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Mary Shelley Hardcover – September 2, 2001


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She was the daughter of pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical philosopher William Godwin, both reviled for their unconventional views. She ran away with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was 16 and wrote Frankenstein when she was 19. Three of her four children died in infancy; her husband drowned before she turned 25. Yet Mary Shelley (1797-1851) persevered to write other novels (none so famous as her first), to nurture her husband's literary status (decidedly shaky at the time of his death), and to support her son and acquire a devoted daughter-in-law who was partly responsible for her rather dull posthumous reputation as the quintessential devoted widow. British novelist and biographer Miranda Seymour paints a more nuanced portrait of Mary as a sharply intelligent, sometimes cantankerous woman who did not always graciously suffer Percy's blithe impetuousness and principled infidelities (possibly including one with her stepsister). Guilt at being the innocent cause of her mother's death may have played a part in the genesis of Frankenstein, Seymour acknowledges, but so did Mary's views on slavery, the landscape of Scotland, and the tales she heard there as a teenager of disastrous Arctic expeditions. The story of how Frankenstein came to be written while the Shelleys were vacationing in Switzerland with Byron is well known, but Seymour retells it well. Her strong account of how Mary's character was formed in conflict, first with an unloved stepmother and then with a difficult husband, makes the subsequent 30 years of her life more understandable and almost as interesting as the first quarter century. Drawing on feminist scholarship of the last 30 years but written for the general public, Seymour's lucid biography captures the whole woman, not just the author of Frankenstein or the grieving widow of Percy Shelley. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Twenty-five years ago, Seymour wrote a historical novel based on Lord Byron's life that reflected the prevailing view of Mary Shelley, the willful child-bride who, briefly touched by her husband's genius, produced one extraordinary work before sinking back into her native mediocrity and conventionality. Now, in this splendid biography, Seymour makes handsome amends. The Mary Shelley who emerges here is a remarkably mature and steady woman who suffered greatly, first from her erratic husband's self-absorption and then from losing three of her four children before she turned 25. Close to penniless after her husband's death by drowning, she successfully turned to hack work to support her son, her father and his second wife. In her vulnerable position as an unmarried woman making her own living, widely viewed as scandalous and immoral, she was frequently the target of slander. Throughout it all, she remained quick to speak out in defense of women like herself, who had struck out for personal freedom and been condemned for it. The tangle of irregular sexual connections, illegitimacy and adultery that characterized Shelley's circle of literary friends will surprise readers unfamiliar with early Victorian manners, as will the modern-sounding postmortem spin placed on Mary's and Percy's respective reputations. Nor is Frankenstein neglected, as Seymour convincingly argues for its roots in Mary's detestation of slavery and uncovers biographical sources for some of its scenes. Her primary concern, however, is the whole life of her subject, whom she admires deeply and whom she presents as flawed but heroic.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; First Edition edition (September 2, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802117023
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802117021
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #968,310 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Sherwood Smith on May 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I hvae been reading this biography in fits and starts. It's slow going not because of the writing, which I find skillful and interesting, but because I keep wanting to check facts in Claire's and Mary's letters and journals, as well as in Byron's. My daughter has been reading it straight, and enjoys it on a different level; it seems amazing that these people, so creative, so interesting, were just her age.
Seymour's sympathetic but careful view of Mary Shelley is a refreshing change after the hackjobs and hagiographies of the past century and decades. Claire's troublesome complexities, and Shelley's selfishness, come sharply into focus as they do when one reads the journals and letters. In short, kudos to Miranda Seymour for a job well done.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I disagree with my fellow Michigan man who trashes the subject and its author by mentioning "feminist" as if it is a four-letter word.
Those who didn't find this book difficult to follow will discover a well-researched, well-written biography.
Biographies of romantic-era writers can be very difficult, especially if the writer happens to be a woman. If Victorian-era leaders and historians didn't attempt to wipe out the writer's existence altogether, they at least attempted to wipe out parts of them that were not representative of Victorian, ie ultra-conservative, values.
Little is known about the "mother" of science fiction beyond the most outrageous and scandalous aspects of her life, and even those facts were concealed by Mary Shelley's well-meaning family members for more than 100 years.
For what she's been given, Seymour does an excellent job revealing the history and personality behind this writer and if that's considered feminist, I believe that's complimentary.
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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Xoe Li Lu VINE VOICE on January 30, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have a love/hate relationship with Miranda Seymour's rambling account of the fascinating life of 19th century gothic novelist Mary Shelley. While the subject matter is truly intriguing, Seymour fails to do justice by the long-suffering Mrs. Shelley.
The daughter of a well-known feminist who died in childbirth and a philosopher father, Mary Shelley was destined for tragic greatness. She led a tumultuous life on the edge by 19th century standards - running off with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley at the age of 16 was just the beginning of a lifetime marked with scandal. Mary was a hot topic for gossips throughout Europe in her day. She suffered through her poet husband's infidelities and early death, the deaths of all but one of her children, abusive behavior from family members, and serious money problems. She wrote her greatest work, Frankenstein, at the age of 19, and her career essentially went downhill from there. While she remained a fixture on the fringe of rebel literary society, she never achieved the social acceptance or literary respectability she longed for.
Unfortunately, Miranda Seymour manages to take this whirlwind of a life and bore you to tears with it. Her dry writing style and unpleasant habit of over-examining and revisiting minute details are exasperating. Seymour's prose occasionally takes on a slangy tone that I found mildly annoying and inconsistent. The book has it shining moments of clarity; however, I was often put-off by the author's confusing method of organizing her facts. She jumped back and forth in time and it was often difficult to discern what year in Mary Shelley's life Seymour was trying to discuss.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Sally K. Severino on December 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a well researched, recounting of the life of the gifted and tragic author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who wrote the masterpiece, "Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus."

In writing this book, biographer Miranda Seymour had access to authoritative printed editions of all Mary Shelley's correspondence, her short stories, her travel writings, and her five novels. She also visited and got a feel for the places where Mary Shelley lived. As a result, her understanding of Mary Shelley captivates the reader from beginning to end.

This book will be of interest to a broad readership: those who like good biographies; those interested in the Romantic Period in literature (Mary Shelley's circle of friends included her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Keats among others); those interested in the scientific studies of her days (1797-1851) because Mary Shelley's friends included prominent European physicians and scientists; those interested in psychology (Mary and her mother suffered from depression that affected both of their lives in significant ways); those interested in feminism (Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the architect of modern feminism and Mary's contributions are also significant); those interested in studying creativity (Mary was extremely talented); those interested in the history and politics of the time that Mary lived (both played an important role in Mary's life).

I, personally, was interested in this book because "Frankenstein" can be read as a study of the effects of unrepaired shame on human development. I was curious about how Mary's life might have contributed to her portrayal of this. I was not disappointed.

I highly recommend this biography.
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