Science Fiction Studies

#87 = Volume 29, Part 2 = July 2002

Carl Freedman

Hail Mary: On the Author of Frankenstein and the Origins of Science Fiction

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Ed. D.L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf. Second Edition. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 1999. 364 pp. $7.95 pbk.

─────.The Last Man. Ed. Anne McWhir. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 1996. xliii + 425 pp. $16.95 pbk.

Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran, eds. Mary Shelley in her Times. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2000. xiii + 311 pp. $45.00 hc.

Michael Eberle-Sinatra, ed. Mary Shelley’s Fictions: From FRANKENSTEIN to FALKNER. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. xxvi + 250 pp. $65.00 hc.

John Williams.Mary Shelley: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. ix + 209 pp. $35.00 hc.

Mary Shelley, born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was the daughter of two important writers and the wife of a third; and this extraordinary set of personal literary bonds is matched by the many connections by which her place in literary history has been defined. To some, she is of interest primarily as representing one of the high points of the Gothic tradition; to others, she is above all a pioneer of women’s literature in English; still others see her mainly as one of the chief practitioners of the Romantic novel; and then, of course, there are those of us for whom Mary Shelley is first and foremost the founder of science fiction.

Though Brian Aldiss was not the first to detect a link between Mary Shelley and sf, his ground-breaking argument in Billion Year Spree (1973) for Frankenstein (1818) as the ur-text of the genre is directly or indirectly responsible for much of the currency that this idea has enjoyed for more than a quarter century. Not, of course, that anything like unanimity on the issue has ever been reached. Some commentators place the beginning of sf later, with Poe, or Verne, or Wells, or even with the Gernsbackian pulp of the 1920s, when the term "science fiction" was coined; contrariwise, others insist that the genre can be traced to Milton and Dante, and even all the way back to Homer and The Epic of Gilgamesh. But Frankenstein remains most widely accepted as the founding text of sf, and it seems to me that the arguments of Aldiss and other Mary-Shelleyans remain persuasive. Though some literary elements prominent in sf are doubtless as old as literature itself, I do not think one can name an important text earlier than Frankenstein that contains every major formal characteristic that can reasonably be held to mark science fiction as a genre; while, on the other hand, efforts to deny the title of sf to Mary Shelley’s novel and to date the emergence of sf later seem to me always to involve a socio-logistic reductionism that loads the critical dice by proclaiming its own concept of generic determination to be true by definition—as when, for instance, it is maintained that true sf cannot possibly antedate the term "science fiction." Mary Shelley never heard the term, and she may well have had no conscious notion that she was inventing a new genre. But that is precisely what she did.

On the basis of this achievement and others, Mary Shelley’s critical and academic reputation is today (five years after the bicentennial of her birth in 1797) standing higher than ever before—as the appearance of the five books under review here tends to suggest. But she has also attained an almost unparalleled kind of popular success as well. Comparing Mary Shelley with her husband, Isaac Asimov once pointed out that, as great a lyric poet as Percy Shelley may have been, ordinary people on the street have not necessarily heard of "Adonais" or "Ode to the West Wind" or "The Cenci" (9-12). But, said Asimov, they have all heard of Frankenstein (which he understood as the first precursor text of his own robot stories). The point is shrewd and important, but needs a bit of refining. Though the word "Frankenstein" is indeed meaningful to practically everyone in the modern English-speaking world (and to many beyond), not everyone knows that the word refers to the title of Mary Shelley’s novel. I have taught Frankenstein more frequently than any other work of prose fiction, and I have encountered many students who were surprised to learn that the whole Frankenstein story is derived from a single literary text—not to mention a novel written in a florid style by a young Englishwoman in the early nineteenth century. They seemed to have vaguely assumed that "Frankenstein" referred just to a vast collective or anonymous saga, expressed in films, television programs, comic books, and other such forums.

