In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson

In Search of Mary Shelley is a new biography of the author in time for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein. It aims to look for the person behind the famous novel and her famous poet husband and writer parents (the latter being Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, for those who don’t know much about her life). Of course, other biographies do that too, but Sampson’s is a concise and approachable book that suits a wide audience and those wanting to dip into the writer’s life for her most well-known creation’s anniversary.

The introduction talks about the difference between the prevalent cultural image of Frankenstein—a science fiction horror story with a futuristic vibe and a huge green monster—and the reality of the novel and its connections to the past, to Romanticism, and to thinking of Mary Shelley’s time. It also counterpoints her reputation as the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley that lasted for a long time, pointing out the time it took for more critical discussion of her. Beyond this opening, it is a fairly straightforward account of Mary Shelley’s life, though each chapter tends to start with a time jump and then backtrack to fill in the detail, possibly to keep more casual readers engaged. It is punchy and balances not being bogged down with explaining who all the key figures are, whilst using a fairly informal tone to keep it readable.

As with all Mary Shelley biographies, the author has to make some implicit value judgements about key figures, particularly Percy, though it is unlikely even his fans will argue with some of his faults given by Sampson. She paints Mary as a varied and interesting woman and, though self-consciously speeds up after Percy’s death, doesn’t discount all the years of writing after Percy’s death. The main downside to the biography is also its selling point to some readers: it covers all the major events and characters, but is not hugely detailed. It doesn’t, for example, quote letters and journals as much as other literary biographies; this makes it far more accessible to a casual reader, but lacks some of the colour and interesting snippets that can be found in other books. This can be made up for, however, by supplementing with existing books such as Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws (on both Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft and, as such, a very large book) or Daisy Hay’s short and also readable Young Romantics.

Sampson’s biography of Mary Shelley is perfect for those who know far more about Frankenstein (or think they do!) than its author, or perhaps for people who want to know more about the female writers who are so often misrepresented even in the modern day in simplistic or even offensive ways. It is a chance for people to look past the image of an eighteen-year-old magically conjuring a sci-fi novel out of nowhere and then solely being a poet’s wife, and see past these myths and misrepresentations to understand the intellectual, political, and social world in which Mary Shelley and Frankenstein came from.