The full, mad life of Mary Shelley


Mary Shelley, by Miranda Seymour. Grove. 655 pages. $35.

In the 150 years since her death, Mary Shelley has suffered at the hands of literary critics and historians in thrall to her more illustrious friends and relations. Now, in Miranda Seymour, she finds a biographer both meticulous and sympathetic. Seymour has written notably as a literary historian before, on the social circle of Henry James. Mary Shelley stands as her first major biography -- one that should be welcomed as the major biography of a major author whose reputation has rested too heavily on those of her husband, father, mother and monster.

Mary's birth in 1797 was followed immediately by the death of her celebrated mother, the radical writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Raised by her equally renowned father, William Godwin, Mary inherited her lost mother's ambition and independence of mind but also the inner melancholy streak that went with them.

Mary was only 16 when reckless, high-born Percy Shelley "burst into [the Godwins'] lives like a comet" and "presided over the devastation of all their hopes." Percy was brought into the family fold by the financially struggling Godwin, who saw in the young aristocrat-revolutionary a potential paying patron. Instead, the impulsive young (married) poet spirited away two of his daughters, to the enduring damage of the family's reputation. Already, Mary's young life was one of fame and infamy by association with her parents and her lover, respectively.

More than half of Seymour's book covers the eight tumultuous years between her flight with Percy and his untimely death. It was during this period, in 1818, that Frankenstein was first composed and published (Mary would revise it substantially in 1831). Life with Percy was initially exhilarating, eventually demoralizing; he conducted numerous affairs and came to cast Mary, in letters and poetry, as a cold-hearted drag on his energies. The book's portrait of Percy is so unvarnished as to make his drowning in 1822 come as a positive relief to the reader.

Even after Percy's death, Mary continued to reckon with his influence: she made dogged efforts to secure his posthumous reputation, and struggled to overcome the social damage his scandalous behavior in life had caused her. Through it all, continually flirting with destitution, Mary kept writing: both hack work for profit and further novels of real literary and historical interest, like The Last Manand Lodore, which have been little remembered in the shadow of Frankenstein.

Seymour is adept at conjuring up the cultural climate and social context of the early 19th century in the major English and Italian settings of Shelley's life story. She has done hard and valuable work in finely combing the correspondence of the many players in this story, and reconstructing the likeliest version of events -- no mean feat with a circle, like Shelley's, that was rife with contention, backbiting and self-promotion. In places, the details of these rivalries and the sheer number of bit players can become overwhelming.

If the book is long on personal detail, it includes surprisingly little engagement with the content of Mary Shelley's writing. A single book can't do everything, and Seymour has cannily chosen to write one that fills the real need for an exhaustive and balanced account of the life that Shelley lived, rather than just one more take on the words that she wrote.

Laura Demanski, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Chicago, studies 19th-century British literature and culture. She previously worked at Simon and Schuster and the University of Chicago Press. She is writing a doctoral dissertation about portrayals of the urban underclass in the novels of Henry James, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison.

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