Sunday, 15 April 2018

Book review: In Search of Mary Shelley, Fiona Sampson (2018)

This flawed biography attempts to describe the talent that led to the appearance in 1818, 200 years ago this year, of ‘Frankenstein’, a novel that has entered popular consciousness through many different vehicles, most notably through the cinema. The novel’s author was a young woman with an august pedigree and her childhood is trawled by this biographer for intimations of existential disquiet illustrated by the novel that would end up being written.

Shelley’s mother was the famous feminist and polemicist Mary Wollstonecraft and her father was the famous polemicist and novelist William Godwin. She fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the second-generation Romantic poet, and went travelling in Europe. It was during one exceptional evening with her husband and Lord Byron, the poet, in Switzerland, that the idea for the novel came to her.

Shelley’s childhood was blighted by the fact that her mother died in the days immediately after she was born. Her step-mother is painted as a scheming woman eager to nab the hand of the widowed writer but real evidence, it seems, is scant. Shelley’s diaries and letters went missing in the years after she eloped with Percy.

Sampson doesn’t let this handicap fetter her imagination, however, and she sprinkles the narrative with vividly-drawn assumptions as to what might have happened at any one time that would lead to the appearance of the famous characters of the inventor and his monster. This kind of teleological approach is frankly unnecessary and hampers the transference of true information that might otherwise be useful in illustrating aspects of Shelley’s character. I found the book tiresome and banal. It told me more about what Sampson thinks of creative people than it told me about Shelley the novelist. I managed to get about 15 percent of the way through the book before giving up.

I wanted to like this book and I gave it a good go because I had heard the author participate in a Radio National program about Shelley hosted by Phillip Adams that I had enjoyed. But relying on surmise and inductive reasoning to justify decisions made in the absence of hard evidence was constantly frustrating from a reader’s point of view. The author time and again stakes her professional and artistic credibility on the flimsiest of evidence.

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