Williams, Holly, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Like her most famous creation, Mary Shelley continues to be revived and reappraised, haunting the popular imagination, writes Holly Williams
Mary Shelley is best known as the author of a Gothic tale of a man who creates a monster. And even within her lifetime (1797- 1851), Frankenstein had a vivid life of its own: it achieved popular - and scandalous - success when adapted for the stage in 1823, and has been a favourite source ever since. But it is not only her fiction that has captured the imagination of successive generations, it's Shelley herself. The year so far has already seen one stage show about the writer and her circle - Primavera revived Howard Brenton's 1984 play Bloody Poetry in February - while a new text by Helen Edmundson, Mary Shelley, staged by Shared Experience, opens on Friday.
The enduring fascination stems partly from the other lives with which Shelley's intersected. She was the daughter of famous radical intellectuals: her mother was the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and died giving birth to Mary; her father was William Godwin, whose Political Justice argued against institutions from monarchy to marriage.
When one of Godwin's admirers, the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, came to visit, he and Mary fell for each other. But Shelley already had a wife and Mary was only 16, so they eloped to France in 1814, taking her half-sister Claire Clairmont with them. They felt they were living out her parents' philosophical theories. Godwin, however, refused to see any of them for many years.
The cost of such a Romantic gesture shouldn't be underestimated. "She was always a divided creature - half highly serious academic, the other half absolutely wild," says Miranda Seymour, who wrote a biography of Mary Shelley in 2000. "But there's no way she was let off the hook because she was Wollstonecraft's daughter. They were really exiled after their elopement."
The couple fell in with interesting characters, most notably Lord Byron, by whom Claire became pregnant. (There's also evidence to suggest she had a sexual relationship with Shelley.) Illegitimate children pop up frequently in this story - but often tragically die, as Claire's did. Mary lost three children, and in the winter of 1816, Shelley's first wife Harriet, and Mary's other half-sister, Fanny, both committed suicide. Shelley drowned at sea in 1822.
But aside from the bed-hopping and deathbeds, the story is about artistic creation, as demonstrated by the trip to Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, where Mary, Claire, Shelley and Byron wrote prolifically. When Byron issued a challenge to write a ghost story, 18-year-old Mary began Frankenstein. "It's a God-given thing for writers," says Seymour. "Geneva, Byron and the Shelleys, the lakes heaving with storms and lightning ... and out of that comes Frankenstein. It's irresistible. It's not surprising we're drawn to it and endlessly reinventing it."
Edmundson also acknowledges the drama: "In Mary Shelley things are happening so thick and fast, I thought 'My goodness - it's going to start to feel melodramatic!' My worry was, will people believe the intensity of it? …