Mary Shelley is best known as the author of a Gothic tale of a man who creates a monster. And even within her lifetime (1797-1851), Frankenstein had a vivid life of its own: it achieved popular – and scandalous – success when adapted for the stage in 1823, and has been a favourite source ever since. But it is not only her fiction that has captured the imagination of successive generations, it's Shelley herself. The year so far has already seen one stage show about the writer and her circle – Primavera revived Howard Brenton's 1984 play Bloody Poetry in February – while a new text by Helen Edmundson, Mary Shelley, staged by Shared Experience, opens on Friday.
The enduring fascination stems partly from the other lives with which Shelley's intersected. She was the daughter of famous radical intellectuals: her mother was the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and died giving birth to Mary; her father was William Godwin, whose Political Justice argued against institutions from monarchy to marriage.
When one of Godwin's admirers, the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, came to visit, he and Mary fell for each other. But Shelley already had a wife and Mary was only 16, so they eloped to France in 1814, taking her half-sister Claire Clairmont with them. They felt they were living out her parents' philosophical theories. Godwin, however, refused to see any of them for many years.
The cost of such a Romantic gesture shouldn't be underestimated. "She was always a divided creature – half highly serious academic, the other half absolutely wild," says Miranda Seymour, who wrote a biography of Mary Shelley in 2000. "But there's no way she was let off the hook because she was Wollstonecraft's daughter. They were really exiled after their elopement."
The couple fell in with interesting characters, most notably Lord Byron, by whom Claire became pregnant. (There's also evidence to suggest she had a sexual relationship with Shelley.) Illegitimate children pop up frequently in this story – but often tragically die, as Claire's did. Mary lost three children, and in the winter of 1816, Shelley's first wife Harriet, and Mary's other half-sister, Fanny, both committed suicide. Shelley drowned at sea in 1822.
But aside from the bed-hopping and deathbeds, the story is about artistic creation, as demonstrated by the trip to Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, where Mary, Claire, Shelley and Byron wrote prolifically. When Byron issued a challenge to write a ghost story, 18-year-old Mary began Frankenstein. "It's a God-given thing for writers," says Seymour. "Geneva, Byron and the Shelleys, the lakes heaving with storms and lightning ... and out of that comes Frankenstein. It's irresistible. It's not surprising we're drawn to it and endlessly reinventing it."
Edmundson also acknowledges the drama: "In Mary Shelley things are happening so thick and fast, I thought 'My goodness – it's going to start to feel melodramatic!' My worry was, will people believe the intensity of it?"
Following Shelley's death, Mary returned to England. She edited his work – no mean feat – and became a prolific fiction writer to pay the bills. She also struggled to make her way in respectable society. Daisy Hay, the author of Young Romantics, suggests that Mary "for a long time worked to present herself as Shelley's grieving widow", so mending her reputation.
Mary's legacy was further sanitised after her death. Her son, Percy, and his wife, Jane, became fierce guardians of her papers. "Jane Shelley had huge control over the first biographies," explains Hay. "She was very careful that Mary be presented as an entirely innocent woman – which she wasn't: she had run off with another woman's husband." Seymour agrees, explaining that Jane "worshipped her in the Victorian way – [Mary] became buried under a blanket of respectability. They made her good, but unexciting."
So Mary became just another good wife to a great genius. Or even not that good a wife: in Richard Holmes's 1974 Percy Shelley biography, Mary is presented as a dreary creature. (She suffered from depression throughout her life.) But it was partly this that made Seymour want to write about her: "That was a marvellous portrait of Percy Shelley but it had to play the idea of a wild free spirit against a really gloomy, doomy wife." She couldn't believe that perception was true.
It was a dichotomy Rhiannon Sommers, who played Mary in Bloody Poetry, also struggled with: "In this play, you feel that she doesn't want to be the mum, the practical one, but someone's got to do it so she steps up. She's having to repress what's actually there, which is a huge love for life and art."
By the time of Brenton's play, opinion of Mary was changing. She was brought out of her husband's shadow by 1970s feminist academics; Frankenstein was canonised (though authorship debates raged about her husband's involvement in it ) and her other novels were raked over for signs of genius.
For her latest stage incarnation, Edmundson has gone back to the beginning, inspired by the courage and conviction of Mary's youth. "She stood out at a time when there were very few novels written by women. And that she was trying to live by her principles, and that she creates art from it ... it's gorgeous stuff!"
Whether as a dramatic example of living by your convictions or a monstrous marriage wrecker, a depressed housewife or a feminist trailblazer, it seems the concept of "Mary Shelley" is constantly being revived. To quote the 1931 Frankenstein film ... "It's alive!"
Mary Shelley is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (wyp.org.uk) from Friday until 7 April, then touring
From the introduction to Frankenstein, By Mary Shelley
(Oxford World Classics £5.99)
'I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world ....'
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies