Fiona Sampson gives the ‘Frankenstein’ author’s hard life a compelling immediacy
For 200 years, the freewheeling, chaotic lives of the Romantic poets, replete with sexual emancipation, elopement, teenage pregnancies and tragic death, have provided biographers with abundant riches. Mary Shelley’s illustrious parentage – her mother was the pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father political philosopher William Godwin – combined with her own literary achievements has ensured that her life is more comprehensively documented than most women of the era. In the latest addition to this canon, In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein, writer and poet Fiona Sampson points out: “It is the daughter of those famous thinkers that Percy [Bysshe Shelley] has fallen in love with.”
Sampson, who was editor of Poetry Review from 2005 to 2012, and is professor of poetry at the University of Roehampton, has an infectious curiosity for her subject and explores her life using motifs from literature, music and art. Astonishing scenes are laid before the reader in the manner of vivid tableaux: Mary, aged eight, hiding behind the sofa with her half-sister and begging to be allowed stay up late to hear Coleridge read to the end of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Mary, aged 16, sick and pregnant, lying in a boat with her head resting on Shelley’s chest as a storm rages around them. A born outsider whose arrival killed her brilliant mother, her childhood anxieties prompt a letter from her father, sent from Dublin, assuring her that he has no intention of giving her away.
Adopting an unconventional approach, Sampson writes in the vernacular and uses the present tense: “Building a life together isn’t heat of the moment stuff,” she remarks of Mary’s early months with Shelley. Mary is “four months gone” in pregnancy. They live “hand-to-mouth”. Mary is Shelley’s “enabler”. Her father is “a failure with the ladies” and “comes on heavily” to one. The celebrated sojourn at the Villa Diodati, which culminated in Frankenstein, is described as a “sleep-over”.
Although this might grate, such accessible language gives Sampson’s writing a compelling immediacy. Eyewitness accounts, letters and journal extracts are woven seamlessly into her narrative, while capsule biographies and historical detail provide context. On occasion, she indulges in unfettered speculation, exploring Continue reading