Almost Invincible

Here’s an exclusive guest post from Mary Shelley Biographer Suzanne Burdon.

BEHIND THE BOOK

Don’t leave me alone with her. She’s been the bane of my life since I was three years old!” These were the words of Mary Shelley to her daughter in law, who kindly proposed giving Mary, then in her 50s, some time with her visiting step sister.

I read this some four years ago and found it so intriguing, that it led me on a fascinating journey into the early 19th century. What could have caused such vehemence? Why was Mary so anxious about being alone with her stepsister? I knew little of Mary Shelley. Like many people, I was vaguely aware that she had written Frankenstein when she was quite young. I knew also that she was married to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

That is when I discovered that I am an obsessive researcher. As a sociologist, most of my working life has been spent conducting market and social research and when I started reading Mary’s story there were many aspects of it that resonated strongly with modern life. It was operatic – even a soap opera! There were more scandals, deaths, tortured relationships, loves and losses than in several seasons of Desperate Housewives. Through it all there was Mary, a strong but also vulnerable young woman in socially unsympathetic times. I glimpsed someone who was a teenage rebel, grieving mother, determined author, and long suffering lover of a man well ahead of his time. I wanted to get to know her better, and especially to understand the insidious and damaging influence of her step-sister, Claire.

There are many biographies of Mary, but she is often crowded out by the famous people around her and the complexities of her lifestyle. Finding the real Mary seemed a bit like trying to find a lost child at central station in rush hour. I badly wanted to l understand her emotions and motivations more clearly.

One of the pleasures of writing this book has been the research, not only visiting many of the places associated with her life, but also spending hours burrowing in libraries around the world. There are two major collections of documents associated with Shelley. One is in the New York Public Library and the other is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. (Since I had daughters living in both the UK and NYC, this was an added incentive to visit). There are many boxes and files of letters and manuscripts from the Shelleys and those associated with them. Even though most of it has now been digitized, there is nothing like touching and seeing the originals. In the Bodleian boxes there was a lovely little notebook where Mary had sketched a story, with a lock of hair pressed between the pages.

The lock of hair

The first thing that struck me was how young they all were. Mary was sixteen when she met Shelley. He was already married with a child. With the Geldorfs recently, sadly in the news, it struck me how like Bob Geldof Shelley must have appeared. He was radical, wanting to save the world, wild in appearance, charismatic, and an atheist – a rebel who had been disavowed by his baronet father. He believed in poetry as a force for reformation and change. Poets, he asserted, ‘are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

One of the places I visited was Pancras churchyard in London, where Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is buried. (She died giving birth to Mary). Mary spent hours there to be near to her mother, and it is where she first met Shelley. I thought it odd that a churchyard would be a place to spend time, but it is still pretty, with lawns and trees and a smattering of monument style graves.

The Old Pancras Churchyard

Mary was just back from a year in the hills of Scotland with some family friends. She was strong-minded and clever, raised in a world of books and ideas. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her father was William Godwin, a philosopher and political theorist, who wrote a groundbreaking book called Political Justice. Shelley was a disciple of her father, and in Mary he saw a girl who had the genes to achieve great things in literature and philosophy, as well as being attractive. His wife was beautiful but could not match him in intellectual aspiration. In Mary he had found his soulmate. However, she had a surprisingly conservative streak, and Shelley I suspected, would have needed all of his persuasive powers to convince her run away with him. Their diaries and letters are no help for this period, but the recollections of their friends give some clues as to their dramatic and clandestine courtship.

When they eventually eloped they were like kids on a gap year, recklessly setting off to France, weeks after Napoleon was defeated, through villages still ravaged from war. They had little money and few clothes and only the optimism of the very young. The only shadow on their bright future was that when they had left London in the early hours of a July morning, they had taken Mary’s step sister, Claire, with them. There seemed to be no good reason for it, especially as Claire and Mary were not blood relations and were not exactly close or even compatible. It was even more incomprehensible, because Claire was in love with Shelley and had a history of jealousy of Mary. Why did Mary let this happen, especially as it was a decision that infected every thing that happened to her from then on and impacted on her relationship with Shelley? This was one of puzzles I tried to unravel.

Penniless, they had to return to England cheaply and so they travelled on a boat along the Rhine. I discovered that there is an old Frankenstein Castle, near Gernsheim in Germany, where the alchemist Dippel lived, who was reputed to exhume bodies for anatomical research. The seed of inspiration for the novel’s title may have been planted there as the travellers passed close to the ruins.

Frankenstein Castle. I loved the way the leaves look like a bat!

On Lake Geneva, where Frankenstein was conceived in Byron’s villa as a result of a challenge to write a ghost story. The Villa Diodati is still there and overlooks the Lake as it would have in 1816. I had always been puzzled that it was July, when the driving rain

and thunderstorms set the scene. Then I discovered that 1816 was known as The Year Without A Summer. Mount Tambora in Indonesia produced the the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history and Europe was blanketed in dust. People thought the end of the world had come.

Villa Diodati

My researches also took me to the Buckinghamshire village of Marlow, where they lived a happy year just after Claire gave birth to Byron’s baby, and where Mary and Shelley helped the poor lacemakers. I visited many sites in Italy where they spent the last four years of their time together. In Pisa, in particular, they felt happy. They called it the Paradise of Exiles. When I was there I was surprised to discover that at that time they had camels pulling boats along the Arno, the wide river that runs through the city. Casa Magni, on the Gulg of Spezia is hard to imagine as the wild and isolated place of their last days. Now it is overrun with holiday makers, but there is till the verandah where Mary and Jane scanned the sea in hope that their men would return alive.

The Arno in Pisa. No camels now!

Author and guide, Maria, on the steps of Byron’s villa at Montenero

Casa Magni. It was one right on the sea shore

Another discovery was that Frankenstein was adapted for the stage several times in Mary’s lifetime. She seemed to feel no concern that they added music and meddled with the script. One production was so scary that women in the audience fainted.

I have loved every minute of the years I have spent with Mary Shelley and I hope that readers will, like me, see her as a complete person, flawed as well as favoured, applaud her courage and sympathise with her trials, as well as understanding something about life in the early nineteenth century.

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