Frankenstein's Mother

By Williams, Holly | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), March 11, 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Frankenstein's Mother

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?

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Frankenstein's Mother


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?