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Frankenstein’s Mother

Mary Shelley: A Biography

by Muriel Spark
E.P. Dutton, 248 pp., $19.95

The Journals of Mary Shelley: 1814?–1844, Vol. I, 1814?–1822 Vol. II, 1822?–1844

edited by Paula R. Feldman, edited by Diana Scott-Kilvert
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), Vol. II, 316 pp., $84.00

Mary Shelley was depressed for most of her fifty-three years of life: an orphan, a widow, always lamenting. Muriel Spark suggests wittily that “if there had been more wine in Mary’s life there would have been fewer tears,” alleging that she was never drunk, on wine, literature, or love. It’s true that low spirits seem to have been part of her genetic inheritance, and circumstances did everything to reinforce the tendency. She had reason to see herself as a victim.

Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a greatly gifted woman who lived on an emotional switchback and was only just rescued from suicide when abandoned by the father of her first daughter, Fanny. Mary, the second, was fathered more reliably, by the philosopher William Godwin, but her birth cost her mother her life. Mary was reared by a grieving man, with her mother’s portrait looking down from the wall, a painful start in life which marked her imagination permanently: motherless children are a constant feature of her fiction.

When a stepmother appeared, she failed to win Mary’s affection, and the cramming of their small London house with extra children made things still more comfortless. Money was always short. Mary was her father’s favorite—he discerned her intelligence and encouraged her to read—but she was not happy at home. At thirteen she was pleased to spend six months at boarding school in Ramsgate, and the next year she was sent away to a family in Dundee, where she stayed for two summers. Her father described her as bold, imperious, active of mind, and very pretty. She returned to London, and met Shelley. This was the beginning of the one period of high spirits in her life. You could say she was high on Shelley, whose own moods sometimes approached the manic.

Sixteen may not be a good age for making irreversible decisions, but an elopement with a beautiful, brilliant, aristocratic poet must have seemed more interesting than the meager life in Clerkenwell among assorted stepsisters and brothers, none of them congenial. So this bold, clever girl of sixteen plunged into her adventure.

Mary’s high lasted for about four years. Encouraged by Shelley and Byron, she wrote Frankenstein, her indisputable masterpiece; she gave birth to three children, the first of whom died; she adored and idolized Shelley, and had a serious flirtation with his closest male friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg; and she endured with reasonable equanimity the vehement disapproval of her father, the furious condemnation of Shelley’s family, the suicides of Shelley’s wife and her own halfsister Fanny, and the persistent and unwelcome companionship of Claire Clairmont, the daughter of her stepmother.

The high ended with the death of her own baby daughter Clara. For this she held Shelley partly responsible: Shelley and also Claire, who had carried him off across Italy on her own errand, leaving Mary to follow when summoned, in the heat of a strange land, with two vulnerable small children. After this, she never really trusted Shelley again, I think.

Muriel Spark joins Byron in labeling Claire a bitch; although Byron was prodded by a guilty conscience, there is some justification for this view. Claire was not good at knowing when she was not wanted, but there was a special bond between Shelley and her from the start (indeed, they had met before he met Mary). In Shelley’s eyes, Claire was a lively, pretty, flirtatious semi-sister: it was perhaps his favorite type of relationship. She does not appear to have been reproachful (as Mary was), and if she clung to him as the one man who was always good to her, he was also eager to keep her in his orbit. Mary wrote of Claire later, “We were never friends…. She poisoned my life when young…. My idea of Heaven was a world without Claire.”

There is a passage in Mary’s novel The Last Man that describes a moment when a wife suspects her husband of infidelity; he conceals the fact that he has been seeing a young woman who depends on him for help, and refuses to explain or defend himself when his wife questions him. Husband and wife love each other and their child (who is given the name Clara), but both feel that the departure of mutual confidence means the end of their happiness. Mary Shelley says of the wife that “she possessed that…which belongs to a few, a capacity of happiness,” and credits her also with unusual susceptibility to pain: “The same peculiarities of character rendered her sorrows agonies; her fancy magnified them, her sensibility made her forever open to their renewed impression.” (This was the trait that Godwin reproached Mary with when she mourned for her dead children.) The parallel with the events of the summer of 1818 is striking.

