In May 1824, reflecting on the theme of her new novel, Mary Shelley wrote in her journal: ‘The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me…’. Prone as she was to melancholia, she had every justification for her sense of isolation. In just seven years, she had lost three children and suffered a miscarriage; two young women closely associated with her had committed suicide; and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, had drowned at sea. Even as she wrote those words, news of the premature death of another close friend, Lord Byron, was reaching England. ‘Why am I doomed to live on seeing all expire before me?’ she wailed.
The story of Mary Shelley is extraordinary, both for its miseries and for the courage with which she faced adversity. And yet, as Miranda Seymour demonstrates in this richly detailed biography, it should all have been so different. Hailed by Shelley as a ‘Child of love and light’, Mary had remarkable parents, was beautiful, talented and hardworking, and mingled with some of the greatest thinkers and artists of her age. She was born in 1797, the daughter of the pioneering feminist and writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, and of William Godwin, a social reformer and the author of the celebrated An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Within days of the birth, however, Mary’s mother died, leaving Godwin to cope with a tiny baby and with Fanny, his wife’s child by an earlier liaison. Mary compensated by an ‘excessive and romantic attachment’ to her father, a passion that was challenged by his marriage in 1801 to Mary Jane Clairmont. Almost overnight, Mary acquired a stepmother whom she appears to have hated and a stepsister, Jane Clairmont (later known as Claire), who was to become a source of anger and frustration.
Mary’s elopement with Shelley in 1814, when she was only sixteen, was the defining act of her life. By running away to Europe with a married man and professed atheist, in the company of Claire (whom gossip credited with being an active member of Shelley’s ‘harem’), Mary set the scene for decades of struggle against scandal and regret. Ironically, the irregular existence she adopted with Shelley seems to have been particularly ill-suited to bring her happiness. Like her mother, Mary thrived in a stable and orderly environment, in which she could combat her habitual depression by intellectual work and loving companionship. Instead, again like her mother, she spent many years battling with loneliness and disappointment. Her love affair, which began so promisingly, brought terrible suffering. From the beginning, Mary pledged herself to Shelley as ‘exclusively thine’; years later, she wrote yearningly about ‘that atmosphere of love, so hushed, so soft, on which the soul reposes & is blessed’. This longing for secure affection was sorely tried by Shelley’s other romantic attachments, and was probably a significant factor in their emotional estrangement during the last months of his life. Mourning her dead husband and tortured by self reproach, Mary turned for comfort to female friends: ‘being afraid of men, I was apt to get tousy-mousy for women’, she later confessed. All too often, however, she discovered that an intimate friend had gossiped maliciously behind her back,
Given her many difficulties of circumstance and temperament, it is astonishing how much Mary achieved. While her husband was alive, she found time, despite frequent moves, childbirth and a series of emotional blows, for a formidable programme of reading and novel-writing, as well as the copying, letter-writing and journal keeping that seem to have been indispensable to the female relatives of Romantic poets. Frankenstein, the novel for which Mary became famous in her lifetime, and which remains her best-known work, was written when she was only nineteen. She was also at that time the mother of one surviving baby, pregnant with her third child, and recovering from the suicides of Fanny and of Harriet, Shelley’s first wife. Returning to England after Shelley’s death, and finding that his father, Sir Timothy, would offer only the most grudging financial aid, she supported herself and her surviving son, Percy, by a stream of publications, including novels, romantic tales, travel-writing, and perceptive biographies of eminent European authors. At the same time, she continued her peripatetic life. She wrote wistfully to Marianne Hunt in 1840, ‘it seems as if I were never to be stationary – I who long so for a home.’
Fortunately, it was not all gloom and doom. New friendships developed as the scandalous events of Mary’s early life faded into the past. Godwin, in his uncompromising way, retained close links with his daughter, even if he seems to have provided as much anxiety as solace. Seymour’s account of this demanding relationship, as Mary strove to meet her father’s financial needs in his lifetime and to nurture his posthumous reputation, is illuminating and admirably just. Mary’s last three years – she died of a brain tumour when she was fifty-three – were softened by the devotion of her daughter-in-law, Jane Shelley. The latter took over Mary’s task as keeper of Shelley’s flame, performing miracles of whitewashing that enabled him to be construed as an angel, albeit of the insane variety, by sentimental Victorians. As for her son, Mary’s one wish for him was that he should learn ‘to think like other people’. Lacking charm, good looks or discernible talent, his chief inheritance from his father seems to have been a passion for sailing boats. But he was redeemed by a genuine fondness for his mother and his willingness to accept her monopoly of his new wife.
Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley is a welcome addition to the recent flood of publications about the Shelleys and their circle. In her assiduous gathering of material, Seymour resembles the narrator of Mary’s The Last Man, who discovers the legendary Sibyl’s Cave, littered with scraps of writing, containing ‘prophecies, detailed relations of events but lately passed; names, now well known … and often exclamations of exultation or woe’. Piecing together a similarly vast and intriguing range of sources, Seymour provides a compelling account of Mary’s life and offers fresh insight into how it is to be interpreted. She is particularly interesting on the genesis of Frankenstein, pointing, for example, to Mary’s residence in Dundee, where she would have heard about the northerly voyages of whaling vessels, and her stay near Bristol, where she thrilled with indignation at the treatment of African and West Indian slaves, whose physical appearance was equated with moral inferiority. Although I disagree with some of Seymour’s readings (Claire Clairmont, in particular, deserves a fairer hearing), she has gathered and arranged such a profusion of Mary’s ‘Sibylline leaves’ that future biographers will be substantially in her debt. For the general reader, this is a book to be savoured for its vivid and sympathetic recreation of the tragic life and brilliant times of the gifted Mary Shelley.