The durable legend of the Shelley circle has proved so endearingly dotty, so engagingly pretentious, that those eight chiaroscuro years between 1814 and 1822 are something of a roadblock for a serious literary biographer. The case of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is particularly difficult, since most of her works have not worn so well as the story of her involvement with Shelley and Byron.
In 1814, after knowing each other a few months, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley eloped to Italy. She was sixteen, and he was only five years older, but this was not his first elopement. Two years earlier he had run off with and married Harriet Westbrook, an innkeeper’s daughter of whom his conventional family disapproved, not least because he was the eventual heir to a wealthy baronetcy. Now he was deserting a pregnant wife and his first child, as well as the unborn baby who he claimed was fathered by Harriet’s lover. Since he was constantly preaching the hollowness of marital vows and the necessity of sexual freedom, her infidelity to him should not have been worrisome, but it was.
By birth Mary had a head start in the literary world. Her parents were Mary Wollstonecraft and the atheistical-anarchical philosopher and novelist William Godwin. Her mother, who died from giving birth to her, was one of the outstanding spokeswomen for feminism at the end of the eighteenth century, the author of the manifesto called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as well as numerous other tracts and novels. She had a daughter by an American lover and had twice attempted suicide when he wanted her to share a ménage à trois with another woman. She and Godwin maintained separate establishments and married only when Mary’s birth was imminent. Mary revered her memory and accomplishments and took her mother’s behavior as a pattern for her own. On her elopement she took her stepsister Jane as companion, which was a bad mistake.
Godwin’s reaction to his daughter’s elopement hardly fitted with his radical principles, or with the fact that his second wife had borne two illegitimate children before marrying him. His position was peculiarly difficult because he owed money to Shelley, but he nonetheless cut off communication with Mary, causing her great pain, since she was as devoted to him as to the memory of her idealized mother.
The next eight years before Shelley’s death in 1822 were the fitful center of Mary’s life, and they occupy the major part of Emily Sunstein’s biography. They were full of miscarriages, illegitimate babies, deaths of children, suicides (both Mary’s half-sister and Shelley’s wife), seductions, betrayal, poverty, high living on the coattails of Shelley’s fellow poet Byron, constant trips to and from the Continent, culminating in the flames of the funeral pyre by the Gulf of Spezia when Trelawny, Byron, and Leigh Hunt burned Shelley’s body so that the ashes could be taken to Rome for burial: flashes of experience so lurid they seem to have been picked out by strobe lighting.
It is difficult for us to take the circle as solemnly as they did. Their relations with one another were often projected deliberately against the backdrop of eternity, either as a cosmic poke in the eye of convention or as the culmination of a literary tradition: ideally, both. “It was acting a novel, being an incarnate romance,” Mary Shelley wrote of her elopement. Here acting seems synonymous with overacting. As a young woman she was constantly onstage.
Emily Sunstein tells us that Mary liked to think of
herself in the grand tradition of lawbreaking passion with Francesca and Paolo, Juliet and Romeo, and identified in particular with Desdemona, who fell in love with her father’s friend, eloped, and was disowned; she was always to see Othello played whenever she could.
At La Scala she went to the operatic version of “her talismanic tale,” and perhaps predictably thought the soprano failed to convey the divine spirit of the heroine.
In Pisa, where the group convened in 1821, most of what their detractors called the “League of Incest and Atheism” took part in rehearsals of Shakespeare’s play for a performance in the great hall of Byron’s house. The bombastic Trelawny was cast as the Moor, Byron played Iago, Jane Williams was the faithful Emilia (rather inappropriately in view of her later behavior as companion to Mary Shelley), her lover Edward was Cassio, and Thomas Medwin, Shelley’s cousin and future biographer, played Roderigo; Mary herself was of course Desdemona. Shelley, who “shrank from social festivities,” refused to take part. Byron’s current mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, stopped the rehearsals out of jealousy of the leading lady. It must have been difficult to know on which side of the curtain the real drama was occurring.
