Frankenstein: Mary Shelley.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley is the only stellar English Romantic author for whom there is no complete or definitive biography; the only one, moreover, whose image has become clouded during the almost century and a half since her death.
Anne Mellor's equally overtly revisionary monograph on Mary Shelley had, in fact, been published a year earlier than the hardback edition of Sunstein's,(1) and neither author indicates an awareness of the project of the other. However, neither text renders the other redundant, as Mellor has foregrounded Shelley's works, in particular Frankenstein, whereas Sunstein offers a more detailed account of the life, so that the works might be coherently related to the circumstances in which they were created. There are discrepancies in details between these two biographies, of which one of the more striking is in their accounts of Shelley's death at the age of 53. Mellor describes this as following years of psychosomatic illness and a mysterious paralysis, while Sunstein cites a brain turnout as the cause.
Sunstein's book is divided into four parts. Part I begins with an analysis of the intellectual and philosophical bequest of Shelley's parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and closes with the elopement of the 16-year-old Mary with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary's step-sister Jane (later Claire) Clairmont. Part II recounts her peripatetic life with these companions--a troubled eight-year period brought to an end by the drowning at sea of Percy Shelley and his friend Edward Williams. The remaining half of the book describes the hitherto incompletely explored latter half of Mary Shelley's life. Until she was 46, financial need dominated her actions, as manifested in her prolific literary output and her ongoing battle with her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, for maintenance for Percy Florence Shelley, her only surviving child. Her last years, after her son inherited his grandfather's title and estate, seem to have been her most peaceful, spent in the company of her adoring son and daughter-in-law.
Among longstanding misapprehensions which Sunstein has sought to remedy are the notions that Mary Shelley's education was limited prior to her life with Percy Shelley, that he was essentially the co-author of Frankenstein, and that she remained the poet's inconsolable widow by choice. In the penultimate chapter of the book, Sunstein notes that 'People rarely do justice to those who do not do justice to themselves', an observation which is the underlying theme of this biography. Shelley's own self-denigrating statements regarding her talent, especially in relation to that of her husband, have been, Sunstein asserts, too often unquestioningly accepted. The concluding chapter outlines the misprisions and distortions perpetrated and perpetuated since Shelley's death by both admirers and detractors.
Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality is not hagiography, but offers a sympathetic portrait of a woman who struggled courageously against misfortune and bouts of severe depression, who was naively generous with her demanding father and sometimes treacherous friends, and an author whose significance has been consistently undervalued.
Like Sunstein's biography of Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys is obviously reclamatory in intent. An early reference to Claire in Sunstein's book sets the tone for her depiction: 'Jane, however, who was to be a major figure in Mary's life, was troublesome from the beginning'. Such ventings of spleen as Mary Shelley's remarks in a letter to Edward Trelawny in 1836--that 'we were never friends . . . She poisoned my life when young' (Sunstein, p. 167)--have been seized upon by Shelley scholars who consequently, Gittings and Manton suggest, have misinterpreted the very close, if often ambivalent, bond between the step-sisters.
Sunstein presents Mary's decision to take Claire with her when she eloped with Percy Shelley as 'one of the unwiser decisions of her life'. Gittings and Manton, however, represent the inclusion of Claire in the elopement as a necessity: 'Shelley and Mary . . . understood surprisingly little French, and needed her for the most simple translations'. Whereas biographers of Mary Shelley have portrayed Claire as a malign influence, particularly during the Shelleys' life together, Gittings and Manton submit that Claire's association with the Shelleys may have blighted her life, or at least impeded her development and prospects. The most widely known fact of Claire's life is her pursuit of Lord Byron, to whom she bore a daughter, Allegra, in 1817. The affair, always casual on Byron's side, Claire later accurately described as 'having discomposed the rest of my life'. Otherwise, her main claim to fame has been Henry James's homage to the Claire Clairmont of the 1870s, an elderly recluse in Florence, in his fictionalized portrait in The Aspern Papers.
This is the first biography of Mary Shelley's step-sister to appear since that of Glynn Grylls.(2) The book is divided into three parts, of which the first, by Robert Gittings, treats Claire's life with the Godwins and the Shelleys. Jo Manton, in the second and third parts, elucidates the events of Claire's life after her parting from the newly widowed Mary Shelley, until her death at the age of 80.