On one level, this ignorance may occasion a private pedagogic shudder; but on another I think it strongly recalls Rabindranath Tagore’s famous story that so fascinated William Butler Yeats. The Bengali poet received many formal honors for his writing, including the Nobel Prize in literature; but he insisted that the greatest reward his work ever brought him came on an ordinary evening when he was sitting outside his home and happened to hear a peasant coming down the road, singing a song to himself. The words to the song, it turned out, were taken from one of Tagore’s own poems. Almost certainly, the peasant could not read and had never heard of Tagore; he may well have possessed no clear notion that songs even have authors. Tagore and Yeats both felt that having one’s work penetrate so deeply into the popular consciousness of one’s people was the highest achievement for which any writer could hope; and Yeats, for all his own huge success, must have been painfully aware that he was unlikely ever to hear an unlettered Irish peasant singing "Sailing to Byzantium" or even "Who Goes with Fergus?" But has not Mary Shelley attained something very like the success that Tagore felt that he had achieved—allowing, of course, for the obvious differences between the largely preliterate culture of Tagore’s Bengal and the largely postliterate culture that we inhabit? Judging by the durable vitality of her most famous fiction, one must conclude that Mary Shelley’s work has entered our cultural bloodstream in a way that is true of the work of very few, if any, other canonical English authors.

The way to begin any study of Mary Shelley is of course by reading Frankenstein itself. Since there are literally dozens of editions in print—many of them inexpensive and easily accessible—the first question that any new edition raises is whether it is genuinely needed. In the case of the current edition from the small but creative Broadview Press, the answer is a resounding yes. The text itself is based on the original 1818 version, which Frankenstein critics (myself included) increasingly regard as a livelier and more interesting work than the more widely reprinted 1831 revision; indeed, one may well doubt that the 1831 version would be much read at all today (except by scholars), were it not for the absurd bibliographic superstition that the author’s latest known intentions should have a decisive importance. Not being a trained bibliographer myself, I will not attempt to go beyond this general pro-1818 conviction and discuss the minutiae of the textual editing of the novel. But I see no reason to disagree with the eminent textual critic Jerome McGann, who (in a blurb on the back cover) pronounces the text of the Broadview edition to be "well-edited," and the edition as a whole to be "the best, the most thoughtful advanced school edition of Frankenstein ever done."

Of course, the importance of this edition is closely connected to the importance of the novel itself. In the current context, the editors D.L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf are especially to be commended for making it easy to grasp the importance of Frankenstein for science fiction (even though they themselves, in their otherwise intelligent and useful introduction, display no particular interest in the genre). The key point here is announced in the first sentence of the novel’s original preface, written by Percy Shelley but in his wife’s voice and with her approval: "The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence" (47). Not of impossible occurrence: these four words point to much of Mary Shelley’s stunning originality and, in particular, to the way she decisively broke with the Gothic and other supernatural literary traditions by which she was so heavily influenced in order to invent science fiction. The crucial issue is not, exactly, the technical or pragmatic feasibility of Victor Frankenstein’s project (the operational details of which remain indistinct), but the fact that the whole book breathes a rational, scientific atmosphere informed by such recent or contemporary scientific luminaries as Erasmus Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, and Sir Humphrey Davy; and that the novel (explicitly and implicitly) offers its imaginings as well within the possibilities of cognitively based speculation as established by the most advanced science of the day. Asimov—commonly and accurately considered to be among the most scientifically based of modern sf writers—was profoundly right to see Mary Shelley as his own direct literary ancestor; and, indeed, much of the precise science-fictional achievement of Frankenstein can be conveniently conveyed by way of comparison with Asimov’s robot stories collected in I, Robot (1950) and elsewhere.

Robotics was practically a brand-new science when Asimov, more than half a century ago, began his series of robot tales, and it remains a highly uncertain, speculative, cutting-edge field to this day. Reading his stories, we feel quite certain that no one has yet constructed devices comparable to the mighty Machines, which, towards the end of I, Robot, are solemnly revealed to be making all the major socio-economic decisions for humanity as a whole, or even truly equivalent to the nursemaid robot Robbie, whose much more light-hearted tale opens the volume. But it is not clear to us that such projects must forever remain beyond the grasp of an increasingly sophisticated cybernetic technology; and Asimov’s fiction provokes us to wonder whether something like his visions will in fact come to pass. In other words, I, Robot is grounded in that literary terrain of rational possibility by which sf defines itself against both the mundane factuality of realism and the admitted impossibility of fantasy.

