Mary Shelley: Living by the Pen

AS the author of ``Frankenstein'' (1818), Mary Shelley (1797-1851) has some claim to having produced the best-known myth of the Romantic age. Long before the specters of test-tube babies, genetic engineering, humanoid robots, and other uncanny offspring of technology began stalking for real, Mary Shelley - relying solely on her imagination (that faculty so prized by the Romantics) - created the myth that captured the anxiety, ambivalence, wonder, horror, and pathos of the creator-creature relationship in her tale of the scientist Frankenstein and his hapless monster, who turns to murder because he is starved for love. ``Frankenstein'' got its start one stormy evening in 1816 at Lord Byron's Swiss villa, when Shelley, Byron, Mary, and Byron's physician set themselves the task of inventing ghost stories. Thus, while the immediate inspiration for ``Frankenstein'' can be traced to the Gothic novels then popular - tales of mad monks, ruined abbeys, haunted castles, and the like - Mary Shelley did something almost unprecedented. She was one of the first modern writers to achieve the effect of horror not by reviving ghosts from the fading realms of medieval legend and superstition but rather from peering ahead to imagine disturbing consequences of the bright dawn of rationalism and modern science. Victor Frankenstein is an idealist who dreams of creating life. But the life he creates is not what he had anticipated.

``Frankenstein'' illuminates not only the contradictions of its age, when minds and hearts were poised between Enlightenment ``reason'' and Romantic ``feeling,'' but also those of Mary Shelley's own character, which reflected the tensions of her age and her background. Her father, William Godwin, was the author of the renowned radical treatise ``Political Justice'' (1793). Her mother was the celebrated feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of ``A Vindication of the Rights of Women'' (1792). And her husband was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), whose genius, virtually unrecognized in his lifetime, her efforts helped bring to light after his untimely death.

Mary Shelley is a curiously difficult person to fathom. She seems, by turns, passionate and cool, unconventional and conforming, reserved and emotionally expressive, brilliant and mundane. She grew up idolizing her mother, who had died just after giving birth to her. She admired her father, but had little love for the rather vulgar woman he married four years after Mary Wollstonecraft's death. She was only 16 when she met Shelley, who was 21, married, and estranged from his wife. Shelley credited her with having taken an active role in the courtship: ``The sublime & rapturous moment when she confessed herself mine, who had so long been her's in secret cannot be painted to mortal imaginations,'' as he put it in a letter to a close friend.

Shelley and Mary eloped to Europe in the summer of 1814, accompanied by Mary's 15-year-old stepsister, Claire Clairmont, whom Muriel Spark, novelist and author of a biography of Mary Shelley, aptly describes as ``arty'' in the sense of being a sort of artistic groupie rather than a creative artist. It was on this first trip to Europe that Mary and Shelley began the ``Journals'' as a collaborative account of their adventures. Before long, Mary took over writing them, and went on until 1844. Unlike Rousseau, whose ``Confessions'' made self-revelation an art form, Mary valued her privacy and used the journals not for secrets but as a daily record of errands, visits, events, and above all, the Shelleys' extensive readings in everything from the Bible and the Greek and Latin classics to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Cervantes, Montaigne, Gibbon, and such ``moderns'' as Byron and Mme. de Sta"el. Mary Shelley's ``Journals,'' available in two handsomely produced volumes from the Clarendon Press at Oxford (edited by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert), also afford poignant glimpses of the Shelleys' personal lives, as when Mary, whose first child died 11 days after being born, writes, ``Dream that my little baby came to life again - that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived....''

The Shelleys had three more children. Only one, Percy Florence, survived. Their marriage was blighted by an increasing coldness. ``I only feel that want of those who can feel, and understand me,'' wrote Shelley in 1822, less than a month before his death. ``Mary does not.... It is the curse of Tantalus....''

The creator of ``Frankenstein'' was well aware of the problems that result from the divorce of head from heart, and from the inability to love. Shelley's early poem ``Alastor'' (1815) also foresaw the doom of a solitary spirit, although the hero of his poem is as attractive as Frankenstein's monster is repellent. Yet neither seemed able to overcome - in their marriage at least - the isolation and loneliness each had prophesied.

Shelley's tragic death unsealed Mary's frozen love. She slipped - understandably - into the role of grieving widow. She devoted herself to preserving, editing, and publishing his poems, cherishing his memory, and securing their son's inheritance from Shelley's bitterly estranged father, Sir Timothy. She never remarried, although she had suitors. But far from becoming a bastion of conventionality - as some scholars portrayed her - Mary Shelley continued to pursue her writing career, associate with unconventional friends, and sympathize with liberal and radical causes. Betty Bennett's authoritative, three-volume edition of her letters (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore) reveals the scope of Mary Shelley's activities, interests, and intellect. She lived by her pen, and strongly sympathized with other women who were trying to claim their rights (like Lady Caroline Norton, who braved social ostracism for demanding to see her own children after her husband divorced her), or who were fighting for the rights of others (like antislavery reformer Frances Wright). Yet her view of women - herself and her famous mother included - as ``better though weaker but wanting in the higher grades of intellect'' says something about the limits of her feminism.

Yet Mary Shelley retained her remarkable ability to soar beyond her time and place. Her futuristic novel ``The Last Man'' (1826), is set in the 21st century! The anxiety it expresses about the future of mankind - like the horror of ``Frankenstein'' - may well strike today's readers as strangely familiar, uncannily foresightful.

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