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.
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