With the publication of FRANKENSTEIN, Mary Shelley created not only
an immortal literary character, but her own place in the literary
world apart from her renowned parents and her infamous husband,
Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Even today, the idea of an
18-year-old girl creating such an intelligent and controversial
masterpiece of horror in the year 1816 is awe-inspiring. But it's
the tragedies and sorrows of her life that are mostly detailed in
this definitive biography.
Seymour's research and knowledge of her subject is laid out in
nearly 600 pages of text, excluding the index and footnotes.
Literary laypersons might find it daunting, but for scholars, fans
of Mary Shelley, and 19th century history buffs, it offers a
fascinating look into a marvelous life.
The book begins with a brief history of her parents, popular
philosopher and essayist William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft,
often considered to be the first feminist writer. Such
distinguished parentage would deeply influence not only Mary's
writing, but her personal life as well. Unfortunately,
Wollstonecraft would die 12 days after Mary's birth due to
complications. The loss of her mother haunted her, but it was only
the beginning of a life of ill fate and tragic deaths.
Seymour's account of Shelley's life picks up more steam as the
infamous Percy Bysshe Shelley enters the picture. At first a family
friend, he then steals away not only 16-year-old Mary but also her
15-year-old stepsister to France. The roguish Percy also leaves
behind his infant daughter and pregnant wife. Seymour paints an
unflattering portrait of Percy, but her information is
well-documented and her theories on his infidelities and probable
affair with Mary's stepsister are backed with letters and journals.
However, through her journals and letters, Mary Shelley comes
across as being aware of her husband's self-absorption. She is
forgiving because of his great genius. But perhaps too forgiving:
The loss of three infant children, separation from her father, and
a marred reputation were due in part to her notorious husband's
behavior and the gossip of people she mistakenly thought of as
The more familiar story of the night spent with Lord Byron, when
the idea of FRANKENSTEIN was conceived, receives less attention
than one might expect here. Seymour's focus is mainly on Shelley's
personal life and the many fascinating people who enter it ---
literary giants as well as historical figures, such as Aaron Burr,
Fanny Kemble, and Washington Irving.
The most impressive aspect of this biography is the depths to which
the reader is taken into another period in time. It brings a
greater understanding of the women who struggled to reconcile their
intellectual and domestic sides and the society in which they
existed. Among Mary's social set, the philosophy concerning
marriage and free love was hampered by the lack of birth control,
resulting in a number of illegitimate children. Along with the high
infant mortality rate and lack of financial opportunities, these
women suffered tremendously. And Mary Shelley suffered more than
most. Seymour writes of the effect of Mary's tragic life on her
work. And after reading this book, one wonders how she could have
existed at all without such an outlet for her pain.
--- Reviewed Lorretta Ruggiero