Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone

 

A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his daughter to read by tracing the letters of her mother’s name on the gravestone, that Mary feels connected to her mother through her writing (in one scene holding A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), and that silhouettes and a small portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft are prevalent in William Godwin’s bookshop and home. The film depicts Mary Shelley as a woman author of fierce independence and ambition, confronting and overcoming the obstacles of a man’s world of writing, learning, publishing, and entitlement (social and sexual). Frankenstein, the film proposes, was Mary’s stinging commentary on that world, where men are “monsters” and young women such as Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont are discounted. As Claire says through tears after copying the manuscript of Frankenstein, she identified with the creature’s struggles and expected many more would, and so Mary “must” publish the novel.

 

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Image: IFC Films

Al-Mansour’s film hits its emotional core once Mary drafts Frankenstein, presented in a series of images tracking Mary’s recognition of the destructive behaviour of men such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, interspersed with images of handwritten words that form and dissolve as Mary’s voiceover relates parts of the creature’s account. Here, the images and voiceover link Mary and the creature, reinforcing the film’s premise that the novel is the culmination of a young woman’s life of abandonment and contending with prejudice owing to her sex. When Percy has read that first draft, he proclaims its genius, but then wishes the creature to be “perfect,” an “angel,” to show humanity hope — a suggestion Mary refuses, replying that their lives are a mess, that she is a mess, which is reality. Percy relents, admitting Mary’s way is better. Overall, the sequence is absorbing, as a speculation upon the novel’s genesis and as an idea of the creature expressing the experience of women, especially women artists. I am tempted to think of Jane Austen’s observation in Northanger Abbey that women novelists were “an injured body” in the early nineteenth century ….

 

Regarding the context of the early nineteenth century, those very familiar with the period and either of the Shelleys in particular will notice the film’s creativity regarding chronology. When Mary and Percy first meet conflates different times: in Scotland, when she is sixteen and he twenty-one, they tell each other, which would be a year later than the proper year of 1812; Percy was visiting William Godwin in 1814, the year that saw him and Mary elope to France and Switzerland, but the film portrays all these events as taking place in the same year, mere months or weeks apart. The film’s own timeline produces additional historical anomalies. Claire Clairmont goes to a performance of Byron’s Werner, which he will not write until 1822. While the months during 1816 spent with Byron in Geneva was Mary and Percy’s second trip to Europe, the film makes it their first, and they are childless though their son William was born in January. (In fact, the film collapses their first three children into the birth and death of Clara, which actually came after Mary finished and then published Frankenstein, not before. It also skips over the months in Bath when the Shelleys returned to England, where Mary wrote much of Frankenstein and Claire gave birth to Allegra Byron in early 1817.) Moreover, Percy’s dialogue includes lines from his works, such as “the imagination is the instrument of moral good,” said in a church where he and Mary have their first kiss, though he composes A Defence of Poetry in 1821.

I mention these chronological glitches partly to warn those who might identify them and, perhaps, be pulled out of the film. On one hand, I am curious why Al-Mansour and the writer, Emma Jensen, made such choices. On the other hand, the film never definitively sets us in a specific year or month, which, upon reflection, allows it to fashion a sense of timelessness, or, rather, of not being strictly bound by time. We have impressions of Mary and Percy, which render them as both of their historical moment and relevant to our own. Mary’s struggles as a woman and author, therefore, continue across two hundred years, and her creature remains a voice for those denied the “compassionate touch” (as William Godwin says in the film) of the world.

However, the film as a whole feels anticlimactic. This feeling is highlighted by the scene of the nightmare that spurred Mary to write Frankenstein. It involves a mere several seconds of a haughty man touching a rod to the creature’s arm, the creature otherwise covered by a white sheet — not the harrowing, vivid “reverie” recounted by Mary Shelley in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel. Although the film finishes strongly, with Percy publicly acknowledging Mary’s authorship of Frankenstein at a gathering of men in William Godwin’s bookshop, it seems never quite to find the full, radical force of the “fire” in Mary’s “soul.” There are missed opportunities to delve further into the fraught months of the novel’s composition, when Mary faced scandal, upheaval, and loss.