The literary juxtaposition for which the group seems to us to cry out was not Shakespeare but their near-contemporary, Jane Austen, whose opinion of home theatricals is manifest in Mansfield Park, and who satirizes the effects of self-remanticizing in Northanger Abbey. Even more to the point is Pride and Prejudice, in which the elopement of Lydia, youngest and giddiest of the Bennet daughters, nearly causes the ruin of all. Without the guiding comic genius of Jane Austen to bring her to safe harbor, Mary’s life declined into pathos in its latter half, but it is hard to see much real Shakespearean tragedy in its curve.
Although these were the years of most of Shelley’s greatest poetry, his composition of it is naturally skimped in this account, since the book is about his wife. There were many hours, too, when Shelley and Mary had their noses in books. As well as being a singularly well-read young man, Shelley loved teaching, and Mary took him on in place of the teacher-father that their flight had cost her. In eighteen months, we are told, she read some ninety important works: most of the major English poets, a great many eighteenth-century novelists, Gibbon, Clarendon, Burke; Goethe and Schiller; in French, Voltaire, Rousseau, de Staël; with Shelley’s help Ovid, Sallust, Virgil, and Petronius in the original, to which she added the study of Italian and Greek, as well as keeping up with the current British journals. A heavy program for a woman of her age. In the group of literary men among whom she lived, she naturally began to think of writing herself, like her father and mother. Sunstein’s biography concentrates on her personal life, rather than her writing, but it does suggest how both heredity and circumstance urged on her the literary life by which she was to support herself after Shelley’s death.
In the summer of 1816 Mary and Shelley left England for the second time, to join Byron in Geneva, taking with them Clara (formerly Jane) Clairmont, who had announced to them that she was now Byron’s mistress and in honor of her new status had changed her name once more, this time to Clare (she was to become Claire before she at last got it right). The entire group was sufficiently at cross-purposes: neither pair of lovers was married, Clare was pregnant by Byron, Mary was sexually attracted to him, and Shelley and Clare, with the acquiescence of Mary, were beginning an intimate friendship that later became a full sexual affair. To complicate matters further, they were joined by Jefferson Hogg, an old friend of Shelley (who had tried to make love to Harriet); he declared his love for Mary, asked to become her lover, but according to Emily Sunstein, his real love was Shelley himself.
In the midst of all the tensions vibrating in the air, Byron, Shelley, and Mary began telling ghost stories one wet day in the salon of the Villa Diodati, Byron’s house on Lake Geneva, where Milton was said to have been a guest as a young man. From her own story told then, Mary Shelley wrote one of the most enduring of Romantic fictions, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, in which Frankenstein, a student, constructs a manlike body from bones taken from the charnel house, then endows it with life but is unable to prevent its being a monstrous horror. In revenge, the monster pursues Frankenstein, kills him, then commits suicide.
In our own century the name of Frankenstein has been displaced and become attached to the nameless monster rather than to its creator, as in the book. It is a transposition easy to understand, for the two characters seem aspects of the same being, a unity-duality that can be seen in their relations to Prometheus of the subtitle, since he is both creator of mankind and prisoner of the gods. The epigraph to the novel from Paradise Lost is intended to invoke the Romantic attitude to the nature of that other great rebel against God, Satan in Milton’s poem, where he was understood as glorious in rebellion and defeat at the hands of an unjust deity.
Fairly obviously, most of the echoes touched into being by the book are connected to creation, particularly when undertaken without responsibility or love. Beyond that, however, it has been fertile territory for critics who see their own concerns reflected in it. The monster, for example, has been identified with the intellect, with the passions, and with the subjugation of women; Frankenstein has been called one of the procession of overreachers in the Faustian tradition, and so on; and a plausible case can be made for each of these positions. The truth is that none of them seems quite so tenable upon rereading the novel itself, which rings hollow and rhetorical, although it is a perfect vehicle for the kind of criticism that is more concerned with ideas tangential to the book than with the work itself.
