Still a monster smash

<i>Mary Shelley</i> by Miranda Seymour (John Murray, &pound;25, 655pp)
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The Independent Culture

Everybody knows who Frankenstein is. Do we? When we talk of Frankenstein we tend to mistake him for his creation. Despite this confusion, the arrogant young scientist determined to construct a living human being without divine assistance embodies one of our major icons. His monstrous Creature becomes increasingly pertinent, invoked almost daily in discussions of the ethics of genetic engineering.

Everybody knows who Frankenstein is. Do we? When we talk of Frankenstein we tend to mistake him for his creation. Despite this confusion, the arrogant young scientist determined to construct a living human being without divine assistance embodies one of our major icons. His monstrous Creature becomes increasingly pertinent, invoked almost daily in discussions of the ethics of genetic engineering.

Mary Shelley's fictional anti-hero remains as disturbing as when he first leapt into being almost 200 years ago. He is the image of the outsider, the rejected child, the dark part of ourselves. His enduring fame, like his shock value, is greatly aided by his memorable incarnation in film.

If this Beast is surrounded by myth, so too is his author. Miranda Seymour has set out to clarify the facts of Mary Shelley's life, to disentangle the legends composing and obscuring our view of her.

These concern our fantasies of the lives led by the Romantic poets. For most of us, Mary Shelley is framed in a few memorable stills. The most famous scene concerns the stormy night at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva when Byron, his doctor John Polidori, the two Shelleys and Mary's stepsister, who was pregnant by Byron, decided to write horror stories for fun. Out popped the demons.

Cut to Shelley's death by drowning off the coast of Italy, the burning of his fish-nibbled body on a lonely shore. Jump-cut to Mary being blamed by generations of biographers for being a difficult, sulky and demanding wife to the saintly rebel-poet, nagging him rather than serving his genius.

Miranda Seymour makes a good case for Mary being both more ordinary and more extraordinary than previous writers allowed. Ordinary, in that like other women of her time she suffered the tragedy of seeing her children die before her; only one out of five survived. Extraordinary, in that she managed to live a life that let her develop her literary talent.

Her achievements in fiction were not separate from her experiences as a human being, but nor are they crudely reducible to them. Seymour sketches the flowering of a powerful imagination, showing how successful fiction amalgamates diverse forms of inspiration. There is no simple interpretation of Frankenstein.

She suggests that childhood sorrows pressed Mary along the path towards inventing vehicles to contain and transform pain. Her mother, feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, died soon after giving birth to her. Elaine Showalter was one of the first critics to point out that Mary may have felt enormous guilt at being an unwitting cause of her mother's death.

Seymour builds on this by suggesting how rejected the young Mary felt when her beloved father, the philosopher William Godwin, hastily remarried and saddled her with a stepmother to whom she could not feel sympathetic. Sent to boarding-school aged 14, she felt punished for intransigence. Intelligent, well-educated, independent, troubled, a passionate reader of her parents' love letters, she was ripe for taking flight and for taking Shelley.

Eloping with him to Italy, accompanied by her stepsister Claire, she was already pregnant, but miscarried this baby. Life with Shelley promised freedom, but the reality was harsh. They constantly travelled in filthy conditions. She had to run a household on little money, deal with creditors, the illnesses of babies, her duties as Shelley's amanuensis and - not least - his probable infidelities. Frankenstein would be an impressive début under any circumstances, but under these it is almost incredible.

Her courage was undimmed after Shelley's death. Though she loved Italy, she had to bring her small son back to England to obtain an allowance from her hostile father-in-law. She had no money of her own and Shelley's will had been lost. Her father had become destitute and was now dependent on her help.

Mary went on writing to support herself and risked her reputation further to champion her friends. "I have ever defended women when oppressed," she wrote. But she was no blazing heroine; she struggled against depression.

Mary Shelley's literary standing, as a major figure in the Romantic movement, goes on increasing. This biography underlines her deserved reputation. Miranda Seymour is well known as a novelist as well as a scholar, and her sensitive re-reading of Frankenstein gives her solidly researched account an extra interest. She suggests that in 1815, when Mary was staying in Clifton, near Bristol, a town grown fat on the slave trade, she became aware of slavery which - though formally abolished - remained a thriving industry.

Her Creature, misjudged for his "exotic" appearance and cruelly repudiated by his creator, may offer an image of the way Europeans took whiteness and blondeness to indicate superiority to the Africans they exploited. Mary Shelley was thus even more of a radical than has been realised. It's a testament to the richness and complexity of Frankenstein that it goes on throwing up an unstoppable flow of interpretation.

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