Bel Powley, Elle Fanning, and Douglas Booth as Percy Shelley

 

Still, the film is carried by a compelling performance from Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Tom Sturridge is magnetic as Lord Byron, and Bel Powley gives her Claire Clairmont engaging depth as a woman even more discounted than Mary. The cinematography is lush, bold, and attentive, particularly with interiors such as the bookshop, the lodgings in St. Pancras, and the villa in Geneva. In the end, we have a film that certainly reminds us Mary Shelley at eighteen and nineteen years old shaped modernity, though it perhaps leaves wanting a richer, more rigorous portrait of how she did so.

 

Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, written by Emma Jensen. Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy. USA, May 2018; UK, July 2018.

Michael Johnstone teaches at the Department of English, University of Toronto. His Twitter ID is @mikejwrites  

 

 

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.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Mary Shelley: Through the window

by Fiona Sampson
 
I’ve always liked buildings. When I was a child I used to get myself to sleep by imagining palaces that I designed room by room. I like the way a building tells you its age without meaning to, because it’s been designed according to the architectural fashion of its day. I spend a lot of time visiting churches because their aspirational shapes are beautiful, but also because the details of their construction are the giveaways that let us in to local history. When, last year, we moved to an old stone farmhouse that has itself been often rebuilt (it has thirteenth-century kitchen beams but an eighteenth-century façade), trying to date it became a fascinating game.
 
So it’s no surprise that, when I started to think about Mary Shelley and how life must have been for her, I used the places she lived as a way to reconstruct her experience. I was not going to fictionalise Shelley, but I did want to recoup in forensic and faithful detail all that we do know about her own experience. Nor did I want simply to repeat research already brilliantly and comprehensively carried out by previous biographies. Miranda Seymour’s 2000 Mary Shelley is surely the most magisterial of these, though I also have a particular admiration for the American academic Emily Sunstein’s Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (1989) and Muriel Spark’s brilliant reading of the woman and her work in Child of Light: A biography of Mary Shelley, which dates back to 1951. All three books read the facts they unearth, and take on the biographer’s responsibility of making sense of their often-confusing subject.
 

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary, first exhibited in 1840. National Portrait Gallery, London

Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary, first exhibited in 1840. National Portrait Gallery, London


 
Instead, I wanted to supplement these with the kind of psychological biography that a Romantic such as Mary might have relished. After all, Mary was herself an eager biographer, who first tried to write a life at the age of seventeen, when she started work on the Girondist J-B. Louvet de Couvrai. During her years of widowhood, she supported herself mainly by anonymous literary hackwork, much of it a lengthy series of biographies for the 133-volume Cabinet Cyclopaedia published by Dionysius Lardner. Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal (three volumes) and Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France (two volumes), to which she contributed the lion’s share, were published between 1835 and 1839. In an entry on the eighteenth century librettist and writer Pietro Metastasio, in Volume 2 of Italy, Spain and Portugal (p. 206) Mary noted with approval, of her subject’s own practice of biography, that its aim was: ‘to collect the peculiar character of the man his difference from others [through] the bringing forward of minute, yet characteristic details.’
 
We know this concern with individuation was at the heart of the Romantic project, but memoir and biography are such seductively familiar forms that it’s easy to forget how central these genres were to its development. It wasn’t only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, at the start of his Confessions, who could say that: ‘My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.’ Confessions was published posthumously in 1782, at a time when members of the literate, educated class to which Romantic culture-makers belonged had little or no problem reading its French. So by 1798, when Mary’s father, the radical philosopher and novelist William Godwin, published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman about Mary Wollstonecraft who had died the year before from complications resulting from Mary’s own birth  the principle of searching a life for evidence of the person who lived it would have been a familiar one.
 
Mary Wollstonecraft, painted by John Opie the year before she died, National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary Wollstonecraft, painted by John Opie the year before she died, National Portrait Gallery, London


 
So familiar was it that Godwin seems to have been ill prepared for the catastrophic damage his Memoirs did to Wollstonecraft’s posthumous reputation. By revealing that Wollstonecraft really did live according to her radical ideals  including sympathy with the French revolutionaries among whom she had lived, and the practice of Free Love with the American father of her first child  he helped ensure that her work would not be taken seriously for decades.
 
