The Monsters

Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein

By Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
Little, Brown. 375 pp. $24.95
Friday, July 14, 2006

Chapter One


Mary moves in soft beauty and conscious delight,
To augment with sweet smiles all the joys of the night,
Nor once blushes to own the rest of the fair
That sweet love and beauty are worthy our care.

* * *

And thine is a face of sweet love in despair,
And thine is a face of mild sorrow and care,
And thine is a face of wild terror and fear
That shall never be quiet till laid on its bier.

- "Mary," William Blake, c. 1801-1803

This story begins, as many tales do, with a love affair. It involved two brilliant yet very odd people who seemed utterly unsuited for each other. William Godwin was painfully shy, given to intellectualizing, and apparently a virgin at the age of forty, when he fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft. She was passionate to the point of recklessness, heedless of the opinions of the world, and insistent that she never take second place to anyone, male or female. What brought them together was their common interest: revolution.

If the term "radical chic" had been current in the late eighteenth century, Mary and William would have been its personification, for they were the idols of a generation of young people who wanted to overturn the existing order. Both of them had been inspired by the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789 and promised a complete transformation of society. Wollstonecraft had stunned the British public in 1792 with the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (note the singular), which grew out of her defense of the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man. In those days, no one had previously thought it "sexist" to use the word man as a synonym for the human race; Wollstonecraft boldly spoke for half of all humanity, who desired their rights too.

A sample of the tart opinions expressed by the woman who is often called the first feminist:

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.... I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity ... will soon become objects of contempt.

Another: "A mistaken education, a narrow uncultivated mind, and many sexual prejudices, tend to make women more constant than men." Also: "An unhappy marriage is often very advantageous to a family, and ... the neglected wife is, in general, the best mother." Finally: "It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish."

These were revolutionary ideas in an age when women were the legal property of their fathers and husbands. Horace Walpole, the Earl of Orford, otherwise famous for writing the first Gothic novel, expressed the verdict of England's upper classes when he called Wollstonecraft a "hyena in petticoats."

Wollstonecraft's future husband, though timid and withdrawn in person, threw off his reticence in his writing. In his most famous work, Political Justice (1793), Godwin set out to describe the social conditions under which the human race could achieve perfection. Though the excesses of the French Revolution had aroused deep fears among the English upper class, Godwin declared that "monarchy was a species of government unavoidably corrupt." But he went farther, much farther, claiming that all governments by their very nature stood in the way of the improvement of the human condition. Godwin believed that it would only be through the power of reason, not coercion or force, that society would be transformed. The publication of his book made him one of the most famous people in England, and for a time he was idolized by young people who were swept away by his vision of perfecting society. Freud wrote that every person has a "family romance," a narrative that explains the different relations of their life. Mary Shelley, the daughter of these two famous radicals, would be haunted by their love story and would use it (and her own life) as the narrative for much of her literary work.

For Mary Wollstonecraft, to borrow another phrase from the 1970s, the personal was the political, and all her writings used her own experiences to illuminate her ideas. Mary had tempestuous relationships, for she was a mercurial person who could be by turns passionate, domineering, needy, or depressed. Her life resembled a story from the literature of her time-the angst of Rousseau's Julie: La Nouvelle Héloïse or the melodrama of Goethe's international best-seller The Sorrows of Young Werther. She was a woman of contradictions who took actions that often seemed at odds with her own radical philosophy. Hard as a diamond, if tapped the wrong way she could shatter. As she wrote when she was thirty-eight, "There is certainly an original defect in my mind, for the cruelest experience will not eradicate the foolish tendency I have to cherish, and to expect to meet with, romantic tenderness." Few have carried that "defect" as far as Mary Wollstonecraft.

She was born in London on April 27,1759, a year of military victories for the English that won them Canada and India, making England the most powerful nation on earth. At home, Englishmen were finding new wealth from the heightened economic activity called the Industrial Revolution. Wollstonecraft's grandfather had earned a fortune as a master weaver and supplier of cloth to the growing textile industry. His son, Mary's father, heir to two-thirds of the fortune, was a big spender, heavy drinker, and a man of violent temper. According to Godwin, Mary recalled that her mother was "the first and most submissive of his subjects."

