Monday, 8 January 2018

Short Review: 'In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein' by Fiona Sampson

I knew of Frankenstein long before I actually read it. Like many others, I think, I had absorbed the story of the monster, of science gone wrong, through popular culture from an early age on. Frankenstein is a cultural staple, and yet it wasn't until university that I truly started appreciating the woman behind it, the girl, even, who created this cultural phenomenon. It is now 200 years since the novel's publication and interest in the novel and author are reawakening. In Search of Mary Shelley is part of that reawakening so of course I had to read it. Thanks to Serpent's Tail for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 04/01/2018
Publisher: Serpent's Tail; Profile Books

Mary Shelley was brought up by her father in a house filled with radical thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers of the day. Aged sixteen, she eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, embarking on a relationship that was lived on the move across Britain and Europe, as she coped with debt, infidelity and the deaths of three children, before early widowhood changed her life forever. Most astonishingly, it was while she was still a teenager that Mary composed her canonical novel Frankenstein, creating two of our most enduring archetypes today. The life story is well-known. But who was the woman who lived it? She's left plenty of evidence, and in this fascinating dialogue with the past, Fiona Sampson sifts through letters, diaries and records to find the real woman behind the story. She uncovers a complex, generous character - friend, intellectual, lover and mother - trying to fulfil her own passionate commitment to writing at a time when to be a woman writer was an extraordinary and costly anomaly. Published for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, this is a major new work of biography by a prize-winning writer and poet.
Reading Frankenstein at university was what first brought Mary Shelley to the forefront of my mind. The novel is a masterpiece, carefully and intricately crafted, full of thoughts on human nature and tempestuous feelings of self. And this came from the mind of a nineteen-year old girl, recently eloped with a Romantic poet and the child of two philosophical heavyweights. I immediately adored her. One can't help but be fascinated by those who create masterpieces like Frankenstein. It is why Jane Austen has so many adoring followers, we readers want to get to know those whose writing touched us so deeply. For a long time Mary Shelley was very much hidden in the large shadow cast by her acquaintances, but renewed interest in her has allowed a large field of Mary-centred research to flower. In Search of Mary Shelley is a part of that, a book that tries to paint a picture of who this girl was, what kind of woman she became, and why.

Since my introduction to Mary Shelley started at university, I am used to reading about her in a certain, "academic" way. In Search of Mary Shelley is a refreshing break from that, with Sampson writing very casually and directly. She avoids academic lingo and doesn't really quote from any research into Mary. Rather, Sampson attempts to sketch a portrait of who Mary Shelley could have been based on details in her books, letters and journals, as far as those are available, as well as what is known of the time period. Because of the book's lack of references, it occasionally felt to me as if too much of it could be made up. The picture Sampson creates isn't necessarily a factual one, but very much a potential one. Perhaps Mary did feel this way, maybe that letter does reference an awareness of a larger cultural event, or possibly none of it is true. Although I enjoyed reading In Search of Mary Shelley I have been too spoiled by my time at university and felt the lack of supporting material for Sampson's claims. However, for someone wanting to get a sense of what Mary's inner life could have been like and what an asshole Percy Shelley at times was, In Search of Mary Shelley is an excellent starting point!

I give this book...

3 Universes!

In Search of Mary Shelley offers a fascinating insight into who Mary Shelley could have been. Although Sampson doesn't quote much from academic research and allows herself some artistic freedom, it is a worthwhile read for those who want to get a sense of Mary.

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