Though the daughter of both the author and the subject of this turn of the century shocker, Mary was evidently not put off the genre. And perhaps it’s easier to understand how much she and her contemporaries saw in it when we remember that, earlier, biography had been closer to either formal hagiography or the cheerful anecdotalism of John Aubrey’s seventeenth century Brief Lives. Both are social, public kinds of account; neither explores motivation or experience. Both take the significance of an individual to be as a social protagonist, neither sees it as being either to his or herself, or as a model of individuality itself.
 
William Godwin painted by James Northcote in 1802, when Mary was just turning five. National Portrait Gallery, London.

William Godwin painted by James Northcote in 1802, when Mary was just turning five. National Portrait Gallery, London.


 
It was to this Romantic idea of biography that I turned when I was asked to write about Mary. She matters to us because she produced the astonishing, and astonishingly contemporary, archetypal story of Frankenstein, first published anonymously two hundred years ago this month. And so the very first question we’re bound to ask of her life is how and why she managed to do so, especially since she only a teenager at the time. (Mary was nineteen when she completed the novel, twenty when it came out.) Immediately or so it seems to me, as a twenty-first century writer: of course, I’m absolutely a creature of my own cultural times too  we are in the world of the psyche: of how thought works, how ideas are formed and of what motivates works of imaginative creation.
 
If this weren’t reason enough to take Mary as an exemplar of artistic experience, her subsequent life as a woman who tried to be both a loving mother and what we’d today call a ‘surrendered wife’ to her unreliable poet husband, and a writer and intellectual in her own right, speaks to questions of identity that we, her successors, still grapple with today. This historical figure is a very contemporary exemplar.
 
Yet she wears, of course, the costume of the period that formed her. So I decided to go back to something we can share with her: the physical spaces of the rooms she inhabited, especially during her formative years. Incidentally, this kind of encounter with the actual surroundings that formed the Romantics is something the Wordsworth Trust knows all about. Walking round Dove Cottage isn’t just a literary pilgrimage. It allows us to share the actual experience of what daylight and evening were like for William and Dorothy Wordsworth and their visitors; what a somewhat claustrophobic domesticity and the preoccupying landscape outside the house walls meant.
DC-Houseplace
 
The same applies to the Regency new-build in which Mary was born and spent the first ten years of her life. The Godwins’ home, at 27 the Polygon, Somers Town, has now disappeared under post-war social housing. But at the time the family lived there it was a building site, in the middle of fields only recently leased for development to the architect Jacob Leroux by the eponymous, recently ennobled First Baron Somers of Evesham. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a palatial London townhouse, but I do know what it’s like to grow up in a new-build on a half-built estate. I drew on my memories of the Waunfawr estate outside Aberystwyth of mud, and noise, and the strangely inauthentic sense it gave us children, as we played in the street, that human settlement was only one house deep, and as temporary as a stage set.
 
Contemporary prints make clear that the houses in the Polygon, in an almost exaggerated version of the height of contemporary Palladian style, had enormous windows.
Palladian window
They would have had a great view of the mud and surveyor’s tape taking over the surrounding fields. They would also have been very much draughtier than the relatively small, deep-set windows traditional in even quite grand houses from earlier in the eighteenth century. That set me thinking about the new domestic fuel, coal, and the unexpectedly dark, mineral-smelling dust that would have been in the air of the high-ceilinged rooms. But I also reflected on how much light would have come into every room, and how visible its inhabitants would be. I discovered that at the turn of the nineteenth century windowpanes were becoming larger and cheaper as glassmaking technology slowly improved.
 
Mary, I realized, grew up in a house where there was a culture of visibility: even though her parents and her stepmother were all, in their various ways, writers rather than visual artists. And this was of a piece with the Natural Philosophy of her time, whose rapidly developing scientific thinking was based on observation. Small wonder that, when she came to write Frankenstein, Mary would make appearances the trigger for her protagonist’s destinies. She demonstrates that Victor Frankenstein is intrinsically good by making him  literally good-looking; while her creature becomes loveless, universally rejected and precipitated into his life of murderous crime because his appearance is so horrifying.
 
There was much more the house at 27 the Polygon had to tell me, and that I’ve no space here to revisit. But I did enjoy discovering, and writing about, this material. It was just as if I was three years old again, sitting on the carpet and watching as Play School took us though the window… on another adventure.
 