Mary had the kind of childhood that could either crush a spirit or rouse it to greatness. The second of six children, she resented the favoritism shown toward her brother Ned, two years older than herself. Ned's position as the family's golden child was quite literal, for in his grandfather's will, he had inherited the other one-third of the estate. Money was not what Mary craved, however. She envied the attention and warmth that her mother, Elizabeth Dickson, bestowed on Ned. A significant factor in Mary's sibling rivalry was the fact that her mother had breast-fed Ned, while a wet nurse was hired to nourish baby Mary. It isn't clear how she knew of her deprived condition, but once she did know she considered it a profound fact. As she later wrote, a mother's "parental affection ... scarcely deserved the name, when it does not lead her to suckle her children."

Additional complaints show up in a novel she wrote in 1787, titled Mary. (The title character was, not by coincidence, "the daughter of Edward, who married Eliza," the same names as the real-life Mary's parents.) The book describes not only the way men repress women's individuality but also shows that women often accept this domination. It was clear that the author was recalling her own family when she wrote: "Her father always exclaimed against female acquirements, and was glad that his wife's indolence and ill health made her not trouble herself about them.... [He] was very tyrannical and passionate; indeed so very easily irritated when inebriated, that Mary was continually in dread lest he should frighten her mother to death." For those who knew that the real-life Mary often slept on the landing near her mother's bedroom to protect her when her father was in one of his drunken rages, the portrait was hardly veiled.

Mary had only a few years of formal schooling, but her parents' fecklessness also gave her the freedom to run and play outside rather than being confined indoors, the fate of most girls at the time. To compensate for the chill she encountered at home, she formed intense friendships. Her best friend when she was fourteen was a schoolgirl named Jane Arden. The two girls exchanged letters in which they gossiped about "macaronis," the young fashionable men in the town. Then some incident led Mary to accuse Jane of favoring another girl. Mary wrote to her, "I am a little singular in my thoughts of love and friendship; I must have the first place or none." In another letter to Jane, she wrote, "I cannot bear a slight from those I love."

As Mary grew into adolescence, she was required to change from the loose shifts and comfortable petticoats of childhood to corsets with stiff stays of whalebone that constrained her body from chest to thigh. Compounding her sense of restriction, she lacked a room of her own where she could be alone. Displaying the signs of a growing rebellious streak, Mary announced that she would never marry for money, for she was seeking a nobler life for herself. She also became more socially concerned, especially about the living conditions of servants and the poor.

When Mary was fifteen, her family moved to Hoxton, outside London. Here she met Fanny Blood, with whom Mary immediately made "in her heart, the vows of an eternal friendship." Fanny too suffered from having a drunken father, and Mary soon confided to Jane that now she loved her new friend "better than all the world beside." Fanny, Mary wrote, "has a masculine understanding, and sound judgment, yet she has every feminine virtue." Their relationship would endure through additional relocations, and become one of the most important in Mary's life.

Marriage, whether for love or money, remained unattractive to Mary in view of the example given by her parents. As a result, she knew that she had to be self-supporting. ("I must be independent and earn my own subsistence or be very uncomfortable," she declared.) At the time, single women had limited options for work-teacher, governess, or companion. In 1778, Mary found employment as a companion to a wealthy widow. The job, despite its amiable name, could be quite unpleasant, for it required the hired person to cater to the whims of her employer: the author Fanny Burney called the occupation "toad-eating." But Mary made a success of it, staying for two years until she had to come home to nurse her mother through her final illness.

Mary faithfully attended her mother for the next two years. During that time, her brother Ned, now married, rarely came to visit. Though Mary hoped for some sign of deathbed favoritism and affection, she was disappointed. Her mother's last words were, "... a little patience and all will be over." Mary, however, would improve on these-and gain the affection she yearned for-when she wrote her autobiographical novel Mary. There, the dying mother's last words to her daughter are: "My child, I have not always treated you with kindness. God forgive me! Do you?" One day, Mary's own daughter would follow her mother's example of using her pen to "improve" her real-life experiences.

