Making a Monster from Scratch

Article excerpt

Byline: Carol Herman

Since the numbing events of Sept. 11 and, at least for the time being, what used to be considered thrilling or frightening seems somehow less so. By this measure, any discussion of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" has to acknowledge that in today's edgy climate the masterpiece once thought to hover at the outer boundaries of terror is, at its best, a quaint relic of an earlier Romantic age.

Frankenstein the monster that entered popular culture with the name of the fictional scientist who created him has long ceased to frighten us, but, to be fair, these uneasy times are not to blame. Nearly 200 years of adaptations and appropriations - from the somber and dignified Boris Karloff to the madcap Gene Wilder, not to mention legions of children in Halloween costumes - have blunted the fictional monster's fearsomeness. But not his appeal.

Miranda Seymour understands the monster's magnetism, and with "Mary Shelley" offers a book that is part biography, part literary criticism, part social history. It is a scholarly work, soothing in its attention to the smallest details of the lives of the literary and political elite of 19th-century London. It is also a riveting story in its own right. The author keeps Mary and her monster in the spotlight, tracing how a woman at such a young age - she was 18 - came to conceive of a creature assembled and brought to life in a laboratory.

The biographer draws on letters and extensive Shelley scholarship in order to piece together the source of the young woman's inspiration. Along the way readers meet the luminaries who formed Mary's social circle, chilly locales in her past and the Promethean themes that captivated her generation. In the process the biographer deconstructs the monster, domesticates Mary and demythologizes the circle of Romantics who had their part in the birth of what Mary later called her "hideous progeny."

The book, like Muriel Spark's "Mary Shelley: A Biography," first published in 1951 and reprinted in 1987, seeks out the roots of Mary's inspiration. But where Mrs. Spark opted for brisk and succinct consideration of a young girl and her horrific subject, this biography, running to twice the length of its predecessor, has a tendency to get bogged down in its own minutiae. Nevertheless, when the narrative works, which is most of the time, the writing is vivid and insightful.

The book opens with a sketch of Mary's pedigree. Born to one of the most famous, if not notorious couples of the age - the influential feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical philosopher William Godwin - Mary entered life as a child of privilege, but heavy psychological burdens followed quickly. Mary's mother died giving birth to her, and at a very young age the child was sent away to Dundee, Scotland, partly to get help for a debilitating case of eczema, partly to ease the burden of a strained relationship with her overbearing stepmother, who is described this way: "Mary Jane was a troublemaker and a liar; she was not a fool." It was during her stay in the windswept, cold, desolate city, her biographer writes, that imagery for Mary's one great work began to take shape.

In her teens the rebellious Mary, having returned to her father and stepmother's house in London, met Percy Bysshe Shelley. The young man with the pale skin, high forehead and curly hair was already famous by virtue of his poetry and family name, and already married with a pregnant wife. But this being an age of free love, Mary and Shelley - the latter marked by a nature unconstrained by moderation - began an affair. The lovers consummated their relationship in the graveyard where Mary's mother was buried. …