 
In Search of Mary Shelley: the girl who wrote Frankenstein is published by Profile Books on Jan 18, and launched with a lecture at National Portrait Gallery that evening. https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/late-shift-1/lecture-18012018
It is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week Jan 15-19. Fiona will be talking about it on BBC R4’s Start the Week on Jan 8 and on BBC R3’s Free Thinking and Radio Scotland on Jan 18. In the US it appears from Pegasus Books in June, to coincide with the summer exhibition Fiona is curating at the Wordsworth Trust.

Book review: Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years, by Christopher Frayling

by Barry Forshaw
Given that the 1st of January 2018 is a significant literary date — 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — it is surprising (and disappointing) that this event is not enjoying more ballyhoo – but this sumptuous, over-sized volume goes some way to redressing that injustice.
 
Sir Christopher Fraying, a cultural polymath in the UK of heavyweight reputation, proves to be the perfect commentator to celebrate the Frankenstein bicentennial. Frayling utilises new research on the novel’s origins, and his text is enriched with a variety of illustrative materials (all the films, of course, but also the first visual representations of the creature).
 
His book is also an examination of the tributaries of the creation myth in modern times, from genetic engineering to nanotechnology, but this is no dry academic text. Shelley’s novel set in motion a cultural phenomenon whose offshoots continue to this day. Apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is not a more fecund source of Gothic inspiration.
 
Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years
by Christopher Fraying. Reel Art Press, 208 pages, £29.95
 
This review first appeared in the Financial Times.
 

Review: Frankenstein, at the Royal Opera House, London

by Anna Mercer

I bought tickets for Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House quite late; I was unsure of the concept when the first advertisements went out. The National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein in 2011 had disappointed me in its overbearing narrative of creature-as-child (something which obviously originates from Shelley’s novel, but which she presents with more subtlety) – and its overwrought embellishments to the plot. Perhaps these changes were introduced in order to balance Victor’s misgivings with the creature’s ultimate malevolence. But I felt that the production did not give the audience enough chance to think for themselves; Frankenstein’s narrative should give the audience the opportunity to come to a personal realisation of the implications of the dichotomy between creator and created. This complexity is why the novel can famously be read through the lens of so many different strands of literary criticism. Even the Miller/Cumberbatch role-switching seemed a little too obvious in this production.
But the set was impressive, and the acting superb. I did not manage to get tickets to see the play at the National Theatre in London, so I maybe the experience was compromised slightly by watching in the cinema instead – though I have not noticed this effect with other productions. But the idea of seeing a live performance is partly why I shelved my reservations about the ROH Frankenstein, and we proceeded to find last-minute tickets.
Here I will point out that I know nothing about ballet. I haven’t been to watch a performance since I was very young. But overall the experience was fantastic. The production itself was mesmerising. I was already excited before the first curtain came up. The curtain showed a skull image that as the three acts played out, slowly turned from a profile position to face the audience, becoming more alive as it did so. As each act started, tendons and muscles appeared to shift across the ‘face’.
ROH 1
The set and costumes are bold, especially the costume of the creature. Yet the creature’s physical appearance is at once startling and also discreet, as his costume allows his presence to be alternately striking and clandestine. Within the same act he moves from creeping, hidden threat, to a confrontational force of anger. I thought that the best group dance was in the final act, during Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding. Here you see the creature mingle with the dancers, almost completely lost in their world (and unnoticed by all on stage except Victor). At the very end of the show, the monster retreats towards a backdrop of red fire, which recalls the work of William Blake and John Martin.

Image from ROH Frankenstein

Image from ROH Frankenstein

 

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, by John Martin (1789-1854), Tate, London

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, by John Martin (1789-1854), Tate, London

I deliberately avoided reading any reviews before seeing the performance (and before writing the first draft of this blog), but I have heard that those behind the production made a conscious decision to focus on the love story between Victor and Elizabeth. I don’t know if this is true of Scarlett’s motives – but actually I thought the focus was on love in a familial sense. The emotional hook was the closeness of the Frankenstein family. It was a successful decision, I think, to concentrate on Victor and Elizabeth, rather than bring in the de Lacey narrative from the novel. By keeping it simple, the production allowed us to become involved (in just 3 hours) in the closeness of that family. Also, the first act concentrated specifically on Victor’s experience at university (the anatomy theatre set being particularly impressive), which effectively emphasised the creature’s existence as a product of human endeavour and science rather than something more elusive and paranormal.