Precisely the same thing is true of Frankenstein. I have elsewhere noted that Frankenstein leaves behind the spatial, geographical dimension of the conventional travel narrative to enter the properly science-fictional dimension of time at the exact point where Captain Robert Walton, who seems in the novel’s opening pages to be its protagonist, hands that role over to Victor Frankenstein, becoming the latter’s amanuensis (48-50). In much the same way, Mary Shelley repudiates the fantastic and Gothic prehistory of her novel when (in the first chapter of the main text, which follows Walton’s introductory letters) Victor is moved by an electrical experiment modeled on Franklin’s to renounce his early interest in mystical, pre-scientific thinkers like Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus; in the following chapter he enters the university and begins the study of modern chemistry instead. From this point onward, the text explicitly operates under the science-fictional protocols that are stubbornly alternative to both known reality and unknowable impossibility; and its first readers must have regarded the monstrous creature very much as we regard Asimov’s robots. They would have strongly doubted that any actual scientist had yet done what Victor Frankenstein is represented as doing. But they would surely have wondered whether some experiment of the sort might not be in the offing, and they would have hesitated to contradict Darwin (the most influential scientific popularizer of his day) by considering it "of impossible occurrence." Estrangement is a literary technique as old as Gilgamesh. But truly cognitive estrangement begins with Frankenstein.

If the way that Mary Shelley, in composing Frankenstein, thus invents sf at a stroke is still not quite so widely appreciated as I believe it ought to be, it may be at least partly because most readers have not encountered the novel alongside such useful commentary as Macdonald and Scherf provide. Their introduction stresses Mary Shelley’s scientific literacy and the impact of science on her thinking, and it places special emphasis on the importance of Darwin and Davy (though one might wish they had said a bit more about Franklin). They show a wide acquaintance with the critical literature on Frankenstein and usefully insist, against certain less careful readings of the novel, that the latter "contrasts modern science to sorcery and alchemy, rather than identifying it with them" (18). This emphasis is maintained through a series of brief, unobtrusive, but very helpful footnotes about the scientific grounding of the novel, and in an appendix that provides samples of Darwin’s and Davy’s own writing. Of course, the editors attend not only to the scientific background of Frankenstein but also to more political and literary sources: notably to Mary Shelley’s mother and father and to the imaginative writers—Goethe, Plutarch, Milton—so avidly studied by the creature himself. All are intelligently discussed and footnoted, and substantial excerpts from each are given. There is also an interesting appendix that collects several contemporary reviews of the novel; and here too there is much of particular interest from the viewpoint of sf studies. Most fascinating is the piece by the most eminent novelist of the time, Sir Walter Scott. Not only does the inventor of the historical novel (a form with profound affinities to science fiction) respond enthusiastically to Mary Shelley’s text, but also Scott characterizes it as "more philosophical and refined" than ordinary marvelous or supernatural fiction; he places it in a special class of works "in which the laws of nature are represented as altered, not for the purpose of pampering the imagination with wonders, but in order to shew the probable effect which the supposed miracles would produce on those who witnessed them." He goes on to define the text’s object as "to open new trains and channels of thought, by placing men in supposed situations of an extraordinary and preternatural character, and then describing the mode of feeling and conduct which they are most likely to adopt" (301-02). This is not—quite—to say that Frankenstein is a work of cognitive estrangement that founds a new genre; but it is about as close to saying that as one can imagine a contemporary coming, and Scott’s prescience is dazzling.

In fine, I will simply say that in my years of teaching Frankenstein I have used four or five different editions, and have never been satisfied with any; but from now on the Broadview edition will be the one I order for my students.

In some ways, Anne McWhir’s excellent Broadview edition of The Last Man (1826) is a fitting companion volume to the Macdonald-Scherf Frankenstein. The Last Man is the second most widely read of Mary Shelley’s works, though it is of course a very distant second. It is, however, also a work of science fiction, if a much less pathbreaking or consequential one. In contrast to the awesome originality of Frankenstein, the theme of the later novel—the extinction of the human race as related by its final survivor—was already widely popular in 1826, though it had not been inflected in quite the science-fictional way adopted by Mary Shelley; and, in contrast to the almost endless fertility of Frankenstein, The Last Man has been generally neglected by writers and readers alike. It was not really until the advent of modern feminist criticism that Mary Shelley’s second sf novel began to loom at all in sf studies and in literary studies generally; and some of the attempts at critical rehabilitation have been smart and interesting. In her influential A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (1993), Robin Roberts, for instance, treats Frankenstein and The Last Man as texts of roughly comparable importance, arguing that both are "codedly feminine" works—in the sense that they employ male protagonists in order to explore what are "essentially feminine situations and dilemmas" (16)—and even maintaining that The Last Man conveys the more radical feminist critique of the two. In a somewhat similar vein, McWhir, in her fine critical introduction, suggests that in The Last Man "female figures both fictional and mythic [most notably the Sibyl] dominate the symbolic structure in spite of the dominance of male characters in the plot" (xxiii). Roberts takes the argument an intriguing step further when she maintains not only that Mary Shelley is the founding mother of science fiction but also that, more specifically, her two sf novels—Frankenstein with its "depiction of woman as alien" and The Last Man with its "description of art as a redemptive force"—provide the essential templates for "what is later divided into hard and soft science and science fiction" (15), thus giving a novel twist to Aldiss’s original thesis.

