There are few more seductive figures for biographers than Mary Shelley. The daughter of the radical philosopher and novelist William Godwin and the great feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft (who died a few days after giving birth to her), she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at 16; wandered through Europe with him; bore their four children; married him; became the friend and companion of the other Young Romantics and their lovers; and at 18 wrote the classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Scholars, writers and biographers from Muriel Spark to Miranda Seymour have been drawn to her story, and to the moment when, in the summer of 1816, at a villa on Lake Geneva, Byron challenged Mary, Percy and their friend, the painter Polidori, to write competing ghost stories.
Frankenstein was conceived then, but delivered two years later, and published anonymously on New Year’s Day 1818. Mary would write a revised and expanded version in 1831, plus five other novels and many stories; but none was as innovative, archetypal and aesthetically influential as Frankenstein. Its bicentennial this year is the occasion for an explosion of conferences, annotated editions, plays, TV adaptations, films and books, including this new biography by the poet Fiona Sampson.
The book opens with an engaging description of the 1931 film of Frankenstein as a ‘mixture of hilarity and horror’, especially at the moment the scientist sees his creature begin to move: ‘It’s alive, it’s moving. It’s alive! It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive! It’s ALIVE!’ In the book, Sampson points out, the moment of creation is more private and less exultant. Dr Frankenstein beholds his creature with anxiety, and ‘the novel gives us a scene not of success but of failure’. Feminist critics have generally interpreted Frankenstein as a ‘birth myth’, in the words of Ellen Moers, in Literary Women (1963): a tale reflecting maternal fears, dangers and literary affiliations.