The death of the real Clara marked not only the midpoint of Mary’s years with Shelley but the real break in her emotional life. The four subsequent years were almost unrelievedly black, offering a sequence of confusions and miseries, with the mysterious episode of a baby born and abandoned in Naples,1 the death of their son William in Rome, the threatened blackmail by their old servants, the death of Claire’s daughter, a dangerous miscarriage, and Shelley’s infatuations with other women. The only relief was the birth of a second son, Percy Florence, and the writing of a novella, Matilda, and a second novel, Valperga (but both failed to find a publisher). Despite moments when Shelley and Mary asserted their loyalty and affection toward each other, the evidence of this period is of a couple who found life sour and sad; who felt dissatisfied, with themselves, with each other, with circumstances; and who looked to others for comfort, and had secrets from each other.

So things stood when Shelley was drowned and Mary found herself a widow at twenty-five, with a child, virtually no income, a tyrannical and hostile father-in-law (he offered to take Percy if Mary would abandon him entirely, and he forbade her to write about Shelley). She had to return to London for the sake of Percy’s education and future prospects, but she felt at bay in London, and deeply sensitive to slights. Shelley’s old friends—Peacock, Hogg, Leigh Hunt, Jane Williams—were equivocal in their attitudes toward her and her passionate mourning. Some held the initial fact of her marriage to Shelley against her, others remembered her chilliness to him in the later years. Work was her resource, to distract herself from loneliness and misery, as well as to supplement her income. That she managed to produce so much was remarkable: when she died at the age of fifty-three she had to her credit seven novels, a large collection of short stories, several volumes of biographical essays, a travel book, and her annotated edition of her husband’s poems. (Her diaries were intensely private records of her moods, and never intended for any eye but her own.)

Her biographer and critic has outlived and outwritten her, although she didn’t know she was going to when she wrote this elegant study in 1951. It was Muriel Spark’s first book, and it gives a generous and enthusiastic account of Mary Shelley’s work, with especial emphasis on Frankenstein—which, in its Gothic surrealism, comes closest to some of Miss Spark’s own subsequent novels—and on The Last Man (the first work of Mary’s widowhood, published in 1826), a huge, rambling fantasy predicting an English republic, a worldwide plague, and the extinction of mankind. Then it was virtually unobtainable, existing only in its scarce original edition; now, no doubt thanks to Miss Spark, it is easily available in paperback.

Child of Light (as Miss Spark’s book was then called) was never published in the United States, but it was pirated in a photocopy of the English edition, and this has persuaded its author to reissue it, with a few revisions and excisions, and a new preface. Still, it is substantially the same book, although Miss Spark acknowledges the help given by Betty T. Bennett’s fine and definitive edition of the letters (two volumes, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980 and 1983; a third and final volume is still to come) and by Paula Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert’s equally scrupulous edition of the journals, which Mary used almost entirely as repositories for her lamentations after Shelley’s death. These scholarly additions to knowledge have not changed her portrait much; what has changed it is the passage of thirty-six years. There is nothing like enduring your own life to make you forgiving of other people’s shortcomings, and Miss Spark is now more sympathetic to the timidity and craving for respectability shown by Mary during her widowhood. “I now know that when we look at her change of attitudes and aspirations we are not talking so much about Mary Shelley as about human nature and its courage,” writes Miss Spark. She is perfectly right, of course: young biographers tend to expect more heroics from their subjects than those who have lived to the same age.

What drew one M.S. to the other? Partly Muriel Spark’s feeling that Mary Shelley had been unjustly effaced by her husband, wrongly judged by her contemporaries and by posterity, and that this should be corrected. She quotes T.S. Eliot writing apropos Shelley that “the weight of Mrs. Shelley must have been pretty heavy,” one of those remarks that seem to have more bearing on the maker than on the subject. Miss Spark sensibly points out that it was really the other way around. Shelley, she says, created an illusion about himself which he left as a heavy legacy to Mary; it had the effect of falsifying her memory of their life together and setting her perpetually at odds with reality. Even while he lived, the rift between his ideal existence and their actual experience was burdensome to Mary.

It’s also clear that the young Spark took a professional interest in Mary Shelley’s writing. The best part of her book is the criticism. She makes a good case for Frankenstein as an expression of the conflict between eighteenth-century rationalism and Romantic feeling: the monster is feared, but also identified with. She suggests that Mary’s temperament was essentially eighteenth-century and classical, and that she found herself wrongly cast in the middle of the Romantic Sturm und Drang surrounding Shelley, and as a writer much more adept when working with ideas than with feelings. Nightmare and theory were Mary’s territory; her husband’s storms and dreams were all of the heart.