The University at Ingolstadt. Image from ROH Frankenstein

The University at Ingolstadt. Image from ROH Frankenstein

Henry Clerval’s role is maintained as another double to the eponymous Frankenstein. As with my comments about the NT play above, I think the choice to emphasis Clerval reflects how the ROH Frankenstein shows a concern with the relationships between other characters, beyond just the creature and its creator. The audience are free to generate their own impressions about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ because Henry and Elizabeth’s criticisms of Frankenstein are hidden. The ability to revert to a less didactic production is something more attuned to the genre of ballet, in comparison to a play. However I think the openness for interpretation is why this production is one that academics and avid readers of Shelley’s original book will enjoy. It doesn’t feed you the story but presents you with the horror and spectacle of it, the human and superhuman qualities of its narrative, and the relationship between humanity and nature. I think Mary Shelley would have been justly proud.
Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband and long-term literary collaborator, wrote of his disdain for didactic art in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound. In this prose piece Percy denounced ‘didactic poetry’ calling it ‘an abhorrence’: he does not purport to present ‘a reasoned system on the theory of human life’. His plan is to present several kinds of vignettes, fragments that can depict a complex social picture. He describes his aim to produce a ‘systematical history of what appear to me to be the genuine elements of human society’.[1]  Mary’s novels, concerned so much with socio-political issues, also present a narrative to show something akin to true human experience, sometimes tied up in supernatural or scientific possibility (as in Frankenstein and The Last Man). The implications of the human behaviour she presents are perplexing, and this is why her work remains so important.

Mary Shelley, draft of Frankenstein (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Mary Shelley, draft of Frankenstein (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Mary Shelley’s journals from her time in Italy (before Percy’s death in 1822) are characteristically brief and non-confessional. However there are instances of her recording their outings to the ballet, for example on 9 October 1819 in Florence:

“Arrive at Florence – Read Massinger – S. begins Clarendon – reads Massinger – & Plato’s Republic – Clare has her first singing lesson on Saturday – Go to the opera & see a beautiful Ballet” [2]

The entry demonstrates the Shelleys’ busy literary lives, where even after travelling, their first day in a city still demands reading of various classic works, and then a trip to the ballet.
The show they saw was possibly Otello ossia il moro di Venezia, by Salvator Vigano. An earlier outing to see Otello in Milan on 5 April 1818 also led Mary to describe the ballet as ‘beautiful’.[3] An excursion to the ballet was one of the first things the Shelleys undertook on their arrival in Italy in 1818 (Percy Shelley wrote: ‘no sooner had we arrived at Italy than the loveliness of the earth & the serenity of the sky made the greatest difference in my sensations’).[4] Mary wrote to Leigh and Marianne Hunt of their experience on April 6:

“[…] the ballet was infinitely magnificent – It was (strange to say) the story of Othello – but it was rather a tragic pantomime than a ballet – There was no dancer like Mamlle Milanie but the whole was in a finer stile [sic] – The corps de ballet is excellent and they throw themselves into groups fit for a sluptor [sculptor] to contemplate. The music of the ballet was very fine and the gestures striking. The dances of many performers which are so ill executed with us are here graceful to the extreme. The theatre is not lighted and the ladies dress with bonnets and pelisses which I think is a great pity – the boxes are dear – but the pit – in which none but very respectable people are admitted is only eighteen pence so that our amusement is very cheap.” [5]

Percy Shelley’s comments on the ballet show that he shares her enthusiasm. Both Shelleys refer to the dancer Milanie, who they had seen perform in London. Percy explicitly appreciates the ballet as a way of ‘illustrating the history in question’:

“[…] the Ballet, or rather a kind of melodrama or pantomimic dance, was the most splendid spectacle I ever saw. We have no Miss Millani here – in every other respect Milan is unquestionably superior. The manner in which language is translated into gesture, the complete & full effect of the whole as illustrating the history in question, the unaffected self possession of each of the actors, even to the children, made this choral drama more impressive than I should have conceived possible. The story is Othello, & strange to say it left no disagreeable impression.” [6]

A ‘melodrama’, and a ‘spectacle’, were certainly words I would apply to Scarlett’s Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House. The commotion and constant heightening of the senses when watching such powerful movement on stage was very memorable. I think it is interesting to think of the Shelleys appreciating this art form themselves, and the way in which ‘language is translated into gesture’.