Arguments like those of Roberts and McWhir ought to be carefully considered, of course. My own chief reservation is an admittedly affective one. The Last Man is, I think, guilty of the one literary fault that no critical ingenuity can completely redeem: it is rather dull. I almost find more excitement in the 82 lines of Byron’s end-of-humanity poem, "Darkness" (conveniently reprinted in one of McWhir’s appendices), than in the more than 350 closely printed pages of Mary Shelley’s novel. McWhir herself points out that "In contrast to Frankenstein’s tightly structured interlocking narratives and detailed scrutiny of a small cast of characters, The Last Man is loosely structured and expansive" (xix); and for me, at least, the assembled parts of the novel seldom possess enough local vitality to compensate for the overall structural flaccidity. The Last Man did enjoy a certain popularity immediately after its initial publication, but this seems largely to have been based on the information that the book was widely thought to reveal about the author’s associates, especially Percy Shelley and Byron; and it may be that Mary Shelley herself devoted too much energy to this aspect of the novel. The pleasures of the roman-à-clef are real enough but tend to be among the least durable of literary attractions. Today, the Nixon Administration and Watergate are still recent enough that many of us enjoy John Ehrlichman’s The Company (1976) beyond its technical merits as a competent, fast-paced thriller; but how many readers open Spenser’s The Faerie Queene or even Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel mainly for the political and biographical parallels that once stirred such interest? Admittedly, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley remain fascinating personalities for many. Still, one would now probably turn to actual biographies for the kind of insight into their lives and characters that in 1826 may have been only or chiefly available in fiction.

So I will probably not be assigning The Last Man to my students. But those teachers of sf who wish to do so will find McWhir’s edition ideal for their purposes. As in the Broadview Frankenstein, the text is annotated by a series of footnotes that convey useful and needed information without becoming too obtrusive; and the appendices offer an even wider selection of supporting texts—contemporary works on the same theme, a selection of plague literature, poems by Mary Shelley, contemporary reviews, and much else—that are pertinent in one way or another to the serious study of the novel.

The three secondary works under review here—John Williams’s critical biography and the two collections of critical essays edited by Michael Eberle-Sinatra and by Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran, respectively—will probably be of less interest than the two editions to most readers, especially to those whose main interest in Mary Shelley concerns her place in the history of science fiction. All three volumes are dominated by the idea of "the other Mary Shelley," a phrase that forms the title of an influential book published in 1993 by Mary Shelley scholars Audrey Fisch, Anne Mellor, and Esther Schor, and that registers an important development in Mary Shelley criticism over the past decade. Essentially, "the other Mary Shelley" means two things: that Mary Shelley was something other than just Percy Shelley’s wife and that Mary Shelley is something other than just the author of Frankenstein. The first sense can be unambivalently welcomed. To be sure, we need to remember that being Percy’s wife and widow was a major, sometimes almost an obsessive, component in her sense of herself; so that, for instance, she attached great importance to the work of her later years (notably her four-volume 1839 edition of The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley) that was devoted to reviving Percy’s flagging posthumous reputation and to establishing his place among the very finest poets, thinkers, and human beings. But any notion that our interest in Mary Shelley’s writing is a kind of appendage to a sovereign interest in Percy Shelley’s writing certainly ought to be gone forever. Frankenstein is today more widely read and discussed than any other single work of British Romanticism; and, as we have seen, its importance, compared to that of Percy Shelley’s poetry, is quite different and in some ways superior.

