A Story as Gripping as FRANKENSTEIN and Almost as Monstrous; Horror Writer Mary Shelley Eloped at 16 and Endured Disgrace, Debt, Her Poet Husband Percy's Affairs and the Deaths of Three Children; BOOK OF THE WEEK

Daily Mail (London), January 5, 2018 | Go to article overview

A Story as Gripping as FRANKENSTEIN and Almost as Monstrous; Horror Writer Mary Shelley Eloped at 16 and Endured Disgrace, Debt, Her Poet Husband Percy's Affairs and the Deaths of Three Children; BOOK OF THE WEEK


Byline: YSENDA MAXTONE GRAHAM

IN SEARCH OF MARY SHELLEY

by Fiona Sampson

(Profile Books PS18.99)

EXACTLY 200 years ago, in January 1818, Frankenstein was published: a Gothic page-turner of a novel that has never been out of print since.

It gripped the nation, but shocked critics because it portrayed the creation of a man-made, rather than God-made, human being: an 8ft-tall, yellow-eyed creature made in a laboratory by a student called Victor Frankenstein.

The student, disgusted by his hideous creation, abandons it. The monster, lonely and loathed, roams round Europe taking revenge.

It was out of the feverish imagination of an 18-year-old girl, Mary Shelley, that this ghoulish bit of early science fiction sprang. So who was Mary? And what was her life like? Well, Frankenstein might be thrilling, but I found this story of its creator just as much of a page-turner in its way.

Fiona Sampson is a sleuth of a biographer, combing the details of Mary's journals and letters for clues to the truth about her experiences and feelings. Rarely has my jaw dropped on so many occasions while reading a biography. Something horrible is always just round the corner.

The horror begins in chapter one, when Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, revolutionary author of A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman, dies an agonising death ten days after giving birth in 1797.

'It was a common occurrence for clinicians fatally to infect women during childbirth,' Sampson informs us. So much for the rights of women, then, in those days of doctors with dirty hands.

MARY'S life story, full of pathos, struggle and tragedy from that moment onwards, is also a vindication of the spirit of a woman who just goes on living and writing, though buffeted by unimaginable sadnesses - the next one being that her previously kind father, William Godwin, marries a grasping woman who becomes Mary's unloving stepmother and turns him against her.

How does the poet Shelley come into the story? Mary's father was a political philosopher and struggling publisher, running his failing business from a jerrybuilt premises in Holborn, and he desperately needed a man of means to support him financially. This man was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, heir to a baronetcy.

When Percy first set eyes on Mary, she was wearing a fetching tartan dress. I like Sampson's summing-up of Mary's vivacious character: ranging 'from icily furious intellectual to pint-sized blonde in a fit of the giggles'.

Godwin lapped up Shelley's money and depended on his income for ever after, but he was not happy when the alreadymarried man eloped with his 16-year-old daughter. Sampson tells the story in the present tense, so it's as if it's happening to us, now. And the elopement scene with Shelley is so vivid that I felt both seasick and homesick reading it.

Madly in love with her irresistible 21-year-old poet, and dreaming of building a new life together in romantic Switzerland, Mary elopes with him across the Channel - but there's a storm and the crossing takes 12 hours. She spends the whole night being sick.

Weirdly, it's not only the two of them eloping: Mary's stepsister Jane comes along, too - Sampson suggests this might be because Shelley likes the idea of rescuing not one, but two damsels in distress. Jane will stick to the couple like a limpet for years, causing Mary untold anguish and repressed jealousy. Meanwhile, her stepmother is following in the boat behind theirs, trying to catch them in Calais and thus rescue the family's respectability. She fails.

By spending a single night with Shelley, Mary has ruined her family's reputation. This is not funny: Mary's elder sister Fanny, now having no prospect of making a good marriage, will kill herself - just one side-effect of Shelley's romantic impetuousness. …

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A Story as Gripping as FRANKENSTEIN and Almost as Monstrous; Horror Writer Mary Shelley Eloped at 16 and Endured Disgrace, Debt, Her Poet Husband Percy's Affairs and the Deaths of Three Children; BOOK OF THE WEEK
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