Spark shows that the relationship of Frankenstein to his creation is that of a Doppelgänger, the monster representing part of Frankenstein’s nature which is now separated off. When he says, “I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind…nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me,” Mary Shelley is moving toward the imaginative climate of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of modern psychoanalytical theories (and thrillers). Ellen Moer’s discussion of Frankenstein went further than Spark’s, suggesting that Mary’s fantasy of the birth of a monster both destructive and piteous (“forced to destroy all that was dear to me”) owed something to the circumstances of her own birth, the death of her mother, her continuous pregnancies, the loss of her own first baby, and even the suicides of Fanny and Harriet: a black feminist subtext that makes good sense.2 And, as Spark points out, Mary’s lucid, rational, and straightforward prose makes the surreal horrors of her story much more effective than the inflated rhetoric of her contemporaries’ Gothic tales. If she herself was in truth part monster, at this stage of her life she was still vigorous enough to convert personal tragedies into powerful fiction.

Childbearing and bereavement both make huge demands on energy. Given the ordeal Mary underwent, it is not surprising that her strength as a writer waned. Miss Spark praises her skills as a fantasist in The Last Man, and it is true that there are some extraordinary feats of the imagination in the descriptions of a spreading plague, of fleeing populations and senseless battles, of the rise of religious enthusiasm among terrified people, and of the final desolation in which a tiny, dwindling band travels across the empty landscape of France, Switzerland, and Italy. But it is a vast, loosely structured book, with material for three or four different novels floating in it. Even those spurred by enthusiasm for the author and curiosity about her imagination do not find it particularly pleasurable. A severely abridged version was appended to Child of Light, which may have given about as much of it as most are likely to want.

The subsequent novels are the fruits of much determination, much research, an imagination that still had fitful force, but mostly dogged willpower, one feels. All contain wistful backward glances at her life with Shelley, and hints of her feelings about her own condition: her loneliness, the coolness of old friends, her longing for affection, her persecution by her father-in-law, her sense of herself as a social outcast because of her guilty past. There are sympathetic depictions of orphans and of sexual transgressors. In The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), there is a warm portrait of Jane Shore, onetime mistress of Edward IV. She is shown (after his death) as a good woman with happy memories in which she contrasts “the dull abode of connubial strife” with “the bright home of love” to which Edward had led her; but now she has fallen on hard times and is unwilling to ask for help: “fearful of repulse, dreading insult; more willing to lie down and die than, fallen and miserable, to solicit uncertain relief.” Again, Warbeck’s widow grieves for her lost husband but also insists on “clinging to the sense of joy,” and on her absolute need to love and be loved.

Lodore (1835) contains a father who brings up his daughter, removed from her mother, in the American wilderness; later parts of the book contain obvious reminiscences of Mary and Shelley’s early months together, when they were obliged to hide from creditors. In Falkner (1837), two main characters also lose their mothers in infancy; Elizabeth has a coarse and reluctant foster mother, and consoles herself by playing on her true mother’s grave, as Mary did. Falkner has inadvertently caused the death, by drowning, of the woman he loved, and is suicidal in his penitence: the echoes and parallels with the lives of Mary and Shelley are many and obvious. Elizabeth’s character in particular is distinguished by a rejection of the values of “good” society, an insistence on freedom and the rightness of following the dictates of her heart as a true guide to conduct:

Elizabeth had been brought up to regard feelings, rather than conventional observances; duties, not proprieties…. Was she to adopt a new system of conduct, become a timid, home-bred young lady, tied by the most frivolous rules, impeded by fictitious notions of propriety and false delicacy?

This sounds a distinctly combative note for 1837; but it was Mary’s last novel. She now devoted herself chiefly to editing and annotating Shelley’s work, and defending herself against calumny and the blackmailers who gathered hopefully around a vulnerable woman with a vulnerable past.

A “dove’s look and fox’s heart” is the wonderful phrase Mary gave to the heroine of Matilda when she wanted to describe herself. Mary has the dove’s look to perfection in all her portraits: Was there a fox’s heart beating below? Her journals reveal almost nothing of her character beyond her sense of disappointment in her circumstances and her friends. Simply reliving in her own mind the events of her youth, which were now, in the age of Victoria, unmentionable, must have caused her great pain; and when Jane Williams and Hogg, who became lovers in 1823 and lived together from 1827, gossiped maliciously about Shelley’s unhappy last days and his estrangement from Mary, she was bitterly upset. There is no doubt that she felt remorse for the death of Harriet Shelley (“Harriet, to whose sad fate I attribute so many of my own sorrows as the atonement claimed by fate for her death,” she wrote in 1839); as for her memories and feelings for Shelley, they were too complicated to be explained to anyone. So, like Claire Clairmont, she kept her secrets.

