Friday, October 21, 2011

Adventure classics -- Mother to Frankenstein monster


by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


Writing a novel is tough enough; tougher still when the writer is a teenager. But a first novel written by an unmarried teenage mother living with a struggling poet isn’t likely to be listed on any conventional pathway to greatness. Luckily, no one told that to nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who became Mary Shelley after the suicide of Percy Shelley’s first wife.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley probably wouldn’t have recognized a conventional pathway if she’d set foot on one. She was the daughter of eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and political philosopher William Godwin. Although the elder Mary died when her daughter was eleven days old, the memoir Godwin wrote detailing his wife’s unorthodox life -- she had another daughter by a lover prior to her marriage -- effectively overshadowed the reputation of her writing for more than a century. Considering that the younger Mary was increasingly estranged from her father and stepmother, few in the family could have been astonished when she eloped to Switzerland with the already-married Shelley at age sixteen. The young couple invited Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, along for company.

By the summer of 1816, Mary and Shelley (whose first wife would die that December) were again living in Switzerland. Their household included both their then-surviving child, William, and Claire, pregnant by Shelley’s friend Lord Byron. The Shelley ménage, Byron, and Bryon’s personal physician, John Polidori, spent the unseasonably rainy summer telling -- and daring each other to write -- ghost stories.

I can’t find any record that Claire accepted the challenge. Shelley and Byron wrote soon-abandoned fragments. Only Mary and Polidori finished their tales. Polidori’s story, “The Vampyre,” is credited with being the first vampire story published in English. Mary, of course, ended by writing a short novel originally titled, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Within a decade, all the participants except Mary and Claire who had shivered with delightful terror in the rainy summer of 1816 were dead.

Frankenstein was first published anonymously in 1818, with a preface purported to be by the author but actually written, as Mary commented later, entirely by Shelley. By the time she wrote her own introduction for the 1831 edition, she was struggling to make a living for herself and Shelley’s only surviving child. She had suffered through the deaths of three other children and her husband, and had barely survived a miscarriage.

These sufferings lend poignancy to the words of her introduction: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words which found no true echo in my heart. Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone: and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more.”

(Not until the last decade of Mary Shelley’s century would any horror novel rival the reputation of hers -- Bram Stoker’s Dracula, coming next Friday in Adventure classics.)


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