History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 August 2010

Thoughts on Mary Shelley

Today is the birthday of Mary Shelley, born August 30 1797, one of the icons of feminism and the Romantic age. There's a huge resource of material on Mary and her relationships with the other great names of the Romantic era, people who were friends, lovers, collaborators. You can find her works online here.

The most recent book I read about Mary and her circle was Young Romantics by Daisy May, which concentrated on the relationships between the Shelleys, Byron, and figures such as the lesser known Leigh Hunt and the Cockney Poets, now coming back into scholars' radar.

Mary, who lived for almost three decades after Percy's death, has had the reputation until recently of the scholarly widow who abandoned her youthful radicalism and devoted her life to the works of her late husband, thereby doing a cleanup act on him:

The qualities that struck any one newly introduced to Shelley, were, first, a gentle and cordial goodness that animated his intercourse with warm affection, and helpful sympathy. The other, the eagerness and ardour with which he was attached to the cause of human happiness and improvement.

Certainly she loved him. After his death, she wrote to a friend:

Well here is my story - the last story I shall have to tell - all that might have been bright in my life is now despoiled - I shall live to improve myself, to take care of my child, & render myself worthy to join him. soon my weary pilgrimage will begin - I rest now - but soon I must leave Italy ...

Compare this to the rage of Claire Clairmont (Mary's step sister) in her unpublished memoir:

I saw the two first poets of England . . . become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery — under the influence of free love Lord B became a human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women.

Even Leigh Hunt, a kindly family man, had a rather bizarrely close relationship with his sister in law that is an uneasy mirror image of the Shelley-Mary-Claire triangle.

The women and children certainly got the short end of the stick, if not the short end of the lifeline. You could die in childbirth, as Mary's mother did, of puerperal fever some ten days after the birth of her daughter. The lives of the Shelleys was darkened by the suicides of other women: Harriet, his first wife, abandoned by him; Fanny, Mary's older sister (the daughter of Wollstonecraft and her lover Gilbert Imlay); and by the deaths of their children. Only one of Mary and Percy's four children survived to adulthood. Claire had a daughter as a result of her liaison with Byron, who insisted on taking the baby and then putting her into a convent when she was little more than a toddler, where she died. As the New York Times reviewer of Young Romantics so succinctly states: In short, the two poets left the Italian peninsula, along with a few spots in England, strewn with dead relations.

As for fictional treatments of these turbulent characters, my favorite is Jude Morgan's Passion, a book that rings so true I tend to question nonfiction if it contradicts Morgan's account.

Mary was 25 when Shelley died (she was 19 when she wrote Frankenstein). After Shelley's death she appears to have had several relationships and received some proposals of marriage which she refused; I guess it's the writer in me that wants her to at least have had some more passion in her life (but being the sort of writer I am, not necessarily a happy ever after!). Yet I find myself uncomfortable that Claire, in her 70s, ranted still about Byron and Shelley's cruelty, or possibly for the first time; being the sort of writer I am, I'd liked her to have found forgiveness earlier.

Your opinions?

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Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, you knew I'd be weighing in, didn't you? Oh dear, it's all so awfully sad. One wants to love them all a great deal more than the men deserve, except they were geniuses, and committed to so much that one holds dear and that our ideals of personal freedom owe so much to (and then, of course, they remind me so much of men from the 60s).

I haven't read Daisy May's book yet, but of course am dying to do so. From the reviews, tho, I too was saddened by what Claire had to say in the end, but in some ways she was right. It was horrible for her to lose her child like that, and horrible for Mary to lose hers.

I was fascinated to read once, in a brief biography of Mary (written by of all people, Muriel Spark) that the only man Mary was tempted to marry after Shelley's death was Washington Irving -- who Spark made out to be quite the dude and quite the mensch, no matter the cognitive dissonance of matching up the authors of Frankenstein and Rip Van Winkle. Any truth to that, Janet?

2:01 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Janet! I haven't read Daisy May's book yet either, but I read Miranda Seymour's biography of Mary a few years ago. I agree with Pam, it's so awfully sad. One wants them to have happy endings or at least to have had healthier relationships while they lasted. But there are a fascinating group. I've toyed with the idea of writing a book in which my fictional main characters intertwine with the Shelly/Bryon group, with a mystery as the backdrop.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

That's a wonderful idea Tracy but please tell me that your chracters escape the misery that was such a consistent element of these lives. That's the romance writer in me speaking.

As fasincating as their world is I read little more than reviews and intriguing posts like this. Just too much cruelty for me.

Pam tell me more about how they reflect our ideals of personal freedom.

And thanks Janet for being so thought provoking

12:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Miranda Seymour's Mary Shelley gives a good account of M. Shelley's life, especially after Percy Shelley's death.

Personally I like Claire Clairmont. I'm sure she said a lot in anger. She was like that, but she probably knew Shelley the poet better than anyone.

I haven't read the new book yet. It's on my list.

I'm convinced Mary Shelley suffered from depression all her life. It's unfortunate and it and lack of money made her extremely cautious after Shelley's death.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's so easy to forget the people behind the "classics" - their lives get smoothed over and polished into our image of a 'great author'. Suffering is romantic, loss inspires them yadda yadda yadda. But what comes out in this post is how much waste these people endured in pursuit of what exactly? It sounds a sad way to live. Maybe that's why I like romance novels? At least there the suffering is for a purpose - the HEA that life can never guarantee.


9:57 AM  

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