This is a biography on Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and other books, daughter of political philosophers, wife to poet Percy Shelley and mother. The book is excellent, Muriel Spark gives the reader much to chew on.
Born Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin in 1797, Mary Shelley lived in a time when debtors were imprisoned, poets were poor and child mortality rates were high. Parental relationships have a strong influence on children, on whom and how they love. This force is apparent throughout Mary’s life. Spark describes her parents’ relationship as “indescribable as love…two people who love the same thing find it easy to love each other”.
Months before turning 15, Mary spent a few months at Perthshire Hills in Scotland. It was here, far outside of London, that Mary found her “still center”. She was years younger than Percy Shelley, and madly attracted mentally and physically. They met during his frequent visits to her father. A married man, he courted her in secret, meeting at her mother’s grave.
The young couple shared a diary. They actually took turns recording events of their days, which provided significant material for this book. The beginning of their relationship was steeped in complete poverty to the extent that Shelley would hide out away from Mary for weeks at a time to avoid arrest for his debts. The hard knock years are always compelling in a biography when you know there’s a happy ending, but the thing that makes their story so satisfying is that they always took control. They didn’t let poverty have them in its small, dirty little clutches. Instead, the Shelley’s traveled the world like characters in their own tales. Spark describes it much better:
Mary and Shelley had been actively engaged with their own destiny…conscious protagonists asserting their lives together.
They wrote and read no matter where they were. Spark attributed this constant productivity in part to their financial situation. She explains that at the time debt was the equivalent of fraud. It had its own prisons and police. “Debt was a psychosis and by its dangerous nature positively mesmerized its victims.” The Shelleys occupied themselves ‘as if afraid to stop and examine their own thoughts”.
The Shelleys didn’t set out to wander full time. In describing her dream house, Mary once wrote: “A house with a lawn, a river or a lake…But never mind this – give me a garden…”
We know they both went on to be successful in their craft, but their personal lives was turbulent. When Mary was in a deep depression after the third death of a child, Percy wrote her this poem:
My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
Do thou return for mine.
Beautiful, but not exactly sensitive and compassionate. Her father, William Godwin, had this piece of advice: “Do not put the miserable delusion on yourself, to think there is something fine, and beautiful, and delicate in giving yourself up, and agreeing to be nothing.“
In happier trivia, the Shelleys were vegetarians. Score! I’m grateful for many things, like cozy socks and dark chocolate, but I’m super grateful to not have lived in Mary’s time. Percy Shelley drowned at sea on his way back to their summer home in Italy. He left Mary with one son.
Unlike common perceptions of Mary Shelley, Spark portrays her as a warm, generous person who surrounded herself with the company of writers. She lived a tough yet full life, and gave us one of the first great books of science fiction. She wrote Frankenstein at age 18 when visiting Lord Byron with her lover (not yet husband) Percy. Mary greatly disliked Byron, but it was raining and the three of them were indoors entertaining themselves by reading ghost stories out loud. Byron suggested they each write a supernatural story. Mary responded with Frankenstein. Take that, Byron.
The best word in this book: phantasmagoria