Diligently and meticulously researched as it is, it is still absorbing and very easy-to-read. And the portrait of Mary Shelley which it reveals is of “a woman who struggled all her life against the unpredictability of her own nature”; a woman who was clever, idealistic, and often misguided in her choice of friends; a woman who was distraught by the deaths of all but one of her children and who suffered from bouts of clinical depression, yet “seldom revealed her unhappiness and continued, until the end of her life, to work to win Shelley, never herself, the honour she felt was his due”. A remarkable woman.

There is no doubt, given Seymour’s summary of the various ways in which Mary’s life was presented to the world after her death, that some rebalancing was due. There is no doubt, too, that it is good to place Mary in the context of the changing times in which she lived and that her strong, independent views on society and politics strongly influenced her life and were reflected in her work. But whether Seymour’s understanding and her generous conclusions about Mary will be the final picture is doubtful - there will always be another possible side to the story.

Biography is immensely popular with readers but it is well to remember that it is, as the differences of opinion amongst Mary Shelley’s biographers demonstrates, a subjective art. At worst, it panders to prurient interest in the private lives of others. At best, it is reliant on limited factual evidence about its subject, on the subjective comment of friends and relatives, and on the biographer’s own selective interpretation and presentation of the available material.

Miranda Seymour’s biography of Mary Shelley is of the latter kind, and it is as objective and factual as it is possible to be without becoming dry and boring. Seymour wrote it with the general reader in mind and it is enjoyable, varied and easy reading.

Scholars, too, will find Seymour’s discussion of Mary’s work and some new suggestions of Mary’s sources for Frankenstein of interest, and her Bibliography and Notes valuable. The Notes, however, are frustratingly organized by chapter only, without the added assistance of page numbers; and the Index is badly arranged with long, compressed chronological (rather than alphabetical) lists of sub-topics under, for example, major headings like “Frankenstein” or “Mary Shelley”. It is a pity that such irritations should mar a well-researched and well-written book.

© Ann Skea 2001. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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