Six months after her mother's death, Mary's younger sister Eliza married Meredith Bishop, a boat builder some ten years older than she. In less than a year Eliza gave birth to a daughter and suffered from what we now know as postpartum depression. A concerned Bishop asked Mary to come and stay with her sister. Instead, Mary "rescued" her: with Fanny Blood's help, she spirited Eliza away from home when Bishop was absent, leaving the infant behind. They went into hiding north of London, living under false names. Eliza might well have returned to her husband if left to her own devices, but Mary stiffened her resolve.

Now Mary set out to achieve her dream of self-sufficiency and establishing a life with Fanny Blood. In 1783, joined by another of Mary's sisters, Everina, the four young women opened a school at Newington Green, on the outskirts of London. There, Mary met Dr. Richard Price, who took her under his wing and became a bit of a father figure. Dr. Price was a devoted lover of liberty; he had fervently supported both the American Revolution and the cause of reform within England. He corresponded with intellectuals and scientists in the United States and France-Franklin, Jefferson, and Condorcet, to name just a few. Price helped Mary to understand the intellectual underpinnings of what she felt instinctively about liberty and human rights.

The all-female family life that Mary hoped for was, however, doomed. In August 1784, word came that Eliza's baby daughter, still with its father, had died. Eliza suffered another nervous breakdown, and later would come to view Mary as the person who had destroyed her marriage and caused the loss of her child. (The resentment had repercussions even years after Mary's death when her two sisters, Eliza and Everina, rejected Mary's own daughter, who wanted to find a refuge with them.) At this time, Fanny Blood was also suffering from ill health: tuberculosis. When her longtime beau Hugh Skeys, who had become a wine merchant in Lisbon, sent a proposal of marriage, Mary encouraged Fanny to accept, arguing that the climate of Portugal would be good for Fanny's health. But after her friend's departure, she wrote, "without someone to love this world is a desert."

When Fanny became pregnant, Mary made the sea voyage to Lisbon to be with her, arriving only a few hours before the delivery. But she was only to be a witness to tragedy. Fanny's illness affected the birth, and both mother and child died. Fanny's death haunted Mary for the rest of her life. She would write, "the grave has closed over my dear friend, the friend of my youth; still she is present with me, and I hear her soft voice warbling as I stray over the heath."

She closed the school in Newington Green when she returned to England and found work as a governess for an aristocratic family in Ireland. This lasted only a year, for the lady of the family thought that the children were more devoted to Mary than to herself. While in Ireland Mary read and became deeply influenced by the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was the most important thinker of the second half of the eighteenth century. Mary found his work particularly appealing because of its emphasis on the personal, particularly in his Confessions. Rousseau was also, like her, a person of internal contradictions. In a letter to her sister Everina on March 24,1787, she wrote: "I am now reading Rousseau's émile, and love his paradoxes.... He was a strange inconsistent unhappy clever creature-yet he possessed an uncommon portion of sensibility and penetration." She might have been describing herself.

While at Newington Green, Mary had written a book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which a friendly clergyman, John Hewlett, had sent to the London publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson had accepted it and paid Mary twenty guineas, a sum that she immediately turned over to two of Fanny Blood's needy brothers, ignoring her own debts and obligations. Now, in 1787, she wrote to Johnson about her newest plan for self-sufficiency: to become a full-time writer. "I am determined! Your sex generally laugh at female determinations; but let me tell you, I never yet resolved to do anything of consequence, that I did not adhere resolutely to do it, till I accomplished my purpose, improbable as it might have appeared to a more timid mind." She relocated to London, where Johnson helped her find lodgings. A liberal in politics, he had published the works of William Blake and Benjamin Franklin as well as Thomas Paine, scientist Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), poet William Cowper, and chemist Joseph Priestley.


© 2006 Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler