Mary Shelley among the Radicals

Detail of a portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (National Portrait Gallery):
How the author of Frankenstein survived the milieu of her father and her husband.

It was just 200 years ago, in the summer of 1816, that the 19-year-old Mary Godwin — soon to be Mary Shelley — conceived the story that was to become the novel Frankenstein, first published in 1818. With all of its fictional deficiencies, it was nevertheless an astonishingly precocious, intuitive, creative achievement, and it surprised and even shocked the other participants — all older, and male — in the parlor game of inventing “ghost stories” during bad weather on Lake Geneva: her lover, the poet Percy B. Shelley, whom she would marry in December 1816; George Gordon, Lord Byron, already famous as a poet; and Byron’s doctor, John Polidori.

Mary had eloped with the already-married young aristocrat Shelley at age 16 in 1814, having met him in the home of her father, the prominent atheist and radical-leftist thinker William Godwin. Her mother was the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, like Godwin an opponent of marriage as “the grave of love,” but who had nevertheless persuaded him to marry her for the sake of their child; Mary Wollstonecraft died of complications of childbirth eleven days after her daughter was born in 1797. This death and its background initiated a series of agonizing deaths, betrayals, dramas, and defeats that were to sear and scar Mary’s life during and long after the glamorous phase of her relationship with Shelley, who drowned in Italy in 1822 and whom she survived by nearly 30 years, herself dying in England in 1851. These tragedies included the death of three of her four children by the mercurial and negligent Shelley, many years spent trying to secure an inheritance for the one son who did survive, and years of hard work trying to maintain her son, and herself as a professional writer.

We owe to the distinguished novelist Muriel Spark (1918–2006) the revival of Mary Shelley’s reputation as a novelist, as opposed to being considered merely an accessory to her husband and the author of a pot-boiling Gothic horror story that provided crude grist for the 20th-century movie mills to create a blockbuster modern myth. In 1951, Spark, then an unknown poet, managed to get a small English publisher to bring out her biographical and critical study Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Shelley, a discussion of Mary’s life and all of her writings, which included other novels. Spark was herself to become famous with the publication of her own novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in 1961, but in 1951 she was little known and virtually unique in holding a high opinion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a novel. As Michael Schmidt pointed out in his introduction to the revised edition of Muriel Spark’s study — titled simply Mary Shelley, and published by Carcanet (U.K.) in 2013 — Walter Allen, in his standard overview, The English Novel (1954), “did not even mention Mary Shelley.”  

The noble story of “How Muriel Spark rescued Mary Shelley” has been well told by Kathryn Hughes in the London Times Literary Supplement (April 24, 2013), and we now have a number of other recent books that cast light on this neglected chapter of literary history, and especially on the person and point of view of Mary, the young woman who for well over a century was easy to dismiss as “one of Shelley’s and Byron’s women.” Among these books are Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece (2013) and Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley (2015). In 2010 the English scholar Daisy Hay published her fine joint biography Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives, of which one prominent review was aptly entitled “The cruelties of proto-’60s free love.”

Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, one of Byron’s many lovers and the mother of one of his illegitimate children, accompanied Mary and Shelley on their elopement to Switzerland and subsequently formed part of their household in England, Switzerland, and Italy. As Daisy Hay points out, Claire left an autobiographical manuscript about Byron and Shelley that was discovered only in 1998 in a collection of letters now owned by the New York Public Library. It vindicates Tom Stoppard’s clever but profound insight that “What free love / is free of / is love.” Claire, William Godwin’s stepdaughter, had been part of his London circle, and in her manuscript she looked back on her relations with Shelley, Byron, and their friends, wishing to demonstrate “from actual facts what evil passion free love” caused, “how it abused affections . . . into a destroying scourge,” and “what victims it immolated.” “The worshippers of free love,” she went on, “not only preyed upon one another, but preyed equally upon their own individual selves” and turned “their existence into a perfect hell.”