With Shelley and Byron in the same house, and with Milton hovering somewhere overhead, it is perhaps reasonable to suspect that Mary Shelley was in part prompted by consideration of the claims of the creative function of the poet, a role about which none of the three was overly modest. Whatever the meaning of Frankenstein, it was almost miraculous that she should, at the age of eighteen, write a novel with such wide appeal and such teasing resonances. None of the other five novels that she wrote in later life approached it.
It has been suggested that beneath Mary Shelley’s surface unconventionality was a submerged longing for conformity. When the body of Shelley’s wife Harriet was found drowned in the Serpentine, the lovers waited only a fortnight before marrying, which some scholars have taken as a betrayal of their principles. The fact is, however, that their marriage made possible a reconciliation with their families and made it more probable that Shelley’s family would increase his allowance. Rebellion is always more comfortably advocated on a steady income, and Shelley had never seen any incompatibility between his egalitarian doctrines and living like an aristocrat.
After Shelley’s death in 1822, Mary returned to England to care for her son Percy, the only survivor of her four children born alive, and the heir to the baronetcy his father would have inherited. Gradually, she was accepted by the outer fringes of polite society, and she kept her head above water financially by her writing, since her father-in-law still refused her more than a minimal living. It all looked as if she were dwindling from notoriety into respectability, sliding from Romantic to Victorian. Emily Sunstein’s account of this unfamiliar period of her life is the freshest part of the biography as well as being the fullest description we have of it.
“How could the wife of Shelley condescend to love the men of today?” she asked. “I am always Signora Shelley—and I hope that this beloved name will be written on my tomb.” It wasn’t quite as simple (or respectable) as it sounds. Since she understandably felt she had had enough of men, in 1826 she began a three-year affair with Jane Williams, whose lover had been drowned with Shelley. She wrote of her “passionate and engrossing love” for Jane and sent her coyly off-color letters. Her feelings seem not to have been reciprocated completely, for now Jane was living with the accommodating Jefferson Hogg, who had once entertained ambitions to be Mary’s lover.
While she was in love with Jane, “Mary turned misanthropic, referring scornfully to God as ‘Person,’ ” saying she preferred eunuchs to men, and advocating totally feminine communities. When she discovered that Jane had been deriding her behind her back and claiming that she, Jane, was the real love of Shelley’s life, Mary broke with her and had reluctantly to come “to realistic acceptance of women’s powerlessness, their need for male protection.” Above all, she hoped “for erotic cum supportive love, for a home, and perhaps for another child.” It was not a betrayal of her mother’s beliefs, but neither would it have been predicted from her early life.
Unfortunately, her judgment of men was no better than it was of women. As a young widow, she was still beautiful, well-known in England, and much sought after in Paris. Prosper Mérimée fell in love with her when she was thirty-one, seven years his senior, but she turned him away with the classic offer of friendship. She forestalled the declaration of passion by the poet John Howard Payne by telling him that only a man equal to Shelley could gain her second love. But by the time she was thirty-six she had overcome her reluctance to form an alliance and had fallen in love with Aubrey Beauclerk, a radical politician four years her junior. Emily Sunstein suggests that he became her lover, and she certainly hoped to marry him, but without warning her he became engaged to another young woman whose reputation would not stand in the way of his career. She recovered at last from her disappointment, then seven years later met him again after the death of his wife by drowning. He confessed to her that he had been in love with her through his marriage, and at forty-three she at last felt sure of his affection. While she was away in Paris, he proposed to another woman and was accepted. It was apparently the last time she really expected to marry again.
She consoled herself with flirtations with younger men, one of them a friend of her son, more than twenty years younger than she. When she was forty-six she met a handsome thirty-year-old Italian nobleman, Ferdinando Gatteschi, who had fought with distinction with the Carbonari; “she was infatuated, imaginatively rather than erotically, with him.” She poured out affectionate letters that ceased abruptly a year or two later when he tried to blackmail her for the letters and for her portrait. She had to pull strings with the police to settle the matter. It was a sad end to her career of romances. Eight years later she was dead of a brain tumor.
