Bride of Frankenstein


Published: October 7, 2001

By Miranda Seymour.


Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote ''Frankenstein,'' the book that made her famous. Published in 1818, the novel had spawned at least five stage versions by 1823. There are almost two dozen film and television adaptations, from Thomas Edison's silent film (1910) to Kenneth Branagh's star-encrusted spectacular (1994), with Robert De Niro as the monster. The story has been so deeply mythologized -- embedded into the public imagination independently of the book itself -- that the name ''Frankenstein'' is often assumed to belong to the monster, and not, as is actually the case, to the man who made him and was appalled by the result. Frankenstein's experiment depended more on electrical impulses (then a hot scientific topic) than on cell biology, and Mary Shelley was not very knowledgeable about the science anyway. But the novel still speaks to our time, largely because human cloning is now frighteningly achievable.

''Mary Shelley,'' Miranda Seymour's affectionate and well-written biography, concisely sketches the background of scientific inquiry that influenced Shelley's early intellectual development. Mary Shelley was born in 1797, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of ''A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,'' and William Godwin, the radical philosopher whose works include ''An Enquiry Concerning the Nature of Political Justice'' and the novel ''The Adventures of Caleb Williams.'' Two weeks after Mary Shelley was born, her mother died of puerperal fever. She had evidently been infected by the hands of those attending to complications after the birth. These circumstances may have had a bearing on the genesis of ''Frankenstein,'' in which a humanoid creature is ''scientifically'' brought into the world without a mother. Seymour wonders, suggestively, ''to what degree Mary felt that her own birth had robbed this beautiful, vital woman of her life.''

In an age of poor hygiene and inefficient contraception, the idea of ''scientific'' rather than biological reproduction, of painless nonvisceral birth, provoked an ambivalent fascination. Seymour keenly brings out how fraught Mary Shelley's own life was with tragedies of childbirth and infant mortality. Not only did her mother die as a result of childbirth, but her father's first child with his new wife did not survive. Neither did Mary's two daughters. Her son William died of malaria at the age of 3, and her fifth pregnancy miscarried. Only one son, Percy, grew up. It is possible that her stepsister Claire Clairmont was pregnant by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley's husband, and that the child was aborted or miscarried. Births and deaths coexisted violently in Mary's world. Her mother had twice attempted suicide during her unhappy affair with her lover, Gilbert Imlay. Their child, Mary's half sister Fanny, did commit suicide, perhaps out of love for Percy Bysshe Shelley. His first wife, Harriet, killed herself while pregnant. Byron's friend John Polidori, an admirer of Mary Shelley, committed suicide too (but not, as Seymour thinks, at the age of 21.)

Mary grew up in the brilliant company of her father's friends, the critic Hazlitt, the essayist Lamb, the poet Coleridge and others. Coleridge, whom Mary sometimes met in later years, recited his ''Rime of the Ancient Mariner'' one evening, with Mary ''hiding behind a sofa when she should have been in bed.'' The poem's icebound sea, its hero stalked by ''a frightful fiend,'' were remembered in ''Frankenstein.'' In 1812, Percy Bysshe Shelley came into Godwin's circle. He had been expelled from Oxford for circulating an atheist pamphlet, and had eloped with Harriet Westbrook. He had quarreled with his landowner father, and looked to Godwin for a father substitute with good revolutionary credentials. He offered Godwin financial patronage, but the relationship was troubled. Shelley was more radical than his mentor, and Godwin cared more for Shelley's money than his discipleship.

Mary and Shelley fell in love. They eloped to France, with Jane (later Claire) Clairmont in tow, in 1814. The discarded Harriet was pregnant by Shelley. Mary became pregnant too, but the baby died. Shelley also encouraged his women to have sexual relationships with others. He thought he was implementing ideas of free love once advocated by Wollstonecraft and Godwin. (Godwin, more bourgeois than his own principles, was scandalized.) This history haunted Mary Shelley's reputation when she settled in England again after Shelley's death in a sailing accident in Italy. In spite of the success of ''Frankenstein,'' she never had the rewards of celebrity, only a bad name.

They returned to England from Switzerland in 1814, but went back in 1816, settling near Geneva, where Byron, by whom Claire was pregnant, had moved. Mary Shelley, whose account may not be reliable in some details, says Byron suggested they all write a ghost story. ''Frankenstein'' was Mary's contribution. In 1818, the Shelleys moved to Italy. In 1822, they settled, with their friends Edward and Jane Williams, at Lerici, near Pisa, where Byron now was. They formed a tense and inbred circle, sharply evoked by Seymour: the women eyeing each other jealously, each serially or simultaneously in love with Shelley or Byron or both.

By then, the Shelleys' marriage was on the rocks. Things worsened after Mary's miscarriage. Then Percy Shelley and Williams drowned while sailing back to Lerici from Livorno, where they had visited Leigh Hunt, the writer and editor. Mary Shelley returned to England and wrote other novels, including ''Valperga'' (1823) and ''The Last Man'' (1826). She supported herself by writing stories for ladies' annuals and jobbing for publishers.

Her mission was to edit her husband's works and shape his reputation. In this, and much else, she was obstructed by her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, who had disowned the poet in his lifetime and now harassed her with restrictions in exchange for grudging financial support for her and her son Percy. In spite of ostracism, Mary Shelley insisted for years on disclosing frankly that she had eloped with Shelley while he was married to another woman and was angered by the efforts of friends to sanitize the story. Only in the 1830's, struggling to place her son in an upper-class school, did she seek conventional social acceptance. By then, her opinions were becoming less revolutionary, and her increasing conservatism showed itself clearly in the revolutionary climate of 1848.

Her life as a widow was punctuated by inconclusive flirtations, one of them with the young French writer Prosper Mérimée, future author of the story on which Bizet based his opera ''Carmen.'' John Howard Payne, author of the lyric ''Home, Sweet Home,'' courted her. She hoped to marry Maj. Aubrey Beauclerk, a neighbor of Sir Timothy, who twice chose other wives. She remained friends with him, as with many others, male and female, who disappointed or behaved unkindly toward her. She was seldom really happy, and seems to have been a victim in almost every social relationship. She responded by taking increasing pride in her mother's feminist achievements and by helping other women in hardship. After her death in 1851, survivors often tried to fake the record, either blackening or cleaning up her or her husband's reputation.

Miranda Seymour is a novelist as well as an experienced biographer whose earlier subjects include Lady Ottoline Morrell and Robert Graves. She has vivid narrative gifts and a perceptive understanding of the main personalities. Her account of Mary Shelley's writings is generally competent but pedestrian, and her view of ''Frankenstein'' inflated. The novel, Seymour tells us in a fit of much-recycled nonwisdom, ''is a great work because we can read what we will from it.'' Is there any work in the world from which, if we put our minds to it, we cannot read what we will? For all its interest as a cultural icon and its tapping of sensational fantasies, ''Frankenstein'' is an immature production, overburdened with literary baggage, by a gifted young person living in highly literate company. The monster is an unassimilated amalgam of bookish ogres: Caliban, Milton's Satan, travel-book giants. The novel cannot make up its mind whether this creature is an obscene freak or a lonely and generous savage with a cruelly unrequited yearning for love. The book is, in parallel ways, politically confused in its view of conquered peoples. That it laid itself open to vulgar adaptations onstage and elsewhere should not be put at Mary Shelley's door. But when, for example, the monster becomes a staple of political cartoons about rebellious Irishmen, as it did in Victorian times, our ability to ''read what we will'' from the book falls well short of conferring genius upon it.

Copyright 2008The New York Times Company


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