In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein

Fiona Sampson

Profile, £18.99

Review by Lesley McDowell

IT’S almost impossible not to take a side when writing about the Shelleys and their "circle". The early deaths of young women; the tragic loss of so many babies; the love affairs and betrayals of ideals, leading up to the drowning of the man at the centre of it, Percy Bysshe Shelley, dead just a month before his 30th birthday, make for a passionate yet also divisive tale. Who, we always end up asking, is to blame for all the tragedy?

Biography is meant to be an objective art. Stick to the verifiable facts; maintain an authoritative tone; don’t invite conjecture and definitely don’t play armchair psychologist. Fiona Sampson, a prize-winning poet and editor, has eschewed all four rules as she seeks to get inside the head of Mary Shelley, so intent on seeing everything solely from her subject’s perspective that she becomes almost enthusiastic about attributing blame for what happens.

And so Shelley is a selfish, faithless monster who mentally tortured his young wife. Even his legendary saving of Mary from bleeding out after a miscarriage by placing her in a frozen bath is given short shrift: anyone with common sense would have done the same. Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister, is an unbearable and manipulative nuisance and not even the death of the young daughter she had with her brief lover, Byron, who placed the lonely little girl in a convent much to Claire’s distress, elicits sympathy from Sampson who writes that "such placements are fairly common –even aspirational – at this time, and the nuns clearly adore the little girl.."

William Godwin, Mary’s father, is cold and unloving; his second wife, Mary’s step-mother, ruins Mary’s childhood. Friends abandon Mary after Shelley’s death, proving their worthlessness. Shelley’s first wife Harriet, who was pregnant with their second child when Shelley abandoned her for Mary, is found drowned not long after the suicide of Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, who appears to have suffered unrequited love for Shelley: they're Shelley’s fault. Mary’s children, first Clara and then William, both die in infancy – Shelley and Claire are to blame for these.

This approach does become a little alienating after a while. Why, we ask, did Mary take Claire along with her when she first eloped with Shelley? She must have known she was not only risking her own reputation but also that of her step-sister, who would have no-one to defend her or keep her, as Mary did. Why was Mary sent away to Scotland as a teenager, as though her presence in the household was almost too much for the Godwins to cope with? And why was Mary not more careful of her elder sister, Fanny’s, feelings?

Sampson invites these questions because she asks so many herself but never with the intention of giving Mary responsibility for her own actions. That may be because she truly wishes to see every situation as Mary would have seen it, but absolving her subject of any responsibility at all in the midst of so much tragedy, when it is Mary the mother who treks about Italy with her small children, and it is Mary the sister who misses any signs of Fanny’s desperation, can only invite doubt.

Where Sampson does excel is in showing the growth of Mary’s intellectual capacities. As she states at the beginning, this biography will not focus on the life after Shelley’s death very much, although I would dispute her reason that "It is because the later years of a life – of anyone’s life – do not build a personality, and they don’t go on to affect a future." Sampson argues that Frankenstein is the key moment and everything that goes before it is a build-up to that; what comes after "is not unconnected….it informs her future" but "her last does not inform her past." But what she does do is show a young woman not only fully immersed in the arguments, theories and discoveries of the day, but a writer who was able to shape something unique out of all of those things because she also applied her own experience to her art.

Biographers have spoken before about the correlation between the dream Mary had of warming her dead baby by the fire, and the first twitch of the monster in her novel. But Sampson also reminds us of Mary’s loss of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to her, and connects this to her "creation", too. The gossipy tone of this biography and its often biased focus mercifully do not detract from some very real and valuable and sharp insights into the creative process of a work of genius.