The Book Club

Forests and Trees 

Dear Katha,

I guess that one woman’s forest is another woman’s trees. Historian Kristie Miller notes, “A biographer’s greatest challenge is not to put in everything he or she knows” and quotes Lytton Strachey on the art of biography, “The exclusion of everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant.”

I found the endless stream of detail more numbing than illuminating. I would rather have had one paragraph summarizing all those moves you liked reading about so much. I very much enjoyed reading about 19th-century luminaries like Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, and Mary’s parents, who play a significant enough role to aid in our understanding of Mary and of themselves as well. Some of the parade of other names (Thomas Hardy excavated the graveyard Mary’s parents were buried in! A guy they visited in Italy was the son of Keats’ schoolmaster!), while fun in a People magazine/six degrees of separation way, was distracting and should have been relegated to footnotes.

Despite an avalanche of detail, I was not persuaded by some of the conclusions Seymour drew, which veered at times into purplish speculation. She wrote “If she cried a little at the thought of leaving behind the father she loved and worried for so much, she was not going to admit such weakness to her diary” and “So it was as poor Medwin–one can’t help imagining–lifting a hand to stroke his military moustache …” and “She must have felt ready to weep when she read [a harsh letter from Percy].” That’s more suited to bodice-rippers than biography.

I was particularly skeptical of Seymour’s characterization of Mary’s decision to be described in a book about Percy as “Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, daughter of the celebrated authoress of The Rights of Women” rather than “Mary Shelley.” Seymour says, “This, as we will see, was Mary’s way of saying that she now preferred to see herself in a female context, as a woman who preferred the company of women and who, lovingly but not always wisely, preferred to put her trust in her own sex.” I don’t know about you, Katha, but I don’t think that is what we saw at all. Mary lovingly but not always wisely put her trust in untrustworthy people of both genders. It is far more likely from the evidence that Seymour provides us that her decision to omit “Shelley” from her name had more to do with the fact that her father-in-law cut off her allowance any time she attracted any publicity than from any statement about sisterhood being powerful.

I thought Percy came across in the book as very supportive of Mary’s intellectual life and her work, but irresponsible and selfish to the point of narcissism. Do you agree, and, if so, do you think that is a fair portrait, or was Seymour bending over backward to compensate for Mary’s reputation as cold and demanding?

As I said yesterday, I got bogged down in the book, so I took a break and read through some of Frankenstein for the first time. I was very taken with the sections of the book that are written in the voice of the Monster. It turns out that the Monster starts out as somewhat bewildered but sensitive, curious, and empathetic. He is moved by kindness and wants to make others happy. It is only when he is “educated” about the cruelty of mankind that he becomes vengeful.

Mary had such an education as she tried to help others only to find herself betrayed or abandoned by them. I found it terribly poignant, near the end of the book, as she struggled for respectability for herself and her son. She worked very hard to promote Percy’s reputation as a poet and a man of honor and high spirits. She wanted to control not just the selection of his published poems but biographies and memoirs about him. Percy’s private life had, she acknowledged, contained events that were, in Mary’s words, “hardly for the rude cold world to handle.” But if she hoped to bask in his glory, she was wrong. Seymour says, “as Shelley’s name became increasingly linked to all that was beautiful and gentle and good, her own reputation as the callous wife who had not understood or appreciated him continued to ripple and spread.”

It is sad to see how chastened she became. Before Percy died, Mary wrote a novel with a blasphemous character and was disappointed when it was not considered shocking. But eight years later, when she worked on her final revision of Frankenstein (authors in those days frequently issued revised editions to maintain their copyright), all of her changes toned it down. The discussion of those changes is one of the highlights of Seymour’s book.

In the original, Frankenstein and the woman he loved were cousins. In the revised version, they were not blood relations, and the woman took on a much more passive role. And Mary’s revised introduction, with its romantic story about the origin of the book as her answer to Byron’s challenge to write a ghost story, made it appear as though she and Percy had been married when they went to Switzerland together, while the original made it clear that they were not. The teen-ager who was proud of acting on her beliefs and rebelling against convention became a woman who changed her novel to make that less true of her characters. “Fate replaces individual choice in the 1831 edition,” according to Seymour.

Mary continued to show an acerbic side, a sort of 19th-century Dorothy Parker. I loved her description of her crotchety aunt as dying of “natural decay aided by her determination to do nothing she was told.” And what writer could not sympathize with Mary’s letter chiding an uncommunicative publisher by asking him to respond, “if your tiresome silence is not occasioned on your being dead.” But she became a woman for whom, in a conclusion of Seymour’s that I believe, decided in writing about Percy that “Respectability had become more important than the truth.” When Mary, whose father attended a “dissenting academy,” was advised to send her son to a school where he would think for himself, she replied, “Teach him to think for himself? Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people!” Unlike the character in one of her novels, who “rose calm and free, above unmerited disaster,” Mary became apologetic and conciliatory, wanting peace for herself and her son. Both Shelleys wrote about Prometheus, but only Mary lived long enough to understand what it meant to pay his kind of price.

Thanks, Katha,