THE LETTERS OF MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT SHELLEY

Volume III

"What Years I Have Spent!"

Edited by Betty T. Bennett

The Johns Hopkins University Press

473 pp. $37.50

BY THE TIME this third volume of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's letters opens in 1840, both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron are long dead. Mary Shelley, who will die 11 years later at the age of 53, is living in England, poor and worrying about the cost of firewood. Another survivor from the Geneva days is Claire Claremont, Mary Shelley's stepsister, mother of Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra. Many of these letters are from one woman to the other. It was not an easy relationship -- Mary Shelley suspected that Claire had been involved with her husband and considered Claire an encumbrance -- and it eventually ended in Claremont's breaking away.

Before the break came, Claremont wrote to her stepsister, "I hope you are well -- leave off your stays -- eat no potatoes -- take ginger and you will be well." But Mary Shelley is far from well. For several years she has been fighting off the effects of an undiagnosed brain tumour, which is to kill her early in 1851. She speaks of "pressure on the brain" as early as 1843. Modern medicine would probably have saved her. As it is, she turns to homeopathy and cod liver oil.

So these 369 letters are, in the main, the letters of a troubled woman. She can speak of "fate always doing her worst against me" and we believe her. She struggles against poverty and poor housing and debts. She is subject to blackmail. She has to endure the humiliations inflicted on her by tiresome old Sir Timothy Shelley, the poet's father.

Still, never does she cease to guard her husband's name, never does she cease to care for, in many tactful ways, her one surviving child. Nor does she ever remarry.

These letters -- which I read day after day with absorbed constancy -- show Mary Shelley as devoted wife and widow. The author of Frankenstein, The Last Man, and other novels is little in evidence. Her illness and trouble with her eyesight make authorship difficult. She tells her publisher, Edward Moxon, that she wishes to write brief biographies, "which I think I do much better than romancing." There posterity plainly disagrees with her.

DESPITE ITS pleasures -- Italy was Mary Shelley's golden place (for all that Shelley drowned and two children died there) and she delighted in her son, the idle, good-natured Percy -- Mary Shelley's was a luckless life. The death of her mother in childbirth and the loss of her husband when she was only 24, were events from which recovery was slow. In this volume there is another crisis. The Italian, Gatteschi, whom she had befriended, tried to blackmail her. Mary Shelley had written Gatteschi letters of a confidential nature and Gatteschi threatened to make them public. Had she, for once, overcome a natural reticence and given him the inner story of her life with Shelley in Italy? We shall never know, for the letters were destroyed; but we do know of her panic at his threats. "He can destroy me!"

Mary Shelley now enjoys, belatedly, a wide and admiring audience. For good reason, she is the darling of the feminists and of the science fiction fraternity. But there is a puzzle about her. Though Frankenstein was composed in the company of -- and perhaps almost in defiance of -- Shelley and Byron, its acute psychological intimations are not things one might merely "pick up" in good company; they speak of a nature of true and original inwardness, together with a genuine power of mythopoeic invention. That power of invention is demonstrated again in her second great novel, The Last Man. But what happened to the intuitions? Did they die when Shelley drowned at Lerici?

These letters do not give us an answer. References to creative processes are disappointingly few. For resolution of the problem we have to turn to that great part of Mary Shelley which is still terra incognita, the world of her other novels, notably Valperga (1823), that have never been reprinted.

Perhaps Betty Bennett, her labors on the correspondence now over, can exert herself to bring out a well-edited omnibus of those unknown novels. Frankenstein is perennially in print, and The Last Man has recently been reprinted, but Mary Shelley still stands in need of something of the kindness she showed others.

The three volumes of collected letters of this gentle spirit -- as her daughter-in-law called her -- have engaged their editor, Betty T. Bennett, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the American University in Washington, for a decade. It is an impeccable work, unusually devoid of misprints, as far as I could detect. The notes are models of their kind, though it is doubtful if readers will need to have phrases like "beau ideal" translated into English, or to be told who Talleyrand was. However, better care than carelessness. The introduction, assessing Mary Shelley's later life, deserves to be read for its own sake. This is a great contribution to scholarship, and one that need never be done again.

Claire Claremont's letters await a definitive edition. She was furious when Sir Percy did not inform her immediately of his mother's death, furious and inconsolable. "We cannot bring back the dead," she wrote. "It is better therefore to join them". But here Mary lives once more, in all pallor and pain. :: Brian W. Aldiss's most recent books include the Helliconia trilogy and "Trillion Year Spree," a history of science fiction.