A quick search for titles that include the word “Frankenstein” on the Internet Movie Database reveals over 100 movies and television shows, including 15 from the last 10 years alone. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), now 200 years old, clearly still holds a lasting place in our cultural imagination. This does not include its presence in other areas, from contemporary art to comic books. However, the monster himself has become relatively untethered from his origins in Shelley’s novel, published when she was just shy of 19 years old. Fiona Sampson makes it her goal to reattach the woman to her creation in her new biography In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein (2018).
Sampson divides the biography into two sections: Mary’s life before and during the publication of Frankenstein, entitled “The Instruments of Life” and the much shorter “Borne Away By the Waves,” which covers the period afterward.
As her subtitle suggests, Sampson frames her biography of Mary Shelley around this novel, viewing it as a watershed moment in the author’s life and career. This structure serves as one of the biography’s strongest features, while also creating what this reviewer sees as a potential source of limitation. Sampson divides the biography into two sections: Mary’s life before and during the publication of Frankenstein, entitled “The Instruments of Life” and the much shorter “Borne Away By the Waves,” which covers the period afterward. Configuring her text in this way, Sampson provides a strong narrative arc for her subject and pulls her reader into a rich account of Mary’s rather unstable early existence. The organizational effect is compelling, as it allows the biographer and reader to consider all the elements of her experiences that certainly or potentially contributed to the creation of her still-resonant work of early science fiction. However, this construction reduces the last 30 years of Mary’s life, after her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death, into a final chapter and coda. I do not mean to say that Sampson does this unconsciously or uncomplicatedly; it is a very deliberate decision on her part. She explains in the introduction,
This isn’t because [Mary Shelley] was a one-hit wonder; she was not. It is because the later years of a life—of anyone’s life—do not build a personality, and they don’t go on to affect a future. They are that future. Frankenstein is not unconnected to what comes after it in Mary’s life. On the contrary, it changed her life just as it has changed our cultural imagination. But that’s the thing: Mary’s first novel informs her future; her last does not inform her past (7).
For the sake of the narrative she means to present, the Frankenstein frame provides a strong way to examine and analyze the author’s life before her story’s conception and publication. However, it would have been interesting to see, in the formulation above, a more detailed look into Mary’s “future,” beyond Frankenstein and beyond Percy.
Sampson’s level of detail is one of the most appealing elements of In Search of Mary Shelley. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from Frankenstein, which sets the tone and focus of that period of life. In the first, longer section, every chapter also ends with a quote or reference back to Frankenstein, emphasizing how the themes presented are found in both Mary’s history and novel. In between these words from Frankenstein’s eponymous Victor, his creation, or the framing voice, explorer Robert Walton, Sampson closely examines various scenes from in the author’s life. She treats these scenes with the precision of an art historian detailing and analyzing paintings, as she describes the moment to her readers and provides several interpretations of the moment. Sampson begins her biography with the image of Mary’s birth and the ensuing death of her mother, the famous radical writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and ends with the posthumously reunited family’s gravesite. This narrative movement emphasizes the separation and turbulence in Mary’s life and the poignant assertion that she could only have the full and stable family she desired in death. Through her combination of close reading of firsthand accounts and broader historical information, Sampson is able to give her readers a sense of the physical, social, and literary environment present at every step of Mary’s early life. Because this life is constantly shifting and disrupted, these backdrops provide clarity to Sampson’s attempts to understand Mary’s frame of mind at any given moment. It also gives important context for the various social groups that Mary flitted between as an intellectual woman.
The way that Sampson is able to capture the different familial and literary networks in Mary’s life highlights the importance that female relationships played. Sampson complicates the assumed nature of Mary’s connections to these women further than previous biographers and critics. The primary female figure that looms over Mary’s life is her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. Though absent from her entire life, Wollstonecraft serves as an inspiration for Mary’s literary ambitions and as a vacuum that Mary seeks to fill with other women. Sampson argues, “her troubled childhood relationship with mother figures is certainly likely to encourage an escape into the worlds of imagination and of books” (53).
The way that Sampson is able to capture the different familial and literary networks in Mary’s life highlights the importance that female relationships played. Sampson complicates the assumed nature of Mary’s connections to these women further than previous biographers and critics.