Just now and then, though, there is a glimpse of the fox. In a story called “The Bride of Modern Italy,” which she published anonymously in the London Magazine in 1824 (Miss Spark does not mention it), there is a sly portrait of Emilia Viviani, the beautiful Italian girl immured in a convent by her parents, with whom Shelley fell foolishly in love in 1820, and whom he immortalized in Epipsychidion. Mary’s fiction sticks quite closely to the true story, although she makes its hero a painter, unmarried, and only seventeen, which was perhaps an indication of his widow’s view of his naiveté.

Emilia becomes Clorinda:

Clorinda Saviani was indeed handsome and all her fine features expressed the bisogna d’amare which ruled her heart. She was just eighteen, and had been five years in this convent, waiting until her father should find a husband of noble birth, who would be content with her slender dowry. During this time she had formed several attachments for various youths, who, under different pretexts, had visited the convent. She had written letters, prayed and wept, and then yielding to insurmountable difficulties she had changed her idol, though she had never ceased to love. The fastidious English must not be disgusted with this picture. It is perhaps, only a coarse representation of what takes place at every ball-room with us.

Alleyn, the painter, is given Shelley’s charm and high spirits:

Alleyn was a man of infinitely pleasing manners. He had a soft tone of voice and eyes full of expression. Italian ladies are not accustomed to the English system of gallantry since in that country either downright love is made, or the most distant coldness preserved between the sexes…. At first he sympathized with Clorinda, now he did more—he amused her…. He introduced a system of English jokes and hoaxes, at which the poor Italians were perfectly aghast, and to which no experience prevented their becoming victims; so utterly unable were they to comprehend the meaning of such machinations; and then, when their loud voices pealed through the arched passages in wonder and anger, they were oppressed by soft words and well-timed gifts…. Alleyn prevented every emotion except gaiety from finding a place in her heart. She looked forward with delight for the hour of his visit, and the merriment that he excited left its traces on the rest of the day. Her step was light; and the cold of her cheerless cell was unfelt, since it had been adorned with caricatures of the Superior and nuns.

When Clorinda inevitably falls in love with Alleyn, he is almost drawn into folly and is saved less by his good sense than by the prompt action of her parents. Shelley’s Epipsychidion becomes a far less compromising painting, The Death of Eloisa.

It is a brisk, sharply detailed piece of writing—it would hold the reader’s interest even without the Shelley connection—and it seems to be the work of a different creature from the inconsolable keeper of the journal.

She named it “the journal of sorrow” herself, and so it reads, page after page of Job-like loneliness, disappointment, and loss. Before it sinks into silence in 1841, almost its last words speak of her sufferings, “seule avec la maudite passè [sic], seule avec mes tristes souvenirs.” Her last years, spent with her dull but dutiful son and kindhearted daughter-in-law, were silent, and she died in 1851. Although she would be appalled at the thought of her secret sorrows being transcribed for all eyes, she was a good enough scholar to appreciate the fine work of her present editors. Their notes and appendices are much livelier than the text they have transcribed, but they seem to have got it down to the very last dash and squiggle.

Muriel Spark could never be mistaken for a dove. Boldness, brevity, and dazzling intelligence have been the marks of her fiction from the start. I can’t think she had much to learn from Mary Shelley even at the outset of her own career as a novelist; still, she may have been given a confirmation of her own taste for the Gothic surreal, and an encouragement to keep clear of some of the traps Mary fell into in her life, and to stray nowhere near the treacherous waters of Romanticism.

  1. 1

    Elena Adelaide Shelley was registered by Shelley in February 1919, in Naples, as his and Mary’s child, said to have been born at their lodgings on December 27, 1818. The child was not Mary’s and its parentage has not been established, although Claire seems the most obvious candidate as her mother. Mary denied this strenuously when blackmail attempts were made later by their servants, but her denials were made at Shelley’s request, and no other explanation was offered. Elena was left behind in Naples when Shelley, Mary, Claire, and William traveled north, and she died there, unvisited by any of them, in June 1820.

  2. 2

    Ellen Moers, “The Monster’s Mother,” The New York Review (February 19, 1976), collected in Literary Women (Doubleday, 1976).

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