But the second meaning of "the other Mary Shelley"—that we ought to move beyond Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein and take much fuller cognizance of her other novels, her short stories, her criticism, her biographical pieces, and her travel writing—seems to me more dubious. An interesting general problem is at stake here. The idea of the unsung masterpiece is such a powerful commonplace of literary criticism that one may hesitate to point out that often—or usually—books are unsung because they contain little or nothing worth singing about. To some degree, this hesitancy is proper. Literary value remains the most difficult problem in the entirety of criticism, and by far the least satisfactorily theorized; thus it is only sensible, as C.S. Lewis used to maintain, to be somewhat tentative in our value judgments, especially our negative ones. Just as Anglo-American criminal law is supposed to be based on Sir William Blackstone’s principle (alluded to in Frankenstein) that it is better for ten guilty defendants to go free than for a single innocent defendant to be punished, so one would rather see a multitude of texts receive more attention than they really deserve than see even one text unfairly neglected. Nonetheless, the problem of value, however difficult, must be faced sooner or later; and, in the current instance, it seems clear to me that Frankenstein is so overwhelmingly more significant not only than The Last Man but than anything else its author ever wrote, that criticism which evades this fact is bound, in the long run, to look rather unbalanced and eccentric.

Such, in my view, is the case with the two critical anthologies to be discussed here. The Bennett-Curran Mary Shelley in her Times contains fifteen essays, two of which are devoted in whole or in large part to Frankenstein, while Eberle-Sinatra’s Mary Shelley’s Fictions has fourteen essays, three of which deal substantially with the same text. The implication thus conveyed—that Frankenstein is just one of many important works by its author, and not necessarily more privileged than Matilda (written 1819), say, or Valperga (1823)—is not, I suspect, one that will ever gain favor with any considerable number of readers. This is not to say that much of the material gathered in these two volumes is not, in its own way, intelligent and worthwhile; but the audience to which the books are addressed is pretty clearly that of Mary Shelley specialists, not general readers and certainly not students of sf.

A few of the essays, however, may well be of interest to readers of this journal. In the Bennett-Curran collection, the outstanding example is William St Clair’s "The Impact of Frankenstein," which employs both quantitative and conceptual tools to trace the reception of the novel, from its first printing in 1818—when it made more money than all of Percy Shelley’s writings together earned in his lifetime—through the stage adaptations that were the most popular forum for the Frankenstein story during the Victorian age, to the twentieth-century film versions by directors from James Whale to Mel Brooks. St Clair argues that the main impact of Frankenstein has been to inculcate a conservative fear of radical change and experiment—"the direct opposite," as he notes, "of what the author and her collaborator [i.e., Percy Shelley] hoped for and intended" (56). Mention might also be made of Betty T. Bennett’s "‘Not this time, Victor’: Mary Shelley’s Reversioning of Elizabeth, from Frankenstein to Faulkner." This essay focuses on one of the less frequently discussed characters in Mary Shelley’s first novel—Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s beloved—mainly in order to contrast her with the far less passive and more defiant Elizabeth Raby in the author’s last novel. Two of the better essays in the volume are, as it happens, about The Last Man. Samantha Webb’s "Reading the End of the World: The Last Man, History, and the Agency of Romantic Authorship" constructs the novel as vitally concerned with the vocation of authorship in Mary Shelley’s own time, as contrasted both with the ancient world of the Roman Sibyl, when writing could possess grave religious and political significance, and with the post-apocalyptic world of Lionel Verney, the eponymous last man, in whose time, as Webb points out, writing is "obsolete for all but the most self-reflexive purposes" (133). Perhaps even more compelling is Constance Walker’s psychoanalytic "Kindertotenlieder: Mary Shelley and the Art of Losing," which uses Freud’s Schreber case-history and Melanie Klein’s theory of mourning in order to read The Last Man as a meditation on loss but also, and crucially, on the survival of loss.

In Eberle-Sinatra’s anthology, the outstanding offering is Marie Mulvey-Roberts’s "The Corpse in the Corpus: Frankenstein, Rewriting Wollstonecraft and the Abject," which synthesizes literary and biographical scholarship with Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject in order to make an arresting argument that "Frankenstein is a parasitic text, being both necrophobic and necrophiliac, that feeds off the nurturing parenting texts that have given it life" (199). The title of Nora Crook’s "In Defence of the 1831 Frankenstein" is startling, not only because of the growing critical consensus in favor of the 1818 edition, but also because Crook is the general editor of the current standard scholarly edition of Mary Shelley—the 1996 Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley brought out by William Pickering—whose own text of Frankenstein is based on the 1818 version. But the article turns out to be not a call to reverse the general preference but simply a detailed empirical argument to the effect that the difference between the two editions is less than has generally been supposed. Mention should also be made here of Eberle-Sinatra’s own "Gender, Authorship and Male Domination: Mary Shelley’s Limited Freedom in Frankenstein and The Last Man," which essentially extends Robin Roberts’s concept of these as "codedly feminine" novels, though Eberle-Sinatra does not seem aware of A New Species. Finally, sf scholars perusing this collection may wish to have a look at the two pieces exclusively on The Last Man by Sophie Thomas and Julia M. Wright; Wright’s essay is especially notable for employing current theory of nationality and nationalism by writers such as Homi Bhabha and Benedict Anderson in order to analyze the conceptual geography of the novel.