Mary herself had been born not only into a radical household but into a radical London milieu in which her mother, her father, and her husband were all prominent figures, and on the public level she remained loyal to them long after their deaths, dutifully promoting, editing, and defending their writings, despite her own arduous struggle to make a living and a life for herself and her son. The extraordinary, unexpected moral-philosophical meaning of Frankenstein was a profound literary critique of the scientific hubris and quest for glory of these figures, a critique that Percy Shelley himself tried to muffle in his preface to the novel. As Langdon Winner noted in his book Autonomous Technology (1977), Victor Frankenstein “never moves beyond the dream of progress, the thirst for power, or the unquestioned belief that the products of science and technology are an unqualified blessing for mankind.” And it is clear from Mary Shelley’s narrative that the life-creator Victor (and his admirer, the adventurer Walton, the nominal narrator of the novel) are ultimately more morally monstrous and culpable than the abandoned, unloved being whom Victor created.

The choreographer Liam Scarlett, who has created a new ballet of “Frankenstein” that will be performed at the Royal Ballet in London this May, first read the novel when he was eleven. He is absolutely right to say that “it’s not about the horror of creating life from dead matter. It’s about the lack of responsibility” of Victor and his “abandonment” of his creature afterward. Both Mary and Claire had firsthand, tragic experience of this masculine-chauvinist heartlessness. Byron’s neglect of his and Claire’s daughter, Allegra, and his refusal to let Claire see the child, probably led to Allegra’s early death; three of Mary’s four children by the callous Shelley died, one clearly through his imperious insensitivity — forcing Mary and her sick infant to traverse Italy rapidly during terribly hot weather. Nor was Shelley faithful to Mary — or any woman.

We know from the biographical labors of Muriel Spark and Daisy Hay that Mary resisted being sexually “shared” by Shelley with his friend James Hogg, despite the “free-love” background of her own father and mother. Marriage was not “the grave of love” for her, and after Shelley’s untimely death in 1822 she edited his poems, tended her son, and never remarried. Muriel Spark, who did so much to establish Mary Shelley’s modern reputation and who later became a Catholic, speculated that the atheistic milieu in which the young woman grew up kept her from finding her way to a religious orthodoxy that would have given her comfort and would have confirmed the moral and philosophical intuitions of her finest novel. In 1819 Mary was in Rome and visited many churches, which had a profound effect on her: “In the churches you hear the music of Heaven,” she said in a letter to a friend. “The delights of Rome,” she said, have “had such an effect on me that my past life before I saw it appears a blank and now I begin to live.” (Something similar happened to the American feminist Margaret Fuller in Rome in the 1840s.)

Mary’s obnoxiously domineering father constantly preyed on Shelley and numerous others for money. As C. P. Snow pointed out in a review of a biography of Godwin, he was a world-class leech, living to age 80 and getting loans of about £400 a year, and “his income from all sources, while protesting indigence, was well over 1000 Pounds a year. In the 1820s that would have been substantial for a successful professional man.” No one knew where all the money went. Like Shelley and Byron, Godwin was inordinately vain in a megalomaniacal, messianic way, and endlessly loaded guilt on Mary about the indispensability of his writings to the progress of the world. But after his death in 1836, despite his vociferous insistence to Mary of the importance of posthumously publishing his anti-Christian tract The Genius of Christianity Unveiled, she was reluctant to revive controversy by publishing it.

The single mother who had not abandoned her child, as Victor Frankenstein, Byron, and Shelley had abandoned theirs, was in no such mood, despite her “sense of duty towards my father, whose passion was for posthumous fame.” In a letter to Edward John Trelawney, the histrionic fantasist who was a chief creator and custodian of the heroic Byron–Shelley legend, Mary goes on to make a profoundly revealing remark: “For my own private satisfaction all I ask is obscurity. . . . One thing I will add — if I have ever found kindness it has not been from Liberals,” like the Godwin–Shelley–Byron circle; “to disengage from them was the first act of my freedom — the consequence was that I gained peace and civil usage.” It is an astonishing and deeply moving comment, a cry from the heart of a woman who grew up in the radical-liberal milieu. The left-wing Romantic had become a Victorian; the child of glamorous bohemian anarchy had become a conventional, loving, loyal, middle-class, working single mother.

