The Book Club

These Are a Few of My Favorite Themes 

Dear Nell,

Bogged down? Well, it is quite long (570 pages plus copious notes), but Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley is the most thrilling and fascinating and utterly engrossing biography I’ve come across in years. I’m reading as I review, so today I’ll concentrate on the earlier chapters, but this is the only biography I can remember reading that has kept me up at night. All my favorite themes are here—poetry, fiction, feminism, romance and its price, marriage and its discontents, politics, radical and otherwise. The stage is huge, with constantly shifting scenery—London, Scotland, the English countryside, Switzerland, Italy, and many other continental spots—for Mary and her people moved houses as often and as casually as you or I might move houseplants from one window to another. The cast of characters is full of wild and outrageous men and women who never sit still for a minute. Besides the Shelley circle itself, Seymour includes walk-on parts for just about every 19th-century notable from Aaron Burr (befriended by the Godwins as a lonely outcast in London when Mary was a little girl) to Robert Louis Stevenson, who knew Mary’s middle-aged son Percy in the 1870s. A tremendous amount of research went into this book—Seymour gives us the look of streets that no longer exist, thumbnail sketches of doctors who attended the many medical crises that punctuate the book, and brief glances at innumerable topics, such as vegetarianism (which first caught on in England during the privations of the Napoleonic Wars and then, as now, was associated with “progressive” politics) and laudanum (a mixture of opium and alcohol readily available at your local pharmacist: Coleridge was addicted; Shelley waved a bottle and a pistol about in a hysterical and probably insincere suicide threat during a particularly difficult moment in his courtship of Mary; Fanny Imlay, Mary’s lonely and overshadowed half-sister, facing a life of poverty and depression, killed herself with an overdose at barely 20 years.). Seymour has really caught the spirit of the age.  

Like you, Seymour is very interested in the question of how 19-year-old Mary Shelley came to produce a work as mature, complex, and startlingly original as Frankenstein. (It’s really the fount and origin of science fiction as we know it—yes, that highly masculine literary domain was first mapped out by a teen-age girl.) She combs Mary’s childhood for the sources of themes and images: She describes little Mary and her stepsister Jane hiding under the sofa to hear Coleridge recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with its images of frozen Antarctic seas; she examines Mary’s protracted stay with family friends in the whaling town of Dundee—another source of frozen sea imagery—where local legend has it she actually began writing the book and where she herself said her imagination first awakened. She thinks about black slavery, still practiced in Britain during Mary’s youth, and suggests that Mary, a strong anti-slavery partisan, intended the monster as an anti-racist emblem. She sketches the Rhineland Castle of Frankenstein, which thrilled Mary and Shelley on their elopement tour of Europe and which was associated with a 17th-century alchemist, Konrad Dippel, who attempted to raise the dead by injecting them with a mixture made of human and animal blood and bone. She discusses the new science of electricity—apparently during the Enlightenment and after there was quite a lot of electro-shocking of corpses, animal and human, going on both for research and entertainment purposes. She mentions Mary’s father’s novel St. Leon, whose hero is isolated when he discovers the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone, and even Spenser’s Faerie Queen, which Mary and Shelley read together and which has a line and a half about Prometheus, who “did create/ A man, of many parts from beasts derived.” (Frankenstein “tortured the living animal” to make his monster.)

Some of these connections might strike the reader as a little tenuous, but taken together they make a rich study of the way that even the most startlingly fresh and new conceptions have their roots in personal experience, literature, daily life, the Zeitgeist. You mention Seymour’s theory that Mary’s fascination with the story of a scientist and his “hideous progeny” is connected with the loss of her mother, the great feminist and radical Mary Wollstonecraft, and with the guilt she may have felt over “causing” her mother’s death of childbed fever. Another way to turn the theme of childbirth and maternity is to connect Frankenstein to Mary’s own experience: She had already born two children when she sat down to write the book and was pregnant with a third. (All three children died in infancy or early childhood.) Poor Harriet, the wife Shelley abandoned during pregnancy to run off with Mary, was pregnant again when she killed herself; Mary’s stepsister, the ebullient and daring Jane “Claire” Clairmont, may have been impregnated by Shelley with unknown results and most certainly had a child from her brief affair with Byron.

Everywhere young Mary turned, there were pregnancies and childbirths and babies alive and dead, all of them scandalous, stressful, and immensely taxing to the women involved. It’s not too far-fetched to see Frankenstein as a myth about the dark side of maternity: Mary, like Victor Frankenstein, is a brilliant intellectual whose main “creation” is people—babies who cause pain and disgrace and sorrow, who die and kill, and whose lovability and humanity, like that of the monster, so easily go unnoted in the hard world. Like Victor, Mary made her creatures by “torturing the living animal”—herself.

It’s no accident that a woman wrote Frankenstein! Which didn’t prevent Shelley’s friend and hanger-on Trelawney, who was jealous of Mary and did his best to denigrate her in his memoirs, from spreading the story that the novel was really the work of Shelley.

Speaking of Shelley, Nell, what did you think about Seymour’s treatment of him? Any thoughts about Mary’s decision to spend much of her best energies keeping his flame ?

Cheers,
Katha