DESPITE ANNE MELLOR’s promise to examine ‘the entire range of Mary Shelley’s life and writing’, two-thirds of this book are dedicated to an analysis of Frankenstein, ‘Shelley’s greatest novel’ according to Mellor.
Now for fans of Frankenstein and the Gothic this is a must. Much rubbish has been written on the subject. The links between Mary’s monster and Erasmus Darwin’s claim to have animated a piece of pasta, Sir Humphrey Davy’s exhortation to chemists, Galvani’s theory of animal electricity and Aldini’s experiment in 1803 to reanimate the corpse of a recently hanged criminal – ‘the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened’ – really give life to the old subject.
Much research has gone into Mellor’s attempt to trace Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Byron and P B Shelley’s influences on Mary Shelley’s work and to unravel her message. Do not feel tepid about Mellor’s conclusion that Mary Shelley is driven by a need to be part of a ‘nuclear’ or bourgeois family, rather be chilled by the list of tragedies that kept her so far from attaining it. Her mother died in childbirth, four of her five children died under 6 years old, she was widowed at 25. At seventeen when she eloped with P B Shelley, a married man leaving a child and pregnant wife, Mary was branded as harlot, atheist, anarchist and was rejected by her father (who, in his time, had espoused premarital sex, atheism and revolution). In this light I find the sexual ambiguity in Mary Shelley’s imagery, her androgynous heroes, her literary tendency to necrophilia and investigation of incest easier to explain than through the convoluted, though stimulating, route adopted by Mellor. ‘From a modern Anglo-American feminist perspective’ Mellor claims, ‘the most glaring problem in the ideology of the family celebrated in M Shelley’s novels is the fact that her female characters develop no sense of self’ – or sense of humour?
‘Victor Frankenstein’s failure to mother his child has both political and aesthetic ramifications’. The monster is ‘an embodiment of the revolutionary French nation’ we are told and the Doctor’s aim is for ‘bourgeois capitalism: to exploit nature’s resources for both commercial profit and political control’.
Without taking an overtly chauvinistic stand, if Mary Shelley didn’t exactly have fun living with Percy and in the company of Byron, she must have had a pretty stimulating time. If the book and the baby get over-analysed, then Mellor is justified in supporting her claim that Frankenstein was ‘the greatest novel’ and M Shelley’s ‘reproductive anxieties’ were well founded. Mellor most convincingly identifies the monster with the poetic imagination: M Shelley’s first novel was an important step in her career as a writer.
The study of Frankenstein leads to some of the most important research in this book. Mellor minutely scrutinises the manuscript, paring away Percy’s ‘corrections’, pointing out Mary’s intentions and drawing fascinating conclusions from the changes she admits or conceals in the second edition some thirteen years later.
This is a perceptive and sympathetic work written with a winning combination of pace and authority. In it Mary Shelley emerges as not just the daughter of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, or just the wife of Shelley, but one whose intense experiences, enviable discipline and ranging imagination lead her to explore archetypal mythology.