Fruits of bitterness

Mary Shelley

Miranda Seymour <em>John Murray, 655pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0719557119

John Murray, the publisher, rejected Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1817, when she was 20 years old, and, despite its striking success, went on to reject her later proposals for books on Mahomet, the conquest of Mexico and Peru, on the great philosophers, and on eminent women. He also called her husband "the vilest wretch now living". So it is pleasing that the house that still bears his name should make amends and publish Miranda Seymour's lengthy new biography. Seymour's chatty yet erudite book aims at redressing the picture of an enthusiastic, optimistic, energetic Mary Shelley that the author discovered, to her surprise and disbelief, in Emily Sunstein's authoritative biography in 1989.

Sunstein's book, in turn, sought to offset the tendency of contemporary feminist critics, in their excitement at rescuing Mary Shelley from Victorian stuffiness, to overlook the woman herself. Had Virginia Woolf seriously considered her early in the 20th century, Mary Shelley's reputation would not have reached us in this state of shabby disrepair. But for all her literary, feminist and biographical interests, Woolf was never very tempted to challenge the slighting view of Mary's life and work handed down from the generation before. And Mary's own surviving letters and diaries, often evasive or wracked by remorse, do little to assist her. Error, omission and oversight have lent longevity to the travesty of Mary Shelley that was born in the Gulf of Spezia when Shelley drowned in 1822, and then fed on the bitterness, grief and spite of his remaining friends.

If amends are to be made, they are long overdue.

The facts, lying as they do at the heart of English Romanticism, are extensive and well known. Pregnant for the second time with an illegitimate child, Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, married William Godwin, the author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, in 1797. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on 30 August; ten days later, her mother was dead from puerperal fever. Her father remarried, and she grew up with Wollstonecraft's other daughter, Fanny Imlay, two step-siblings, Charles and (Jane) Claire Clairmont, and a new half-brother, William Godwin Jr, all in a cultivated, rationalistic and impoverished household in Holborn, central London. Coleridge paid a visit one evening to read his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner".

Shelley, a few years later, called in to discuss political ideas with Godwin. In 1814, after a declaration of undying love over the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft at St Pancras, Shelley and the 16-year-old Mary eloped to France. Claire Clairmont, younger still, went too. Shelley's first wife, Harriet, pregnant with his second child, understandably declined a late invitation to join the party in France. Godwin was speechless, and remained so for two and a half years.

Back in England, pursued by creditors and scandal, Mary gave birth to her first daughter in 1815, and lost her the same year. The following year, she bore a son, met Byron, wrote Frankenstein and learnt of the suicides of both Fanny Imlay and Harriet Shelley. Her second daughter, born in 1817, died in Venice the following year. The next year, her first son was buried in Rome, and her second was born in Florence. In 1822, Claire Clairmont's daughter by Byron died aged five, abandoned in an Italian convent, and Shelley drowned in a storm with his friend Edward Williams.

Mary Shelley was 24. For eight years, she had lived, studied and written with Shelley, in the midst of his entourage of friends. Throughout much of this time, she had been pregnant, poor, ill-tempered and irritated by the other women, so indispensable to Shelley's happiness. His last poems complain of her coldness. When he died, the entourage turned against Mary. And, more importantly, she turned against herself.

Seymour assembles all the facts and sifts them carefully. She tells us when and where Mary complained that she was "torn to pieces by memory". She points out when Mary was deeply depressed, and how long it was before the gloom began to lift, only to settle again later. She records the real betrayals of old friends and Mary's capacity to extract personal rejection from the most innocuous of situations; and she details Mary's practical struggle to support her one surviving son and aged father. But the internal landscape of that terrible remorse remains veiled and impenetrable.

Muriel Spark, in her brief, incisive biography of 1951, was right to identify Mary Shelley's writing as the key to her imagination and inner life. But a biography that fully integrates the life and the work has yet to be written. Until it is, we must be content with a picture of a woman who has turned her face away.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis