Book of the Week: In Search of Mary Shelley

8 Jan|Fiona Sampson

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley, daughter of radical thinkers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, published Frankenstein. Aged 16, Mary eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, embarking on a tumultous, bohemian lifestyle. Along the way, she managed to carve out a career as a serious writer, penning Frankenstein while she was a teenager. To mark the bicentenary of its publication, Fiona Sampson delves into the life of the woman behind the seminal text. 

In September 1816 nineteen-year old Mary is settling into yet another new home, this time in Bath. From a distance it could be mistaken for the perfect life. She’s the mother of a young child, she is at work on her own writing, and she has a partner who seems, for now at least, engaged by their life together. These late summer days are still long, even if they are unusually rainy and cool. The fashionable resort around her is filled with fellow sophisticates – though admittedly none is quite as interesting as Lord Byron, about whom Mary will note, ‘His is a powerful mind: and that fills me with melancholy, yet mixed with pleasure, as is always the case when intellectual energy is displayed.’

The rooms she’s taken at 5 Abbey Churchyard afford a close-up view of the abbey and its famous, astonishingly inventive carved west front, where, among crowded Patriarchs, angels continually fall up – or fly down – Jacob’s ladder between earth and sky. Mary must be feeling pretty prolix and inventive herself, as she works on two manuscripts at once. Not only is she writing the story that will become Frankenstein, but in less than fifteen months’ time her first book, the travelogue History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland will appear.

Yet being in Bath at all is simply another compromise made for her stepsister’s sake. Mary and Percy [Shelley] are here to keep Claire’s pregnancy secret from London society, and particularly from the Godwins.

***

Mary, stuck in Bath with Claire until Alba is born, has continued working on Frankenstein. ‘Write’ and ‘work’ are regular Journal entries until 26 January, when she is at last free to leave for London. There, joining Percy at the Hunts’, she’s precipitated into a buzzy, arty and intellectual milieu. The Hunts’ circle includes not only Keats and Reynolds but also William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, the musician Vincent Novello and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (as well as figures who are less well known today: the Shakespearian scholar Cowden Clarke, poet and parodist Horace Smith, and Bryan Waller Procter, who will later court Mary). Regular visitors, they usually arrive for supper and stay on into evenings full of music-making and intellectual debate in which Marianne Hunt, her sister Bess and the Marys – Mary Lamb, Mary Novello and Mary Shelley herself – all participate. For the first time Percy gets a glimpse of a community that is based not on wifelets but on friendships between artistic and literary peers.

Meanwhile Mary is absolutely at home. This is how her father’s circle operated as she was growing up, and it’s this that she has been expecting to recreate in Percy’s schemes for communal living. (A tragedy of the couple’s life is that, while she is her mother’s daughter, taking for granted the participation of women as intellectual equals, he remains trapped in traditional roles: a symposium is admirable, one imagines him feeling, but the harem model so much more fun.) Despite this, the Hunts’ reciprocal three-month stay at Albion House manages to carry something of this fuller model of community on into the Shelley household. For Mary, as she redrafts Frankenstein, the months from February to June 1817 are more intellectually communal and creative than any hitherto; as her Journal reveals when it resumes, after the move into Albion House, on 10 April 1817.

Mary is in the second trimester of her third pregnancy, and her energy levels have risen. She’s already ‘correcting’ Frankenstein; then, on 18 April, ‘Correct’ changes to ‘Transcribe’. This continues until 13 May, when, at last, ‘Finish transcribing’ marks the end of fair copying the novel. The next day, 14 May, Mary records that ‘Shelley reads “History of the French Revolution”, and corrects “Frankenstein”. Write Preface. Finis.’ Good work indeed for a single day. It also suggests that Percy doesn’t spend too much time ‘correcting’ the novel. This is significant because moot. What we might call The Percy Lobby remains as eager today as in Mary’s lifetime to believe that no mere girl could have produced a novel that’s become one of the classics of English literature. But the evidence itself is confused.

The final draft of the Frankenstein manuscript takes up two notebooks, both of which are held today by the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They’re mismatched – one is clearly bought in Geneva and one, of English paper, is assumed to have been bought in Bath – and they don’t correspond, either, with the three volumes into which Mary divides her novel. One great difficulty of decoding these notebooks is that, because the Shelleys have very similar handwriting, it’s hard to be absolutely clear how many of the corrections are Percy’s. Certain pages have clearly been rewritten in stronger ink than those around them, but these seem to mark a fresh dip in the inkpot rather than a new mind at work. Interlinear changes are easier to spot: here Percy’s careful hand is both more upright and more ornate than Mary’s original. Still, even the ‘considerable alterations’ by readers, including herself, that her book will eventually undergo at proof stage do not diminish Mary’s authorship. They’re no more than the usual editorial process novelists undergo even today.

‘Finis.’ But the difficult part – publication – has only just begun. A week after completing the novel Mary travels to London with Percy to deliver Frankenstein to John Murray, her father’s friend and Byron’s publisher. While there, she capitalises on London’s art scene, persuading Percy to join her at Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The couple catch up with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, William Hazlitt and John Ogilvie, as well as with family in Skinner Street. Life must feel full of rich connections and possibilities once again, as if Mary is resuming her place in the literary networks that are her birthright. Best of all, as her Journal records proudly on 26 May, Murray ‘likes “Frankenstein”’.

Click here to be the first to read our Book of the Week extracts. In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein is published by Profile Books on 18 January. Find out more here