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 …

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