LETTERS MAKE strange and fragmentary reading. They are ordinary, filled with the residue of domestic life and haphazard reflection, and always intensely self-conscious. Samuel Johnson called the letter "a calm and deliberate performance in the cool of leisure"; Mary Shelley writes to Trelawny that a letter can be "a token sent from a world of flesh & blood to one of shadow." The very chaos of the form itself renders letters the most casual of documents. Letter collections represent a perversely attractive invasion of privacy, and reading other people's mail has become an established form of scholarly voyeurism.

Mary Shelley's letters reveal an internal landscape buffeted by "this whirl of ideas which is never still." "I feed & live on imagination only," she wrote to her friend Jane Williams, "feelings are my events." We read the private papers of the author of Frankenstien in order to share her nightmares and her strength, to encounter the woman who above all others could write: "From the midst of the darkness which has surrounded us the voice of the Poet now is heard telling a wondrous tale."

The wondrous tale turns out not so much to reflect her more famous husband's poetic genius as to emerge directly from the descriptive powers and stylistic virtuosity of Mary Shelly herself. Her "very obtuse muse" casts a spell over these missives: "The power of Destiny I feel every day pressing more & more on me, & I yield myself a slave to it in all except my moods of mind, which I endeavour to make independent [sic], of her, & thus to wreath a chaplet, where all is not cypress, in spite of the Eumenides."

That destiny prepelled her into a life as "a part of the Elect" with the legendary Romantics: Shelley, Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, Edward John Trelawny, Thomas Love Peacock, Hazlitt and Lamb all appear in these pages. "I happen, as has always been my fate, to have formed intimate friendships with those who are great of soul," she explains. "And of her life with Shelley, she writes, "Romance is tame in comparison with all that we have experienced together."

The life chronicled here feasts on its own turbulence. At 16, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley. When Shelley's wife drowned herself a year and a half later, they were married. Mary Shelley began to write Frankenstein when she was 18. She bore Shelley four children, three of whom died in infancy or early childhood. She was only 24 when the bodies of Shelley and their friend Edward Williams were found washed ashore near Via Reggio. "I was never the Eve of any Paradise, but a human creature blessed by an elemental spirit's company & love -- an angel who imprisoned in flesh could not adapt himself to his clay shring & so has flown & left it," she wrote two months after Shelley's death.

She returned to England and was finally able to secure a small pension for herself and her son from Shelley's father, who nevertheless refused to see her. Despite the intensity of her mourning -- "my tree of life is felled & I live only in the little sprout that shadows greenly its fearful ruin" -- she produced a travel book, three novels, two mythological dramas, and a large number of essays, reviews, and translations by the time she was 30 (in 1827, when this volume closes), and she committed herself to the enormous task of editing Shelley's works. She would write three more novels, another travel book, and five volumes of Lives for Lardner's cabinet cyclopedia before her death in 1851, still Shelley's widow.

Though, Frankenstein is an acknowledged literary masterpiece, Mary Wollstoncraft Godwin Shelley has been viewed as important primarily because of her relation to the triumvirate of names she bore. Daughter of political reformer William Godwin and feminist philospher Mary Wollstonecraft, lover then wife of a great Romantic poet, she has been eclipsed by their fame. She was, in fact, learned and creative in her own right, defiant and courageous, witty, determined to win both intellectual and financial independence. "My life is a shifting scene, & my business is to play the part alotted [sic] for each day well," she wrote of the disasters that she suffered before she was 25 -- "where the affections are concerned calamity has only awakened greater sensitiveness."

This handsome volume contains 395 letters; more than 1,300 will be included in the complete three-volume collection. Betty T. Bennett has undertaken a herculean task and performed it with thoroughness and clarity. Nearly all of these letters have been painstakingly transcribed from manuscript, an endeavor made more formidable by the 19th-century habit of cross-writing. Scrupulous and exhaustive footnotes make reading this collection an education in the politics, history, personalities and peculiarities of manner of the entire Romantic age. This kind of editorial labor bespeaks a dedication to scholarship and a staggering erudition. It is unfortunate that editors do not always get the credit they have earned.

Mary Shelley's letters reveal a brilliant stylist and storyteller, an intellectual woman who "cannot help revering the mind, delicately attuned, that shatters the material frame, & whose thoughts are strong enough to throw down & dilapidate the walls of sense & dikes of flesh that the unimaginative contrive to keep in such good repair." However strangely letters read, they are fragments shored against ruin.