1 January 2018 marked a stunning literary anniversary: 200 years since the publication of Frankenstein, one of the most influential science-fiction novels of all time. Its author, Mary Shelley was eighteen when she began writing it, and yet had experienced a tumultuous life up to that point with the worst (including the deaths of her children and husband Percy Shelley) still to come. Mary’s life makes for tough reading, and author Fiona Sampson has done a good job of taking us through the journey. However, whilst In Search of Mary Shelley may provide a reader with a good understanding of Shelley’s life and close relationships, it struggles to make a case for its existence alongside other, often better, biographies of the author.
The book is split into two parts, though really it covers three periods: Mary’s childhood, her relationship with Percy Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein, and her life after the myriad deaths that plagued her family. Of the three, the middle section is perhaps the most interesting, covering Percy and Mary’s travels abroad, from which Sampson shows places that may have influenced the novel. We also get a full account of the nights in Villa Diodati during the Year without a Summer, in which a prompt to write a ghost story resulted in Mary writing the book. It’s all ground that has been covered before, with little new to add to the story.
Likewise, Sampson’s writing covering Mary’s childhood, thanks to a lack of sources and information, is hugely speculative. In one section she makes guesses as to the games Mary and a childhood friend played, in another she speculates that because window glass was hand blown, Mary may have found her reflection humorous. These speculative passages, although gleaned mostly from historical research, only seem to serve to pad out the narrative.
What comes across best in the book is the overwhelming male influence on Mary’s life. At every stage in her writing career, and in her life in general, there are men standing by trying to take advantage. After Percy dies, several men try to blackmail her, and she spends hundreds of pounds fending them off. Percy himself is no better, belittling her writing, caring little for her own wellbeing and attempting to juggle several romantic relationships with both Mary and her sister. The sheer amount of toxic masculinity in her life must have been exhausting for her, and it says something about them that, of the men who appear in the book, Lord Byron comes across the best.
Throughout the book though, we get little about Frankenstein itself, save for the famous Villa Diodati story. Sampson references the book, but given the anniversary of which this book has been published to coincide with, it seems odd that her most famous work is not given as much of the spotlight as expected.
Any Cop?: It all depends on your prior knowledge. Shelley aficionados will find little new here, but newcomers to Mary’s life will find this a useful, if lacking, biography.