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