BLURB: “Mary Shelley was brought up in a house filled with radical thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers. The daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – who died giving birth to her – and the revolutionary philosopher William Godwin, she eloped at sixteen with the notorious poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and embarked on a passionate relationship lived on the move across Britain and Europe. Before early widowhood changed her life forever, Mary experienced debt, infidelity and the deaths of three of her children. It was against this dramatic backdrop – and while she was still a teenager – that she composed one of literature’s greatest novels, Frankenstein, creating in the process not one but two of today’s most enduring archetypes.”
REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley, and with Frankenstein being one of my favourite novels, I am eager to read many of the new publications released to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication. This new biography of Mary is the first of these I have read, and Sampson’s premise is very interesting. She aims to try and explore more of Mary’s feelings and emotions about the famous events that take place in her lifetime (both those involving her and those surrounding her), using her journal entries and travel records, rather than looking pointedly at the actual events themselves, which she argues are already well known. This is a view I would agree with – when I studied Shelley as part of an MA module, everyone knew the story of the creation of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati just as well as I did. In doing this, Sampson ends up presenting a very sympathetic view of Mary, one which I also tend to support. Despite the romantic idealism of her elopement with Percy Shelley, in reality things turned out to be extremely difficult for Mary and her new partner; but for Mary in particular. Some of her journal entries certainly seem to indicate that she was feeling depressed during their relationship, and considering the problems they faced, who could blame her? Their trip around Europe was ruined both by Mary’s attention-seeking stepsister Clare tagging along, and by the Shelley’s debt, which dogged them everywhere they went and led them into many filthy lodgings. The couple had little time to themselves, and Shelley often seemed to spend more time with Clare than his wife. During their marriage, both Shelley’s previous wife and Mary’s half-sister committed suicide, and Mary lost three of their children, one of which appears to have been due to Shelley’s incompetent and uncaring attitude. I was also struck by just how many affairs Shelley seems to have had during their relationship, and how public he was about them! Writing poetry about other women and then getting your wife to edit these poems seems to me to be in the poorest of taste, and surely must have hurt Mary very deeply; especially as some of these dalliances occured when she was grieving over her lost children. I had never been a fan of Shelley from what I had previously read about his treatment of Mary, and the patronising way in which he consistently tried to adapt and change Frankenstein – I am even less of a fan having read this biography, and I think anyone reading it would feel much the same.
In terms of style, this biography was written in the present tense, which I found a really interesting choice. It makes the whole thing feel more real, more relevant, and I enjoyed reading a biography written in this manner. It also discusses many of Mary’s lesser-known written works, some of which I have read and some of which I haven’t and will be adding to my TBR list. My one criticism of this biography is that, while the present tense style is good, it often makes the writing seem too fast paced. There are many points where it seems like Sampson is just spilling her thoughts onto the page, rather than carefully planning and linking them as you would expect. The fast pace also sometimes makes it difficult to keep up with what is happening, and I think I would have preferred it had this biography been less fast-paced and instead been longer.