According to Ms. Sunstein, this exhaustive biography has been in preparation since 1975, and it probably won’t soon be superseded, since there is precious little about Mary Shelley that she has not discovered in that time. Its only rival in English is now more than fifty years old, the biography by Rosalie Glynn Grylls (Lady Mander), but that seems thin on research by comparison. Most of what Emily Sunstein has discovered is incorporated into the book, although too frequently it is at the cost of such jaw-breaking writing as her introduction of the woman who was to become Mary’s daughter-in-law:
She had a houseguest, Mrs. Jane Gibson St. John, a young widow whom she and Percy had met the previous year at the behest of mutual friends (probably including Knox’s friend Robert Leslie Ellis, then co-editing Bacon’s works with James Spedding, a relative of Jane St. John’s), one of whom had told Mrs. St. John she would be a perfect wife for Percy, and probably said the same to Percy.
It would surely have been better to make more of quotations from Mary Shelley’s vividly telegraphic journals than to rely so much on unselective summary.
Raw fact does pay off, as in the physical description of Mrs. St. John. Lady Mander quotes one of her contemporaries on her “rose-leaf” charm; Ms. Sunstein writes bluntly: “Neither a beauty nor an intellectual, Jane was short and plump with a Greek nose and strong jaw,” and includes a photograph to prove her point.
Occasionally a firm line between fact and legend would be welcome. When she first met Shelley, Mary, a conscientiously romantic teen-ager, would go to St. Pancras’s churchyard and sit reading on her mother’s grave in the hope of meeting the poet. Ms. Sunstein suggests that they first made love in the shelter of Mary Wollstonecraft’s tombstone. I hope it is true because it is so obviously in character, but I have not come across it before, and it would be reassuring to have more authority than a fictional situation in one of Shelley’s poems.
With such glittering source material, it must have been hard to decide on the emphasis in Mary Shelley’s life, and on the whole Emily Sunstein made a sensible choice in playing down the melodrama about her troupe of players. It keeps the histrionics in hand, but it also falsifies the level of intensity and imagination at which the circle lived. Probably the central emblematic scene for Romanticism was the cremation of Shelley on a beach near Via Reggio. Emily Sunstein’s businesslike version takes up but four printed lines:
On August 15 and 16 Byron and Hunt watched Trelawny perform the grisly business. Trelawny burned his hands gathering Shelley’s ashes for Mary and fragments of bones for Claire and himself; Hunt took the remnant of the heart.
It is like a performance of Götterdämmerung with no brass section in the orchestra. Lady Mander takes five more lines to tell her tale, drawn from an account by Trelawny:
The beauty of the ceremony over which Trelawny presided would have delighted Shelley in his life: the simple iron bier stood alone on the sunbaked foreshore where one sea-bird circled overhead under the blinding sun, the Apennines in the distance rising behind the pine-trees, and out to sea the Islands of Gorgona, Capraja, and Elba. Wine and salt and frankincense Trelawny poured on the brushwood, and as the flames leaped brilliantly to heaven plunged in his hand and tore the heart of Shelley from the bier.
Purple? Of course, but its flamboyance probably comes closer to conveying the exaggerated emotions of the three cloaked men on the beach and their sense of ritual that ended a legend.
Like her most famous novel, the life of Mary Shelley was somehow anticlimactic after an auspicious beginning, for it always seemed to promise more than it could produce. Examining its emotional details is like looking behind the scenes at one of the great contemporary houses, such as Knebworth or even Strawberry Hill. What seems at a distance to be hewn from enduring stone proves on examination to be chiefly lath and plaster and concrete, but at this remove its very shifts and stratagems to imitate reality have their own charm.