The Magazine

Frankenstein's Creator

The surprisingly admirable life of Mary Shelley.

Dec 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 14 • By MARGARET BOERNER
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Mary Shelley
by Miranda Seymour
Grove Press, 655 pp., $35

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN SHELLEY clinched her name in history at the very beginning of her womanhood. She was born in 1797 and at the age of sixteen, she eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley. At the age of nineteen she wrote "Frankenstein." She never did anything else as memorable.

But she was always a thoroughly admirable individual, and she lived a hard life. A decade before her death in 1851 at age fifty-three, she wrote in her journal that her youth had been "nursed and fed with a love of glory," and that "To be something great and good was a precept given me by my father: Shelley reiterated it, . . . but Shelley died & I was alone--my father from age & domestic circumstances & other things could not me faire valoir--none else noticed me."

During the years after Shelley's death in 1822, as Mary struggled to support herself and her son, she came to realize that she could "see things pretty clearly, but cannot demonstrate them," and "had not argumentative powers." But she concluded, as befits a descendant of Calvinists, that "we are sent here to educate ourselves & that self denial & disappointment & self controul are a part of our education--that it is not by taking away all restraining law that our improvement is to be achieved--& though many things need great amendment--I can by no means go so far as my friends would have me."

With these words from her later years, she may be repudiating the radical principles she had known during her upbringing and marriage (principles rejected by almost all who had witnessed the horrors of the French Revolution). But they are also the words of a resolute woman who had constantly stayed true to her course of self-improvement.

IN AN EXHAUSTIVE PROBING of all the available documents, Miranda Seymour's new biography, "Mary Shelley," shows Mary continually acquiring new languages and new subjects. She earned her living from novels, travel books, children's stories, essays, translations, and biographies. And "self denial & disappointment & self controul" were part of an education acquired in the face of adversities that few of us experience. Mary Shelley was motherless, husbandless, and essentially fatherless for most of her life. She was even sometimes friendless, as many of her "friends" used her for her name and then betrayed her.

THEY COULD DO SO, because she was famous from the moment she was born. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to her, was the celebrated author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women," a text acclaimed in England, France, Germany, and the United States as demanding the same rights for women that the encyclopedistes were demanding for men. Mary's father was William Godwin, the author of "An Enquiry Concerning the Nature of Political Justice." Although he was "rational" to the point of frigidity, Mary adored him, and the house was always full of interesting people.

During her youth, Mary heard Coleridge read his just-written "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in her father's parlor, hung with a portrait of her mother. She knew Aaron Burr in disgrace and poverty, befriended by her father, and she heard half the intelligentsia of England arguing the country's problems long before she met Shelley and Byron. As a child she was pointed out as "the offspring of a remarkable union," and was "shown off to visitors as Mary Wollstonecraft in the making and brought into the parlour to listen to the conversation of her father and his friends." Shelley himself was interested in her because of her parents.

In 1801, Godwin remarried. His second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, was "a troublemaker and a liar" who preferred her own children. (Although even she made a contribution to the family bibliography. Her translation of Johann David Wyss's "The Swiss Family Robinson" was the standard English text for many years.)

But the family's troubles really began with the next generation. Mary Jane's daughter, Claire Clairmont, was an incipient paranoiac who was drawn into the circle of Shelley and Byron--and then blamed Mary for her troubles with the poets. Wollstonecraft's other daughter, Fanny, was constitutionally depressed and ordered by their stepmother to be the household servant. She committed suicide. Shelley's first wife Harriet, whom he left for Mary, committed suicide as well.