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4 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:40am

Fiona Sampson’s search for Mary Shelley refuses the typical distance of a biography

This year marks the bicentenary of Shelley’s Frankenstein, a first novel that has become both a modern myth.

By John Mullan

Why do we need to search for Mary Shelley? This year is the bicentenary of the publication of Frankenstein, a first novel by a teenage girl that has become both a modern myth and a perennial A-level set book. Its author went on to write five more, much lengthier, novels, but, although academics have tried to wrest them from obscurity, Valperga, Falkner and the others remain inert. The electricity of Shelley’s first novel never returned to her.

The creation of Frankenstein has fascinated literary historians because it drew its energy from both the author’s youthful intellectual encounters and the tumult of her private life. The daughter of pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth to her, Mary Godwin, as she first was, grew up in the household of her father William Godwin, respected author of the once-famous work of anti-establishment, anti-religious philosophy, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Here radicals, poets and scientists met and argued, and the brilliant young Mary drank it all in.

One such visitor was the young Percy Bysshe Shelley, already a father but estranged from his wife, Harriet, pregnant with their second child. Soon he was eloping to France with the 16-year-old Mary, the prelude to eight years of restive journeying between England and Europe, shadowed by tragedy (both Harriet Shelley and Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, committed suicide) and punctuated for Mary by pregnancies, miscarriages, and the deaths of three of her children. In the midst of this, at Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, one thunderous June day in 1816, she competed with Shelley, Byron and Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, to write a supernatural tale. The result was Frankenstein.

At the beginning of her new biography, the poet and critic Fiona Sampson bridles at the notion that Mary Shelley is a “one-book wonder”, yet she cannot escape just that notion. Her book is already four-fifths of the way through when Percy dies in 1822, drowned in Italy; his widow is not quite 25 years old. The remaining 28 years of her life, tenaciously devoted to earning a living and caring for her only surviving child, also called Percy, simply cannot command the same interest.

The story has often been told. So what can it mean to “search” for Mary Shelley again? Sampson’s book makes no claims to unearth new evidence or to read neglected manuscripts. Hers is a “search” of the imagination. She wants “to bring Mary closer to us, until she’s hugely enlarged in close-up”. She wants to ask about (the italics are hers) “how it is for her”. You will note the tense. In every sentence Sampson refuses the distance from which biography is usually written. The narrative is given in the present tense. As if we were in a novel, every event is a scene, taking place before us. It is all happening.

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In the opening phases of the book this almost works. The lingering, agonising death of Mary’s mother from septicaemia caused by her physician, is terrible in its slow drama, haltingly recorded by Mary’s distraught father. Thereafter, however, the present-tense enactment is somehow presumptuous – Sampson’s way of insisting on every page that she is right there with her protagonist.

Being with Mary means being scornful of some of those to whom she was closest, especially Shelley himself. Potentially there is something bracing in Sampson’s impatience with his ideals, yet it leaves his allure an utter puzzle. He “resembles a type of highly gifted young man who receives a diagnosis of bipolar disorder but remains high-functioning because manifesting only on the manic end of the spectrum”. His poetry is mentioned only when it shows damning evidence of his romantic interest in other women. He is selfishly neglectful of his wife’s and children’s health. He prefers “hob-nobbing” with Byron to looking after his family. His vegetarianism is imposed on his wife, fatally weakening her for child-bearing. He develops a doctrine of free love to allow him to be unfaithful whenever he fancies. Sampson encourages us to think that when his first wife, Harriet, heavily pregnant, drowns herself in the Serpentine, the child is Shelley’s, though there is no good evidence for this. She thinks that he might have fathered a child by Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, their constant companion, before he even married Mary, and then another after they moved to Italy. Mary’s denial of the latter possibility is further proof of its likelihood.

Sampson is surely right that Mary came to feel threatened and tormented by Claire, but this licenses the narrative to flatten her into a kind of erotically starved stalker. The biographer’s psychological sallies are un-self-doubting. When she asks a question it is not to enquire but to foist a hunch on us. When she looks at surviving portraits of any of the bit-part players in her story, she is able to discern their characters with unhesitating confidence.       

When there is uncertainty about her main characters’ reasons for acting as they did, Sampson scatters motivations on the page. Wondering why Shelley might have encouraged Mary to sleep with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg (as he undoubtedly did), she enumerates eight possible reasons, running from a sincere belief in free love to the possibility that both men were bisexual and were seeking a vicarious method of having sex with each other. You choose. Those who like their biography to be austerely reliable will flinch at the frequent introduction of some piece of psychological guesswork with “it’s hard not to feel”, “it’s hard not to suspect”, “one can’t help feeling”, or “it is easy to imagine”.

The phrasing in which it is all easily imagined is idiomatic and cheerfully anachronistic. Mary has “a fatal attraction to charisma” but “lacks Percy’s knee-jerk sexuality”. Claire was for Shelley “an attractive alternative to working at the chewy bits of his relationship”. Shelley’s passing fixation with the teenage Emilia Viviani, confined by her father in a Pisan convent to await an arranged marriage, had long-term effects because, “It is hard for the cheatee to know where she stands or to move on to better things.”

In style as much as content, this book is always Fiona Sampson’s version of the story. She makes no bones about it. It’s in your face. Take it or leave it. 

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. His books include “Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature” (Faber & Faber) 

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein
Fiona Sampson
Profile Books, 320pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration