The making of a monster
Biography: In Search of Mary Shelley, Fiona Sampson, Profile, hardback, 320 pages, €22.99
Did Mary Shelley's guilt over losing her first baby inspire her to write Frankenstein.
'Methinks, it is a wonderful book for a girl of 19," wrote Lord Byron to his publisher, correcting John Murray's assumption that such a blasphemous and outrageously original work as Frankenstein must have been written by Mary's husband, Percy Shelley, a notorious atheist. Byron, within whose rented villa on Lake Geneva that Frankenstein was born in the storm-driven summer of 1816, knew better. His friendship with this intense, clever and unconventional young woman is one of the many strands that Fiona Sampson weaves into her lyrical examination of Mary Shelley's life.
This month marks the bicentenary of the publication of Mary Shelley's prophetic book: a novel about Dr Victor Frankenstein, the modern Prometheus who aspires to create a living man from stolen body parts and who - invited to embrace his deformed Creature - rejects it. A cautionary tale about bad parenting; an ecological reading of Mother Earth; a warning against all we most fear in modern science: the enduring power of Shelley's eerie masterpiece lies in the fact that it can be twisted to fit whatever theory we choose.
Sampson is an award-winning poet. In this, her first biography, she wields her vivid imagination to good effect, quickening a dead woman's being into reanimated life. On the night of Mary Godwin's birth on August 30, 1797, she writes: "Crane flies and moths skitter on the windowsill; the waxing moon is half full".
Sometimes Sampson steps over the line dividing biography from poetic fiction - and the entertaining from the irritating - as when she urges us to follow Mary on to "the page's white spaces, its vast and irregular plains of ice [over which] we do our best to pursue her". That legendary pursuit is what Frankenstein will undertake in the final pages of Shelley's dramatic tale. Sampson goes further. She compares Mary's "huge" footprint upon literature to that of the Creature ("the nearly human of our nightmares") as he lopes across the glacial wasteland into which he finally vanishes.
Back in the less dramatic settings of Bath and the riverside town of Marlow where Mary Shelley researched and completed her novel, Sampson persists with a slightly grating use of the present tense. It isn't needed to breathe life into an astonishing young woman, seen by both her father (the philosopher William Godwin, for whom Mary developed what she herself acknowledged to be "an excessive and romantic attachment"), and by an admiring Percy Shelley as the intellectual heir to Mary Wollstonecraft, rightly described by Sampson as "that most loaded figure in her [daughter's] personal pantheon".
Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Mary in 1797. Sampson takes a kinder view than previous biographers of Mary Jane Clairmont, whom Godwin married next. The second wife is presented here as hardworking and fiercely respectable, faced with the impossible task of keeping her impractical husband out of debt while subduing his stroppy daughter.
Sampson's bold structure of chronological forward leaps and backward steps - always taken in the present tense - cries out for a time-chart to help any reader. It's a jolt to be sprung from a mutinous 13-year-old girl's brisk eviction from Godwin's London home straight into Mary's 1814 elopement to France with Percy, her lover, and their companion, Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont. Following an ignominious return home and a hand-to-mouth sojourn in London lodgings, the trio once again voyage out.
Their new destination is Geneva, where they track down the object of Claire's indefatigable passion: the recently separated Lord Byron.
It was at the Villa Diodati, in 1816, that one of literature's best-loved scenes took place. Sampson does justice to the familiar events. Ghostly stories are told behind shuttered windows: "The Gothic hangs in the fog of this strange summer as if it were a Brocken spectre". Frankenstein is born, and a pregnancy - Claire's - is announced. Sampson, who gives short shrift to the selfish idealism and readily unbuttoned pantaloons of Mary Godwin's partner (she writes pityingly of Shelley's "wifelets"), smartly points out that Claire's pregnancy was announced, not to Mary, but to Percy, who promptly changed his will in the unborn baby's favour. So, was Percy, rather than Byron, the father of the blue-eyed, fair-haired child destined to die pathetically in an Italian convent at the age of five? Was Claire (as Sampson believes) the secret mother of the foundling whom Shelley later adopted in Naples and bestowed upon his wife in lieu of her own lost babies?
Sampson rightly argues the case for Frankenstein as a warning against bad parenting. Godwin himself lamented his inadequacy as a father: "I am the most unfit person for this office."
Mary Shelley, never the most domestic of women, presided over what Sampson dubs a "characteristically ill-prepared little household" of her own. Sampson has Byron ascribe the loss, in London in 1815, of Mary's first baby to the strict vegetarian diet imposed upon her by Percy Shelley. (The couple also boycotted sugar, thus expressing their disapproval of slave-run sugar plantations.) Was a guilty conscience about this meat-starved embryo the spur to Mary's imaginative creation? Sampson believes it was.
In the world of her first novel, to give life turns out to be difficult, and to give life to a full-term fully human "progeny" more difficult still. Frankenstein is, at least in part, a great statement about the immorality of forcing life on a being you have not made equal to that occasion. Charting the development of Frankenstein from a holiday ghost story into one of the most powerful fictions in all of literature, Sampson pays proper attention to the two tragic deaths that occurred while the novel was being written.
Percy Shelley's first wife - while pregnant, possibly with Shelley's child - drowned herself in the autumn of 1816. Weeks earlier, Mary's half-sister Fanny Imlay took her own life. Did the red silk male handkerchief found in her pocket hint that Percy Shelley had once again played fast and loose? Sampson doesn't rule that possibility out. More bafflingly, Sampson cites Fanny's dark complexion to suggest that "her radical mother [Mary Wollstonecraft] was ahead of contemporary racist attitudes".
That insinuation is not the only place where I found myself struggling to understand just what was being implied. It's as if the ardent wish to champion women sometimes sweeps Sampson away from the facts she has admirably marshalled, studied and meditated upon.
On the plus side, Sampson has provided a fresh, clever and intuitive account of the mind from which Frankenstein emerged. The novel towers above Mary Shelley's later, more erudite works. It does so, Sampson shrewdly remarks, because Frankenstein manages to "break free of the ideas that inform it".