- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Miranda Seymour
Grove, $35, 655 pages, illus.

Since the numbing events of Sept. 11 and, at least for the time being, what used to be considered thrilling or frightening seems somehow less so. By this measure, any discussion of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" has to acknowledge that in today's edgy climate the masterpiece once thought to hover at the outer boundaries of terror is, at its best, a quaint relic of an earlier Romantic age.
Frankenstein the monster that entered popular culture with the name of the fictional scientist who created him has long ceased to frighten us, but, to be fair, these uneasy times are not to blame. Nearly 200 years of adaptations and appropriations from the somber and dignified Boris Karloff to the madcap Gene Wilder, not to mention legions of children in Halloween costumes have blunted the fictional monster's fearsomeness. But not his appeal.
Miranda Seymour understands the monster's magnetism, and with "Mary Shelley" offers a book that is part biography, part literary criticism, part social history. It is a scholarly work, soothing in its attention to the smallest details of the lives of the literary and political elite of 19th-century London. It is also a riveting story in its own right. The author keeps Mary and her monster in the spotlight, tracing how a woman at such a young age she was 18 came to conceive of a creature assembled and brought to life in a laboratory.
The biographer draws on letters and extensive Shelley scholarship in order to piece together the source of the young woman's inspiration. Along the way readers meet the luminaries who formed Mary's social circle, chilly locales in her past and the Promethean themes that captivated her generation. In the process the biographer deconstructs the monster, domesticates Mary and demythologizes the circle of Romantics who had their part in the birth of what Mary later called her "hideous progeny."
The book, like Muriel Spark's "Mary Shelley: A Biography," first published in 1951 and reprinted in 1987, seeks out the roots of Mary's inspiration. But where Mrs. Spark opted for brisk and succinct consideration of a young girl and her horrific subject, this biography, running to twice the length of its predecessor, has a tendency to get bogged down in its own minutiae. Nevertheless, when the narrative works, which is most of the time, the writing is vivid and insightful.
The book opens with a sketch of Mary's pedigree. Born to one of the most famous, if not notorious couples of the age the influential feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical philosopher William Godwin Mary entered life as a child of privilege, but heavy psychological burdens followed quickly. Mary's mother died giving birth to her, and at a very young age the child was sent away to Dundee, Scotland, partly to get help for a debilitating case of eczema, partly to ease the burden of a strained relationship with her overbearing stepmother, who is described this way: "Mary Jane was a troublemaker and a liar; she was not a fool." It was during her stay in the windswept, cold, desolate city, her biographer writes, that imagery for Mary's one great work began to take shape.
In her teens the rebellious Mary, having returned to her father and stepmother's house in London, met Percy Bysshe Shelley. The young man with the pale skin, high forehead and curly hair was already famous by virtue of his poetry and family name, and already married with a pregnant wife. But this being an age of free love, Mary and Shelley the latter marked by a nature unconstrained by moderation began an affair. The lovers consummated their relationship in the graveyard where Mary's mother was buried. London was scandalized by the union, and the couple fled, first to France, then Switzerland where "Frankenstein" was born.
The story of the night the tale took shape in Mary's mind is familiar but worth recalling. In the summer of 1816, Mary and Shelley settled into Lord Byron's villa overlooking Lake Geneva. There, on one of many successive stormy nights Mary, her stepsister, Jane "Claire" Clairmont, Byron, Shelley, Byron's physician John Polidori, gathered together "to indulge in a spot of terror-raising with which Claire and Shelley were familiar from their nights of story telling together in London. At midnight gathered around a blazing fire and with the shutters closed, they 'really began to talk ghostly.'"
In her 1831 Preface to "Frankenstein," Mary wrote of a dream that came after an evening stimulated to a fever pitch by these animated conversations. "When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision …"
The writer is somewhat skeptical about whether in fact there was a dream. She makes a compelling case that the assembled group did mull over their "their favourite subject that summer, the principle of life," including an alleged experiment by Erasmus Darwin involving a living piece of vermicelli, and that recitations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Christabel" had everyone more than a little spooked.
But if the creation of "Frankenstein" is this book's centerpiece, with or without a "dream," Miranda Seymour's great achievement is in doggedly researching all that came after in the life of its author. Unfortunately, this included the deaths of three of her four children and, later, in a boating accident off the coast of Italy the death of her husband at the age of 24 (they were together a mere eight years).
Sadly, Mary's life after Percy's death was a struggle. Plagued by economic distress, a troublemaking father-in -law (Sir Timothy Shelley) and the disloyalty of friends, she had frequent bouts of depression. Mary kept writing but never with the same success her first novel brought her. And she devoted herself to keeping her husband's work and reputation intact. The biographer takes pains to illuminate her lesser known work, which includes essays and travel writing and is generous in her assessment of Mary's steadfastness and strength.
The men in this book do not do as well. Shelley comes across as a spoiled brat who was a bit of a coward when it came right down to it. (His knees "wobbled" with fright when they first crossed stormy waters into France during their elopement.) Byron is portrayed, as he often is , as cold and ruthless. Poor Polidori, revealed to have something of a crush on Mary is shown to be clumsy and inept. But Edward Trelawny gets the prize for sheer villainy. Trelawny's book "Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author" "stripped her naked of dignity, of virtue, of intelligence, and above all, of the right to be admired as Shelley's wife."
But she managed. And in this thoroughly readable book, Mary Shelley captivates beyond what "the world expected her to be, a second Mary Wollstonecraft."

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