Mary Shelley's Life
Anne K. Mellor
In 1988, in my biographical study of the life and fiction of Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, I argued that we could best understand Shelley's fiction, and in particular her most famous novel, Frankenstein, by placing it in the context of her specific historical and psychological experiences. I also argued that we could read her life and her fiction as, in some meaningful way, “representative” of the specific constraints and concerns imposed upon the women of Britain by the social construction of gender in the early nineteenth century. Here I would like to reflect upon the problematic assumptions that lay behind these two arguments.
First, I would like to ask whether it is ever possible to determine the “particular historical and psychological experiences” that constitute the actual life of the biographical subject. Can the biographer ever achieve what Marc Pachter calls for in his introduction to Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art, the ability “to know the true shape of another's experience, to capture it in the face of all resistance” (7–8)? Or, as Hayden White has argued most vigorously in his Metahistory, are historical “facts” always already encoded within a master narrative or plot? Since I am not competent to address this question at a general