My work as a researcher on the lives and works of the Shelleys seeks to clarify our perception of their intimate literary relationship in which art and life are intermingled. In the two letters above it is evident that the Shelleys use an almost identical phrase in order to describe an impression of the performance. The form of the letter makes this seem (when read in isolation) an individual reaction.
However, by reading the Shelleys’ writings in conjunction we can understand that their written response emerged from a discussion between them on their expectations for the ballet compared to what they actually saw (not a ‘ballet’ as they thought it would be, but a ‘pantomimic dance’ / ‘tragic pantomime’). My thesis shows that whilst reading the Shelleys’ creative works – especially those written at the same time – such understanding of their origins, inspirations and meaning can also be drawn out, by placing them in the context of a collaborative literary relationship.
Like Mary and Percy Shelley, we had a wonderful evening at the ‘splendid’, ‘beautiful’ ballet. For anyone this would be a treat; but for someone who is in the midst of solitary research on Frankenstein and the creative collaboration between Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Shelley, it was a powerful reminder of why these authors and their ideas remain so pervasive and important.

[1] PBS, ‘Preface’ to Prometheus Unbound.
[2] MWS,The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-1844 ed. by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) 9 Oct 1819 p. 298.
[3] MWS, Journals 5 April 1818 p. 203.
[4] PBS, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley (2 Vols.) ed. by Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964) Vol II p. 3.
[5] MWS, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (3 Vols.) ed. by Betty T. Bennett (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980) Vol I p. 64.
[6] PBS, Letters Vol II p. 4.
This review first appeared on Anna’s blog https://percyandmaryshelley.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/the-roh-frankenstein-ballet/

Anna MercerAnna Mercer is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of York. Her research is on the collaborative literary relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley.

The haunting of Percy Bysshe Shelley

by Lynn Shepherd

This fiend, whose ghastly presence ever
Beside thee like thy shadow hangs…

Percy Bysshe Shelley was many things: a poet, a political radical and pamphleteer, a philosophical thinker, and a faithless husband. He was also – and this may come as a surprise – obsessed with the occult, and this fixation with spirits, demons, and dark inversions of the self was to haunt him to the end of his life.

It was a preoccupation that began very early – Shelley was conjuring a world of spirits and magic and the supernatural to terrorise his younger sisters when he was not much more than ten. As Elizabeth Shelley later recalled, “we dressed ourselves in strange costumes to personate spirits or fiends, and Bysshe would take a fire-stove and fill it with some flammable liquid…” He made up ghost stories to scare his sisters, went on mysterious moonlit walks, and drew doodles of devils and monsters in the margins of his copy of Tales of Terror. He devoured the cheap horror novels of the period, and later wrote one of his own, The Nightmare, which has since been lost.

At Eton, at the age of 16, he was discovered one night within a circle of blue flame, trying to raise the devil; Beelzebub apparently did not oblige. And on another occasion he wrote to a friend arranging to meet him in the holidays, warning him that he might meet on the way “Death-demons, & skeletons dripping with the putrefaction of the grave” and “at the frightful hour of midnight” awake to see “the Hell-Demon lean[ing] over your sleeping form.” And all the while he was prey to nightmares, and sleepwalking, and strange waking visions in which he could no longer tell reality from hallucination. His university friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalled Shelley telling him that that during one of his midnight walks he’d become convinced he could hear the devil pursuing him, rustling in the grass. It was only the first of many such ‘following figures’ that were to obsess him until his death. But were any of these spectres real, or were they nothing but the ‘shaping fantasies’ of his own fevered mind?

