Monsters by Sharon Dogar

Monsters cover

Monsters is a young adult novel about the creation of Frankenstein, fictionalising the life of Mary Shelley around that time. In 1814, Mary Godwin meets Percy Bysshe Shelley at the behest of her father, writer William Godwin. Mary and Percy immediately are struck by one another, and bond over the writing of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died after giving birth to Mary. The young lovers run away, escaping societal and Godwin’s disapproval, but they have Jane, Mary’s stepsister, along with them. The tangle between the three of them is complicated, as they balance radical ideals with the realities of life.

I came to this novel with low expectations: it is difficult to do justice to historical fiction centred around iconic writers’ lives, especially the Romantics. Too many books try to simplify their personalities, but Monsters thankfully keeps them complex, giving perspectives from Mary and Jane (who later changes her name to Claire), as well as more fleeting glimpses into the thoughts of Mary’s sister Fanny, Percy, and Lord Byron. The downside of this is that the perspective can shift within chapters and sections, sometimes in a disorientating fashion, so you will suddenly get the motivations of a character when you thought that part of narrative was from another’s perspective.

By focusing on the time from when Mary and Percy met until her finishing writing Frankenstein, Dogar has a chunk of their lives to focus on, rather than stretching too far. This helps with the fictionalisation too: it is a neater story without their endless travels around Italy, and with keeping the tension between Mary, Percy, and Jane, rather than bringing in later people who complicated their relationships. Dogar tries hard to balance Mary and Jane, particularly in terms of sympathy, whilst also not painting Percy as a villain, as many people try to in order to ‘fix’ the narrative.

A lot of decisions have to be made when writing a novel about these people, particularly in terms of what happened between Percy and Jane, and how Byron interacted with them, and the rumours circulating all of them. This element in particular may make the novel more enjoyable to readers (presumably a lot of teenage readers) who don’t know all the ins and outs of these people and the questions in their lives, as it would be less obvious where these choices have been made. The novel would make a decent introduction to them, as it does take liberties but at least makes them complex characters.

Other than the age of Mary and Jane (around sixteen to eighteen) and obvious focus on first love to begin with, the novel doesn’t feel particularly young adult in terms of characters (being sixteen then isn’t the same as being sixteen now) or narrative (as it follows what they actually did, more or less). It doesn’t water down elements like Percy Shelley’s free love ideals or the loss of children that occurred during this time. This means that it could be enjoyed by anyone interested in a retelling of the real life events that precipitated the writing of Frankenstein, regardless of what kind of books they typically read.

Ultimately, Monsters is a flawed yet enjoyable retelling of Mary Godwin’s life as she eloped with Percy Shelley, found hardship, and was inspired by her reading and experience to write Frankenstein. If you are already very interested in these figures (as I am) then it is easy to spot authorial decisions that affect sympathy and events, but it is certainly better than expected for a fictionalised version of this point in literary history.