Like the two critical collections, John Williams’s biography, Mary Shelley: A Literary Life, also takes the authorship of Frankenstein to be only one among many aspects of Mary Shelley’s life, though this emphasis is, I think, more logical here than in the anthologies. Critics are free to write about whichever texts seem interesting and important to them, but a biographer must attend to what the subject of the biography actually did. What Mary Shelley did, mainly, was to read and write, and to associate with others who did the same. Indeed, though the subtitle of Williams’s volume is evidently dictated by the name of the series—"Literary Lives"—in which it is published, it seems clear that Mary Shelley’s was a literary life more profoundly and in more different ways than is the case with most writers. It is not just that her parentage, her marriage, and a great many of her friendships were all in one way or another literary. Many of the actual events of her life—her famous elopement with Percy Shelley, for instance—seem modeled on the sentimental and sensational fiction of her time; and Williams interestingly suggests that she was herself intensely aware of the fact. At the same time, one impulse behind the composition of her own fiction was the desire to make sense of her life and to sort out her feelings about her various tribulations: so that life and literature shaped one another for Mary Shelley in unusually complex and multidirectional ways. It is thus quite fitting that Williams should announce that his "narrative of Mary Shelley’s literary life has tended to resemble her own fictional storylines" (180). Then too—and this is one of the facts that Williams most usefully stresses—Mary Shelley became (far more than Percy ever did) an emphatically professional writer, and, like most professional writers, she was often motivated by the simple and inescapable need to earn a living.

Compared to life, literature can be variously considered as an escape from it, or as a degraded second-hand version of it, or as an improvement upon it. In any case, Mary Shelley’s life contained a good deal that she must have wished improved. She never knew her mother, since Mary Wollstonecraft died of complications arising from her daughter’s birth. She adored her father (to whom Frankenstein is dedicated), but William Godwin was consistently unable or unwilling to allow his daughter the close relationship with him that she craved (though he did not hesitate to cadge money from her on numerous occasions). She loathed Godwin’s second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, and a desire to escape from her stepmother’s household was surely one factor that led her to run off, at the age of sixteen, with the already-married Percy Shelley. Mary did adore Percy, however, at least during the early years of their association; and Percy, as a lover and later as a husband, was far more passionate and sympathetic than the cold, aloof Godwin ever was as a father. But Percy’s treatment of Mary was often irresponsible, in both material and emotional terms; for one thing, "free love," which Godwin had preached and which Percy Shelley practiced, tended to exact a high price from the women involved. Percy’s ultimate irresponsibility, of course, was the suicidally dangerous sailing adventure of 1822, which left Mary a widow less than two months before her twenty-fifth birthday. She lived on until 1851—attaining what almost counts as a ripe old age by the standards of the second-generation Romantics—but for the rest of her life she was haunted by feelings of guilt for having loved her husband imperfectly during his last years; she also had to contend with the related threats of poverty and of Sir Timothy Shelley, her petty, tyrannical, miserly father-in-law. Worst of all, surely, she lived with the consciousness of having survived all but one of her children. Though evidently attractive to more than one man, she never remarried.

