Mary Shelley, daughter of the famous and notorious Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin, was intelligent, strong, determined, and destined to write. Although her mother died only days after her birth, young Mary is raised to know her as an amazing, progressive woman, at least until her father remarries. Her stepmother dislikes Mary and her older half-sister, Fanny, and makes Mary's life unpleasant, denying her many things that she claims are too expensive. She supplies these same denied things to her own daughter, Claire, despite the impoverished state of the Godwin family. Mary's growing up years are very much a Cinderella story, with her father loathe to anger his wife by supporting his intelligent daughter. After the family moves to London, setting up their press on a squalid street, William Godwin finds a potential investor in the young Percy Bysshe Shelly. His introduction of Bysshe into their home changes everything. Fanny, Mary, and Claire all fall for the young poet, despite the fact that he is married. He, in turn, falls for Mary, convincing her to elope with him to Europe after her father's enraged denial of their love despite his famous scorn for traditional marriage. They leave behind an apoplectic Godwin, Bysshe's pregnant wife, and his young daughter.
But it's not just Bysshe and Mary heading to the Continent, Mary's scheming stepsister Claire accompanies them as well. Their actions provoke a scandal but Bysshe and Mary are in love and determined to weather anything. Their life together is one of penury and hardship, constant moving, and tragedy after tragedy. Bysshe is continually unfaithful, even having an affair with Claire, and he comes across as needy and selfish. Mary is unaccountably devoted to him, bearing (and burying) his children, enduring the hardships and scorn of their chosen life, and putting his own intellectual life ahead of hers, albeit sometimes grudgingly. Mary is clearly faced with the uneasy dichotomy of the times between life as a model wife and that of a strong woman author. The literary luminaries of the time pass in and out of their lives and it is, of course, Lord Byron who, during a lengthy storm, challenges Mary to write the ghost story that becomes her most famous work, Frankenstein.
Mary's character is both frustrating and heartbreaking. She desires love and family but she gets Bysshe, who refuses to remain true, and her father, who disowns her but still comes knocking on her husband's door for monetary infusions that the small Shelly family, estranged from Bysshe's purse string controlling grandfather, can ill afford. Despite the high minded beliefs of the men around her, Mary is not valued as she should be simply because of her sex. And she refuses to assert herself for the recognition due her. Stepsister Claire is an odious character who again and again highlights Mary's inability to challenge for what she wants and deserves. May has used the facts of Shelly's life to weave this well researched and engrossing novel about the author. Reading about the darkness and heartbreak in her own life, it is not hard to see where she could create a tale like Frankenstein, a tale of monsters, loneliness, and rejection. The novel focuses mainly on Shelly's life with Bysshe, wrapping up quickly after his untimely death, and some of the repeated details (repeated because Bysshe does the same thing over and over) could have been left out without significantly altering the reader's feelings of empathy for Mary and her situation. But over all, the novel is quite a quick read, one that elaborates well on the popular, but rarely detailed, specifics of the famed author's life. Readers curious about Shelly, her place in the pantheon of Romantic Poets, and the origins of her enduring and disturbing novel will find much to think about here.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.