Until she inherited the legacy left her by Percy Shelley, on the death of Sir Timothy, Claire Clairmont spent much of her life out of England, working as a governess. Having attempted initially to earn a living in Vienna, where her brother Charles had settled, she spent some years in Russia. One piece of mythology which Manton attempts to correct is 'the legend of Claire's unremitting misery in Russia'. Certainly, Sunstein, when she mentions Claire in Russia, does so only to emphasize Claire's unhappiness there. Manton, in contrast, describes Claire's time in Russia as often pleasurable and rewarding, particularly when she lived as part of the cultured and harmonious family of her employers from 1823 to 1825.
Whereas many who write about the Shelley circle tend simplistically to focus on the temperamental differences of the step-sisters--Mary gentle and apparently compliant, Claire volatile and quick to anger--Gittings and Manton draw attention to Claire's positive qualities. She was a gifted linguist, and, by all accounts, was also extraordinarily talented musically. As Mary Shelley did, throughout her life Claire gave unstinting assistance to friends, especially women in straits. When Mary was being blackmailed by an erstwhile Italian admirer, for instance, Claire was instrumental in resolving the situation, her part in this episode being omitted in Sunstein's account. During her last years, Claire supported her niece Paula Clairmont, and Paula's illegitimate daughter.
No biography can justifiably claim to tell the whole story. However, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality and Claire Clairmont and the Shelleys, when read as complementary to each other, give valuable insight into the lives and times of these two Romantics.
The readers for whom Frankenstein: Mary Shelley is explicitly intended are undergraduates in the United States, and their teachers. However, if this text is representative of the series as a whole, then these Case Studies will also be of benefit and interest to students and academic readers elsewhere. The stated purpose of the series is to introduce students to a number of critical and theoretical perspectives, as applied to particular literary works. Frankenstein: Mary Shelley includes the whole text of Frankenstein, based on the third edition of 1831. The second part of the book consists of five essays: a reader-response perspective from Mary Lowe-Evans; a psychoanalytic reading by David Collings; Jobanna M. Smith's feminist analysis; a Marxist reading by Warren Montag; and a cultural critique by Lee E. Heller. Also included are Smith's summary of the biographical and historical contexts and the critical history of the novel, and her concise introductions to the theoretical perspectives represented in the essays. Comprehensive bibliographies are given after each introduction and essay, and a succinct glossary of critical and theoretical terms at the end of the book manages to avoid either mystification or over-simplification in explicating current terminology.
Of the essays, David Collings's appears as potentially the least immediately accessible to a student readership. Despite Smith's careful explanation of Jacques Lacan's conception of the Imaginary (or mirror) stage and the Symbolic (or Oedipal) stage of infancy, the novice critic may resist the theoretical premisses, implied by Collings's central assertion, namely that 'Victor and the monster want the same thing: the recognition by the Symbolic order of the Imaginary mother'. In a seeming aberration, the glossary entry for the Imaginary stage serves to confuse matters. Whereas Smith describes the Imaginary stage as that in which 'the child comes to recognize itself and its mother, later other people as well, as independent selves', the glossary entry tells us that 'During the Imaginary stage . . . the child conceives of the mother and indeed of the entire world as being indistinguishable from the self'.
On the whole, this volume succeeds in demonstrating for the student reader both the distinctions and the connections between various interpretative practices, reinforcing the fact that a given text can yield more than one valid reading, and providing directions for further study. The present reader is none the less left with one query. The series editor, Ross C. Murfin, states that each volume reprints the complete text of 'a classic literary work'. On the other hand, the volume editor, in her introduction to the critical history of Frankenstein, remarks on its problematic status as 'a noncanonical work'. A brief exposition then, somewhere in the volume, of the rationale behind the selection of texts for this series would be desirable. But in view of what the volume does achieve, this is a relatively small quibble.
1 A. K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York and London, 1988).
2 G. R. Grylls, Claire Clairmont, Mother of Byron's Allegra (London, 1939).
HEATHER NEILSON University of Western Australia
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|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1994|
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