In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson

“Natural philosophy is the genius that regulated my fate.”

Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

It was a time of violent rebellion in many parts of Europe and New World. The French Revolution was a social phenomenon with profound impact and far reaching consequences in political, cultural, social, and literary life. It was then that the Enlightenment ideals of equality, citizenship, and human rights were manifested. Triggered by the revolutionary spirit, and full of creative ideas, the English Romantic poets of the time, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, tried to posit new theories about the function and form of poetry and  find new ways  to express their inner feelings. It also changed how they saw the world and how they lived.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on 30 August 1797 in London. It was the daughter of the pioneer feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the anarchist Enlightenment philosopher William Godwin. Eleven days after her birth, Mary Wollstonecraft died from placental infection and Mary and her  elder sister Fanny Godwin, the daughter of Wollstonecraft and her American lover Gilbert Imlay was brought up by William Godwin who educated them as their mother would have wanted, to fight for political justice and social change and to face the world and its travails with fortitude and honesty.

When Godwin remarried to his neighbor, the widowed Mary Jane Clairmont who also had two children, the  whole family moved in a house in east London. It was a big, claustrophobic house but it was also a place of learning and radical ideas. Life was not easy for Mary there. The second Mrs Godwin, a  down to earth woman, seemed incapable of a genuine emotional response to sensitivities and challenges presented by the adolescent Mary.

And then one day, when she  was 15 years old, Mary became acquainted with  Percy Bysshe Shelley, a fiercely political radical poet, who regarded all forms of authority, including religion, as wicked and disapproved of marriage, even though he was already married, because of the rights it denied to women. Shelley, a great admirer of Godwin, became a frequent visitor in Skinner Street, and he and Mary fell in love.

And so it begins Mary’s Shelley remarkable life. The couple, Mary still in her sixteenth year, eloped to Europe accompanied by Mary’s step-sister Claire, who lived with them throughout most of their marriage in a bizarre relationship that has baffled historians for decades.

In her book, In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein, Fiona Sampson, herself a poet and editor of Percy Shelley’s poetry, set out to recover the anorthodox life of the incredibly celebrated author of  Frankenstein. The story of Frankenstein is fascinating, not only because Mary wrote it when she was just 19 years old, but also because of she invented an archetype, the genius, mad scientist that does not think about the consequences of his work, and he lives to see the consequences.

This is a book about what made Mary Shelley into herself,  an exceptional self made writer, conscientious social revolutionary, a romantic and a great survivor.

“Every young woman of her generation comes of age when she leaves the family home to get married, but Mary has gone much further, embarking on a course of self-invention. Although she hasn’t done anything as simple as marry Percy, she is in the process of changing from Mary Godwin into the eventual Mary Shelley…..”

Fiona Sampson revisites Mary Shelley’s life and unravels the many dimensions of her life. Her childhood, how she coped with the infidelity of her husband and the death of her children. How was she as  a person and how it was growing up in an intellectual and radical environment and meet the revolutionary thinkers and poets of her time.

“His is a powerful mind: and that fills me with melancholy, yet mixed with pleasure, as it always the case when intellectual energy is displayed.”

Mary Shelley about Lord Byron

It is a fascinating and engaging biography of an exceptional woman that went against the constraints of conventional life.