STARRED REVIEW
June 2018

The mother of monsters

By Fiona Sampson

The cultural impact of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is undeniably huge. It’s difficult to think of a book that has been adapted, copied or parodied more than this 1818 novel. But if you ask anyone about its author, you are likely to receive a blank stare. Some might be able to identify her as the wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, but little else is generally known about the young, almost girlish author who took up Lord Byron’s challenge to “write a ghost story” during literary history’s most consequential slumber party.

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The cultural impact of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is undeniably huge. It’s difficult to think of a book that has been adapted, copied or parodied more than this 1818 novel. But if you ask anyone about its author, you are likely to receive a blank stare. Some might be able to identify her as the wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, but little else is generally known about the young, almost girlish author who took up Lord Byron’s challenge to “write a ghost story” during literary history’s most consequential slumber party.

In Search of Mary Shelley is Fiona Sampson’s attempt to pin down this elusive woman. It’s not a conventional biography; instead of trying to reconstruct every stage of Shelley’s life, Sampson focuses on key episodes that provide essential clues to understanding the author. Each episode is like a tile in a mosaic, beautifully crafted and essential to Shelley’s complex portrait. Or, given Sampson’s status as one of England’s pre-eminent living poets, perhaps it is more apt to say that each chapter is like a stanza, resulting in a poetic exploration of one of the most influential novelists in English literature.

Wracked with guilt for causing her mother’s death, who died shortly after giving birth to her, rejected by her adored father upon his second marriage and passionately in love with the feckless and narcissistic Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley was practically doomed to sacrifice her happiness, reputation and talent in service to others. She suffered the deaths of all but one of her children, the humiliation inflicted by her faithless husband and many betrayals by supposed friends. Yet she somehow managed to write Frankenstein, a novel that continues to engage and challenge readers.

Sampson’s biography illuminates a woman whose genius enabled her not only to survive but also to triumph.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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In Search of Mary Shelley

In Search of Mary Shelley

By Fiona Sampson
Pegasus
ISBN 9781681777528

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