The biographer Joseph Pearce, in his fine introduction to his Ignatius Critical Edition (2008) of Frankenstein, argues persuasively that accounts depicting Mary as a willing participant in the libertine, anti-family, anti-marriage culture of the Godwin circle of sympathizers with the French Revolution and philosophical materialism badly misjudge her actual situation and views, views that we can easily discern from the traditional sensibility of Frankenstein itself, with its horror of the blasphemy of “science without conscience.” She gives us loving depictions of conventional families, from which Frankenstein’s creature was unwillingly and miserably shut out. Until far too late — sero sapiunt — the privileged Victor Frankenstein never realizes the cost of his arrogant curiosity and desire for glory. And neither he nor Walton is ever depicted as gaining any real self-knowledge. The thoughtful reader will follow editors of the novel at least since James Rieger in 1974 in hearing behind the seductive, self-glorifying rhetoric of Frankenstein and Walton at the very end of the novel an allusion to Dante’s Ulysses, whose grand, self-indulgent egotism and seductive rhetorical power over the less educated earn him his place as a false counselor deep in Dante’s hell (Inferno XXVI).

Roger Shattuck sees the young Mary Shelley as much wiser, and more relevant to us, than the Olympian Goethe.

Joseph Pearce is right to see Mary Shelley’s deepest sympathies engaged by the older, conservative Christian Romantics, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and Walter Scott, and not by her father and the younger, radical, atheistic Romantics, Shelley and Byron. Their extremist, utopian visions issued in the apocalyptic sensibility expressed in Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” and in Byron’s line “revolution / Alone can save the earth from hell’s pollution” — this, despite the historical course of the French Revolution from libertarian euphoria, through sanguinary terror, to Napoleonic tyranny. This radical sensibility has now been with us everywhere in the West for decades, as the late Roger Shattuck (1923–2005) pointed out in his fine book Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (1996). In his chapter “Faust and Frankenstein,” Shattuck sees the young Mary Shelley as much wiser, and more relevant to us, than the Olympian Goethe. Her relevance has several levels, including the mistrust of Promethean, scientific-technological triumphalism and manipulation. Victor Frankenstein can create life, but unlike any decent mother he cannot nourish and sustain it: The milk of human kindness flows initially from the female human breast.

Speaking of new advances in genetic-engineering techniques — which are the reality of Frankenstein’s fictitious power — the distinguished geneticist Robert Pollack of Columbia University has recently called for “a complete and total ban on human germline modification” and has warned of “the end of the simplest notion of each of us being ‘endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.’” Spark, Pearce, and Shattuck are right to credit the 19-year-old Mary Shelley with a powerful intuition, expressed through narrative, image, and myth. Spark makes a strong case for the prescience and power of Mary’s late dystopian novel The Last Man (1826), seeing in it a foreshadowing of the powerful dystopian satires to come, such as Wells’s early novels, Huxley’s Brave New World, C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Orwell’s 1984, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and the whole science-fiction genre.

Two prominent science-fiction writers, Arthur C. Clarke and C. S. Lewis, had a correspondence, and the World War I veteran Lewis wrote to Clarke in that tragic year 1943: “I agree that technology is per se neutral, but a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the Universe.” Mary Shelley shows us a Victor Frankenstein whose lusts for knowledge and power — libido sciendi and libido dominandi — are diabolical in effect, and whose own evil he himself never really recognizes as his own fault, intoxicated as he is with visions of glory until the very end. Deep in the Inferno, Dante’s Ulysses retells his catastrophic, vainglorious exploit like a broken record in a madhouse.

Mary Shelley understood, even as a very young woman, intuitively and imaginatively rather than discursively, that power without goodness is dangerous, that knowledge without ethics is “a cancer in the universe.” On December 20, 1830, a few months before the second edition of Frankenstein was published, the English essayist Charles Lamb wrote to his friend the poet George Dyer: “Alas! Can we ring the bells backwards? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize, and then burn the world? There is a march of science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?”

“Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize, and then burn the world?” It is an eloquent, profoundly relevant conception and question, which Mary Shelley’s precocious novel helps us to understand and meditate on. Two hundred years after the young woman’s imaginative apprehension was written down on the shores of Lake Geneva, we ignore the novel, and the question, at our peril.

M. D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia) has written for National Review since 1984 and has taught at universities in the United States, Switzerland, and Italy. His father, Adrien R. Aeschliman, saw frontline combat against the Japanese in 1944–45 in New Guinea and the Philippines in the 32nd Infantry Division, one of the most battle-hardened divisions of the U.S. Army in any theater of operations in World War II.


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