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Biography brings Frankenstein writer to life

Gerald Isaaman admires a new biography of Mary Shelley, the teenager who gave birth to Frankenstein

25 January, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s creation in the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein

ANNIVERSARIES can sometimes come as a total surprise – as in the case of Victor Frankenstein, whose creation is probably still best remembered as Boris Karloff’s hulking monster in the 1931 film.

He arrived 200 years ago this month – thanks to a girl of 18, born in 1797, whose early days were spent at No 29 The Polygon, in Somers Town, St Pancras.

Published on that 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic novel comes a sensitive and brilliant new biography, The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein, by poet and author Fiona Sampson.

Mary’s sensational tale – originally published in January 1817 as the work of an unnamed author – is, of course, well known.

As Sampson explains in her introduction: “Generations have found the mixture of hilarity and horror irresistible. I remember primary school playtimes when we ran screaming round the yard while boys lurched after us with their arms held rigidly in front of them. We didn’t really know whether they were being Frankenstein’s Monster. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb or one of the Living Dead, and that was part of the point.”

Mary was the daughter of two remarkable people. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneer creator of feminism with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, who died giving birth to her, and her father was the radical author and philosopher William Godwin.

His publishing house and bookshop on Ludgate Hill, Holborn, went bankrupt, which is where the womanising romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley comes into the story.

Richard Rothwell’s portait of Mary Shelley

Teenage Mary Godwin eloped across Europe after falling passionately in love with Shelley, to become his second wife until Shelley’s death by drowning in 1822.

What Sampson has done is to delve into Shelley’s diaries, letters and records to bring to life the real person in her own times, and does so in a compelling way by writing in the present tense.

At times it is almost impossible to keep up with the highly complex and emotionally confused saga of despair and its social implications depicting past terrible times. There was abundant poverty amid totally dirty, rat-infested living conditions in which illness and early death were inevitable – Shelley’s own children were victims – let alone the effects of disastrous debt and infidelity.

Yet against this ugly backdrop we see Mary’s determination to succeed at a time when any attempt to be a contemporary female author was both brave and a challenge.

Sampson provides us with a fascinating mass of detail about contemporary life, especially at The Polygon in Somers Town, a modern building in its day.

But what of Frankenstein?

It was on a Danube river journey that Shelley passed a German castle, the Burgh Frankenstein, which gave her a name for her invention of a scientist who played God.

Shelley’s intellectual gifts were instrumental in its creation – she taught herself Greek and read Dante and Ariosto in the original – and she heard poets such as Coleridge, living in Highgate, give a reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which she alluded to in the book. And her father’s guests included the radicals and scientists of the day, among them Sir Humphry Davy, who revealed how electricity triggered the nerves of an executed corpse from Newgate Prison so that its limbs jerked.

There is even the suggestion that Shelley’s belief in a vegetarian diet resulted in the early deaths of two of her children and that it might have also played some bizarre role in the Frankenstein story.

Sampson’s biography is very much a detailed history lesson, encouraging us to absorb and admire Shelley’s creation of a novel that seemingly will live for ever.

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein. By Fiona Sampson, Profile Books, £18.99

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