Book review: In Search of Mary Shelley, by Fiona Sampson

by Barry Forshaw
Does Mary Shelley need rescuing from neglect? Has the young woman who created the most iconic figures in Gothic literature apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula — Frankenstein and his benighted, stitched-together creature — languished in the shadow of her husband and lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, her friend Lord Byron and her celebrated parents Mary Wollstonecraft (author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin?
The poet Fiona Sampson, author of this extremely readable biography, considers that Mary Shelley has been eclipsed of late, but it might be argued that the fascination with the young woman who created her durable monster and creator at a famous Italian literary gathering with Shelley, Lord Byron and others has more of a comprehensive hold on the popular imagination than others in her circle of family and friends.  Not least for the fact that this quiet, well-educated English girl counter-intuitively forged a gruesome horror myth that continues to inspire imitations to this day.
Sampson, however, clearly thinks that more attention should be paid to her heroine, and attacks her proselytising task (in the bicentennial of the publication of Frankenstein) with some panache.
As the daughter of a high-achieving mother (one of the founders of feminism) and a father famous for his shocking rejection of orthodox religion — and an equally unconventional espousal of free love — Mary had an iconoclastic upbringing and possessed the credentials necessary for success in the literary field.
But Sampson points out that we know less about her life after eloping with the poet Shelley because of the loss of her journals. And with the paucity of material describing Mary’s inner life, Sampson (as with earlier biographers of the writer) is obliged to bring her own imaginative constructions into play
While the famous ghost story face-off at Villa Diodati — at which Byron, the Shelleys and others attempted to frighten each other with their own tales of the macabre — has been communicated to us by several of the participants, it’s probably now better known via the various film versions of the gathering (in fact, for generations of viewers, the face of Mary Shelley was that of the English actress Elsa Lanchester, who played both the writer and the electric-haired female monster in James Whale’s film The Bride of Frankenstein). That cinematic connection, in fact, makes the very filmic ‘cutting’ between scenes employed in In Search of Mary Shelley very appropriate.
What Sampson has done is to try to read the life of her subject through Mary’s most famous book, and it’s an approach that bears fruit. For instance, Sampson notes that Mary was concerned with the fragility of the human body. She suffered from a condition of the arm, which at one point was unnaturally swollen, and issues of birth (including her own miscarriages) were often in her thoughts; not hard to see reflections of Victor Frankenstein’s connection with both the giving of life and the distortion of the body.
As for the popular conception of Mary Shelley submerging her own life in that of her husband (even after his death when she returned to the house in which he was brought up as a boy), Sampson briskly disposes of this dated image, pointing up the writer’s remarkable individual achievements while not ignoring the fact that certain constraints would have been placed on her as a Victorian woman.
There is already a considerable body of literature concerning Mary Shelley, so one might not agree that her star has been somewhat dimmed. But Fiona Sampson’s study manages to illuminate her subject in prose that is both insightful and elegant
This review originally appeared in the i newspaper.
Fiona Sampson has written her own blog for us on Mary Shelley which you can read here.