The Endless Enigma; Mary Shelley. by Miranda Seymour (John Murray, Pounds 25). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Is there anyone more enigmatic than Mary Shelley?

The paintings of this remarkable woman shown in Miranda Seymour's densely packed but highly rewarding biography present a face that is calm and beautiful and obviously was attractive in her time.

Yet Mary Shelley created at the age of 18 one of the most powerful and enduring horror stories of all time. With Frankenstein she shaped a monster so terrible that he has lain deep within the recesses of our imagination for two centuries surfacing as a nightmare when the intellect relaxes its guard and allows horror to creep in.

Mary Shelley in one sense mirrored her own monster, embarking upon a life with the poet Shelley that was scarcely less tormented than the creature she dreamed up.

Mary was the offspring of the twin stars of 18th century Radicalism, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Her involvement with Shelley - which was as bleak in some ways as any winter of the soul one could ever read about - certainly began happily enough, at a dinner given by Godwin.

Give or take a few moments of literary excitement, it does seem that in a general way Shelley, who was always slightly unbalanced, seems to have had an extraordinary affect on people, drawing them into his circle.

Even the hardened old cynic, Captain Trelawney, who appears later, was attracted to the poet. Shelley was a loose cannon at the best of times, and his death came early which is often the case with people of his nature.

Mary, with her clear bright eyes and her magnificent hair, fell in love with the poet when she was only 16. He was her father's protege and also his patron. But Shelley was not faithful to Godwin and bestowed his plentiful money elsewhere while Godwin looked on with disbelief as his bills mounted.

Mary ran away with him to France and caused an immediate scandal. But this was the early 19th century and she was ostracised by polite society - Shelley, after all, had a pretty young wife who inconveniently happened to be pregnant.

But the conventions of a Christian marriage were there, as far as Shelley was concerned, only to be flouted. Shelley was approaching a kind of insanity and you wonder if Mary ever noticed it - or even if she cared. He was constantly re-inventing himself in one frantic enthusiasm after another. He even re-invented his friends according to his whim.

The problem was compounded by Shelley's confirmed suspicion that his wife's pregnancy was the work of another man, although the identity of the father was always in doubt.

People said that Mary, even as a teenager, had been determined to seduce him. She did have a champion in William Michael Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle and the Pre-Raphaelites saw nothing wrong in a marriage without either Church or wedding rings.

In later years when the Shelleys arrived in Paris, Mary forgot to some extent the pain these social criticisms had caused her. …