Invention does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos. – Mary Shelley
August 1822. You’re 25. Your husband has drowned, his corpse so putrid it has to be burned on the beach, in Viareggio, where it washed up. You salvage his heart which you keep it in a box, for the rest of your life.
You lost 3 children before any of them reached the age of 3. Your fourth child is now 2 years old and you’re plagued by fears of losing him as well.
Your first two names are the same as your mother – Mary Wollstonecraft. She wrote the seminal work about women’s rights. You never knew her; she died when you were 11 days old.
Your father brought you up. He’s a liberal philosopher. His writings, and your mother’s, inspired you. As a child, you read widely. You were stirred by visits to Scotland and you wrote, always scribbling stories.
Your husband, Percy, was an advocate of free love. He was married when you met and you were 16; you fell in love with each other. Your early trysts took place at your mother’s grave, where you lost your virginity.
When you were 18, your half-sister killed herself and, two months later, Percy’s first wife did the same.
At least this meant you could get married. Ostracised and often in debt, you, Percy and your other half-sister spent most of the time exiled in France, Switzerland and Italy, rarely settling anywhere for long.
In the midst of all this birth, death, love, grief and loss, you write the great Gothic novel.
July 1822. You’re 29. You’re in Livorno, about to sail back to your present home in Lerici, further up the Italian coast. The boat is your new toy, Percy’s perfect plaything for the summer. It’s called Don Juan, a nod to your friend, Byron, who you’ve just been visiting to discuss another romantic poet, Keats.
There’s a storm brewing in the gulf through which you, and your crew of 2, start your return journey. You will never reach your destination.
Though you come from a wealthy, aristocratic family, you’ve been disowned by your father for your unsuitable love affairs. You’re habitually penniless and exiled abroad for most of your adult life.
You eloped twice with 16-year-olds – once to Scotland with Harriet and, in 1814, with Mary to France. Harriet killed herself two years later. 4 of your 7 children – by 3 different mothers – died in in infancy.
After Percy’s death, still shunned by his family, Mary returned to London where she wrote 7 more novels, stories and biographies. She also edited, published and championed her late husband’s works, as well as her father’s.
Her father lived till he was 80 and her fourth child – also Percy – would make it to 70. Mary herself died in 1851, aged 53, of brain cancer.
Frankenstein. I read it in 2018, 200 years after its first publication. Familiar with nuts-and-bolts lumbering monsters from movies, I was surprised how little Mary Shelley writes about the physical aspects of the creature (the word she uses more than monster).
The book’s about ideas – the scientific, philosophical and moral elements behind the creation of life. Victor Frankenstein, inventor of the creature, is obsessed with his experiments to generate a living being.
Mary took a keen interest in scientific ideas, attending lectures. In early 19th century science, revivification was all the rage. Erasmus Darwin (granddad of the more famous Charles) experimented with the regenerative processes of nature, making a bit of pasta move. Luigi Galvani galvanised a dead frog, passing electricity through its legs.
Though hideously ugly, the nameless creature in Frankenstein is far from lumbering or dumb. Mary gives part of the story directly to him, in the first person. He becomes brainy and sophisticated, teaching himself to read Plutarch, Goethe and Milton.
From Paradise Lost, he compares himself to Adam: He had come from the hands of God a perfect creature. But I was wretched, helpless and alone. He finds a fitter emblem: Satan.
As well as a scientific and moral fable, it’s also a cracking and tragic story, as the consequences of Victor’s blind ambition come home to roost. The events unfold more chillingly than the blackest of Scandi-noir episodes, the worst imaginings of Black Mirror or the terrors of films like Se7en and Silence of the Lambs.
And it’s about sex – in the end what the creature really wants is a mate, though only after his attempts at human companionship have been cruelly spurned.
Shelley’s themes transcend her own times. The idea of prolonging and creating life seems more pertinent than ever. The techniques of the early 21st century – like cryogenics and Artificial Intelligence – are hugely different from those of the early 19th.
Yet the essence of Mary’s enduring novel fascinates us still because it expresses our deep need to explore what makes life happen. Should we play god? Or outplay nature?
Frankenstein has undergone many regenerations, cinematic, literary, theatrical and musical. It seems likely to continue its rebirths. And the original remains in print.
Had she been alive today, her literary life would surely have involved appearances at book festivals and signings. People would probably ask Mary the two queries which pursued her back then: Is Frankenstein the creature or its creator? And: Did you really write the book yourself, or was it Percy Bysshe Shelley?
In fact, Mary gave her reply in her introduction to the 1831 edition: I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling, to my husband.
People can be real monsters!
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, January 2020.
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2 thoughts on “Meet the Shelleys”
So much grief
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