One of the strangest examples of this occurred in 1813 – so strange that it inspired a central episode in my own novel, A Treacherous Likeness. It happened in Tremadoc, North Wales, where Shelley was staying temporarily with his first wife, Harriet. Within weeks of their arrival in the town Shelley had antagonised many of his neighbours, particularly a local landowner named Robert Leeson. On the night of February 26th, in the midst of a storm, Shelley was apparently the subject of an assassination attempt. He certainly thought it such, and more than one gunshot was heard, but no-one but Shelley saw the man who attacked him, even though the supposed assailant came back to the house a second time the same night. Even many of Shelley’s friends thought it was some kind of delusion, and years later the incident was still being referred to in the Tremadoc area as Shelley’s Ghost’.

Shelley always believed that Leeson was the man who tried to murder him, improbable though that suggestion was, and over the next few years this idea became almost a mania with him – he even claimed he’d seen Leeson following him in London, and once as far away as Pisa. Something was certainly persecuting Shelley, but it wasn’t Robert Leeson. Again and again in his letters and journals Shelley talks of the ‘doubleness’ of his own nature, of a dark ‘anti-self’, and once he describes himself “starting from my own company as if it were that of a fiend”. Like a ‘ghastly presence ever beside him like his shadow’, it was his own self Shelley could not escape.

And with that thought, we move to the last days of Shelley’s life. In the spring of 1822 he and his second wife Mary, author of Frankenstein, moved with their friends Edward and Jane Williams to a small house on a wild and lonely stretch of the Ligurian coast, near La Spezia. The Shelleys’ marriage was by then in serious trouble, and Mary could not rid herself of a sense of foreboding, a premonition of “some impending horror”. Shelley, by contrast, was exhilarated by the landscape, and the situation of the villa right by the sea, but the terrible atmosphere in the house eventually told on his nerves, and he became prey once again, to sleepwalking and apparitions that deeply disturbed him.

CasaMagni

One evening on the terrace with Williams, he claimed to see a little naked child, rising from the sea, with its hands clasped. And later, he woke the whole house with his screaming, and they found him staggering in a trance-like state, claiming to have seen two visions – one of Edward and Jane Williams covered in blood and the sea rushing into the house, and one of a figure standing over Mary, its hands about her throat – a figure that had Shelley’s own face. And it was not the first time he had seen his own döppelganger: a few days before he had met the same figure, in sunlight, in the garden, and the man had asked him ‘how long he meant to be content’. All of this was no doubt the result of the extreme stress Shelley was suffering, and the calamitous state of his marriage, but one other incident cannot be so easily explained. Writing to her friend, after Shelley’s death, Mary recalled that

the strangest thing is that Mrs Williams saw him. … She was standing one day… at a window that looked on the terrace, with Trelawny….[and] saw, as she thought, Shelley pass by the window, as he often was then, without a coat or jacket ; he passed again. Now, as he passed both times the same way, and as from the side towards which he went each time there was no way to get back except past the window again (except over a wall 20 feet from the ground), she was struck at her seeing him pass twice thus, and looked out and seeing him no more, she cried, ” Good God, can Shelley have leapt from the wall? Where can he be gone?” “Shelley?” said Trelawny, “no Shelley has passed. What do you mean?” Trelawny says that she trembled exceedingly when she heard this, and it proved, indeed, that Shelley had never been on the terrace, and was far off at the time she saw him.

Less than a month later he was dead, drowned with Williams in a sudden storm as he was sailing back from Livorno. That same night his friend Lady Mountcashell dreamt of him, his face pale and melancholy, saying mournfully, “I shall never eat more”. She had no idea then, that he was dead.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran.
Picture courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery

It was ten days before the bodies were found, flung onto the beach near Viareggio. By then Shelley was only identifiable by the clothes he wore, and the book he still carried in his pocket. His face and hands had been completely eaten away.

This post was originally written for the Spooky Isles website, which offers stories of the paranormal, horror and dark history in Britain and Ireland.


Lynn Shepherd is the author of four novels, the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, Tom-All-Alone’s (The Solitary House in the US), and A Treacherous Likeness, which is a fictionalised version of the dark and turbulent lives of the Shelleys (published as A Fatal Likeness in the US). Her latest book, The Pierced Heart, is inspired by Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula. She is a trustee of The Wordsworth Trust.

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