The most obvious secondary mother figure in Mary’s life is her stepmother, Mary Jane Godwin. Sampson explains that previous critics, and Mary herself, have given little credit to Mary Jane’s role in the Godwin family, as they often turn her into the stereotype of the evil stepmother. By referencing letters and other archival sources, Sampson reveals the efforts that Mary Jane took to protect her family and herself from financial and reputational ruin at multiple points before and after marrying Mary’s father, William Godwin. Mary, however, saw her as an interfering thief, stealing away the attention of her beloved father. This is where Sampson steps in and asserts that “[Mary] still doesn’t seem to notice—as we, watching across the centuries, can do on her behalf—that it’s her stepmother rather than her adored father who is doing the domestic emotional heavy lifting” (100). Here, Sampson reveals how she defines her role and duty as a biographer: not as merely an objective third-party, relating the incontrovertible facts of Mary’s life, but rather as an analytic art historian or critic who examines scenes from the past to find the motivations that link moments and actions together, to which the artist herself was too close to see properly. Other women close to Mary, who are often written off as solely villains or victims, receive the same generous treatment from Sampson, including Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont and Percy’s first wife, Harriet Shelley. Rather than reduce them to tropes of the sexual rival or abandoned, fallen woman, Sampson fleshes out their characters and relationships to her biographical subject. They do not serve merely one role to Mary; across the span of her lifetime, their relationships transform and evolve, which Sampson studies by returning to Mary’s words to and about them throughout her life.
Like other literary biographers, Sampson tasks herself with exploring various possibilities and explanations about different scenes in Mary’s life but with a gimlet yet sympathetic eye toward how multi-faceted human interactions can be. Sampson refuses to see a person, like Mary Jane or Claire, or an event from Mary’s time in a simplistic way; she dives deeper by posing questions that present a variety of potential interpretations. In an informed manner, always drawing on her archival research consisting of journals, letters, and other firsthand accounts, Sampson takes a scene and speculates about it from every angle. She steps back to view the moment in its larger social, historical, and biographical context, leaving no possibility unconsidered. For example, she spends multiple pages unpacking a newspaper’s account of the discovery of Fanny Godwin’s body, Mary Wollstonecraft’s first daughter with the American Gilbert Imlay, after she commits suicide. Sampson treats this journalistic description as a work of art, carefully evaluating and interpreting each detail. She describes,
May this skin tone, at the time not merely unfashionable but subject to prejudice, be the reason her family have decided Fanny will be the plain, unmarried daughter? (And does it suggest that her radical mother was ahead of racist contemporary attitudes? We shouldn’t forget the hopeful sign that in Frankenstein Mary gives her cottager Felix an ‘Arabian’ lover in Safie.). (146)
This design is typical of Sampson’s style, asking questions that cannot necessarily be answered, but that are informed by her research. It is also representative of her ability to tie most moments in Mary’s life back to her most influential work, Frankenstein. Sampson leaves room for her readers to take up the role of biographer, as well, leaving no stone unturned or assumption left unchallenged. In a discussion of another scene, when Mary and Percy decide to run away together and bring along Claire, Sampson declares, “I want to write for reasons best known to themselves. But that would be a derogation of the biographer’s duty, which is to try and understand the muddle” of their lives (79). Though she understands her job is impossible at times, she uses poetic, educated speculation to unveil the complexities of Mary’s motivations and actions to her readers.
Sampson sees herself as picking up where Mary left off, telling stories by reconstructing and analyzing scenes of the past.
In this way, Sampson sees herself as picking up where Mary left off, telling stories by reconstructing and analyzing scenes of the past. In the later part of her life, Mary turned away from fiction and took to writing biographies and encyclopedia entries. Sampson explains, “she believes in biography as an exploration of character” (233). By looking into a person’s history, Mary was able to understand her subject and his or her life trajectory more fully. By including these details, Sampson sets up a comparison between herself and Mary. She uses what she learns from Mary to “search” for her. In this way as biographers “unearthing” a life, Sampson and Mary both become monstrous figures, following in the footsteps of Frankenstein’s creature and Frankenstein himself. They are both trying to understand those around them in order to learn about different strains of human nature and character. In her introduction, Sampson references Mary’s words in Frankenstein when she claims, “[like] the monster she created in Frankenstein, [Mary Shelley] seems to race ahead of us ‘with more than mortal speed’” (5). Life shaped Mary into the kind of woman who could write a novel about imagination, the ethics of creation, and an awe-inspiring creature that has outlived the experiences and people who molded her. The connections that Sampson makes between Mary and her creature demonstrates the value of framing Mary Shelley’s biography around Frankenstein, because it is the part of her with which we continue to reckon today.