Some familiarity with Mary Shelley’s life thus makes it easy to understand why, though quite privileged in certain ways—she knew a fairly high percentage of the contemporaries whom the typical intelligent time-traveler would wish to meet—she nonetheless gravitated, in her work, toward the theme of the lonely outsider. True enough, this theme was generally prominent in British Romanticism (and in other romanticisms too) and so might well have figured in Mary Shelley’s writing even if her life had been one triumphal happiness after another. Still, no one but the most na´vely dogmatic formalist can fail to sense a connection between her own frequent loneliness—from 1812 through 1814, for example, her father forced her to spend most of her time in faraway Dundee, Scotland, living with a family whom she had never even met before—and her authorship of one of the supreme literary treatments of loneliness. Part of the genius of Frankenstein is that it paints a brilliant double portrait of the outsider. For all of Victor Frankenstein’s idealizing (and somewhat unconvincing) insistence upon the idyllic happiness of his family circle when he was growing up—and upon his perfect friendship with Clerval and his perfect love for Elizabeth—he is fundamentally a loner, as is suggested and symbolized by the fact that his own choices indirectly lead to the death of nearly everyone supposedly dear to him. In his essential solitude Victor is at one with his creature. One might say of the two of them what the historian and novelist David Caute has said of the relationship between master and slave—that what they share in common is more tragic than what separates them. Indeed, it is not exactly a mistake that (despite no explicit warrant in Mary Shelley’s text) the term "Frankenstein" has long been commonly used to refer to the (technically unnamed) creature as well as to the scientist. After all, a man normally bears the same name as his father, and Victor’s creation is very much a chip off the old block—with the interesting twist, however, that Victor’s isolation is mainly the result of his own actions and attitudes, whereas circumstances never really give the monster a chance to form the human bonds he ardently desires. I think that the depth and intensity with which Frankenstein conveys the horrors of solitariness—which are delineated in a way that no non-sf novel could approximate—are no small part of the novel’s enduring fascination. I also think it no accident that the most memorable treatments of the Frankenstein story after Mary Shelley are those that most vividly emphasize the same theme—I mean the Universal films Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) by the famously lonely homosexual director James Whale. In Mary Shelley’s novel it is clearly Victor’s moral responsibility (and within his power) to alleviate his creature’s loneliness, as the creature himself points out; but Victor does the very opposite. Mary Shelley knew what it felt like to have a father like that, and also to be treated similarly by many others in her life, including sometimes even her own husband. In middle age she confessed to her journal that her entire life had led to "a state of loneliness no other human being ever before I believe endured—Except Robinson Crusoe" (qtd in Williams, 162).

Overall, Williams narrates this sad but vitally creative life in an adequate fashion, though by no means a brilliant one. His volume has, indeed, a number of shortcomings. The style is never more than serviceable and is not infrequently less than that; sometimes it is so awkward as to cause genuine confusion. He also often adopts the annoying habit of telling us with placid certainty what Mary Shelley was thinking about this or that, or, in the odd syntax he tends to favor, what she "will have thought." A more serious flaw is the relative (though not absolute) lack of cultural analysis and contextualization. Mary Shelley’s life, we should remember, encompassed one of the most fascinating and tumultuous periods in British history, economically, militarily, politically, culturally, scientifically, and in many other ways; moreover, few of her contemporaries were more alive than Mary Shelley to the changes about her, from the ground-breaking publications of Erasmus Darwin to the proto-totalitarian development of the despotic British state, from the new poetic vistas opened by Wordsworth and Coleridge to the embryonic growth of the English working class. Yet this ferment goes generally unremarked by Williams. His method is less that of the cultural historian than of the soap-opera narrator, concerned with the personal relationships among a particular group of individuals more than with any larger picture.

On the positive side of the ledger, however, Williams’s biography does provide a concise account, informed by the most recent scholarship, of the major facts of Mary Shelley’s life, and in that way can be recommended as an introduction to the subject. He is reasonably deft in weaving together accounts of her various publications with the narrative of her life, though, unsurprisingly, he tends to read her novels in an extremely biographical fashion, often stressing the roman-à-clef aspect more than some readers may think useful. Yet this approach is not without its rewards. Williams points out that Mary Shelley’s fiction was, after all, valued by its first readers largely for the information it was assumed to provide about herself and her circle (it should be stressed, as Williams fails to do, that Mary Shelley and her friends—especially Lord Byron—in many ways count as the world’s first literary celebrities), and he persuasively argues that, owing to the censorship imposed by her father-in-law, Sir Timothy, she was often able to be more candid in her novels than in her nonfictional writing. Though Williams’s Mary Shelley is far from the work of biographical art that its subject deserves, it contains much—and not only in its more obvious, inevitable details—that a truly great biography would encompass.

One detail struck me with particular force. Three years after Mary Shelley’s death, a memorial sculpture of her husband and her was constructed; a photograph of it appears on the dustjacket of Williams’s book. The memorial is done in Pietà style, and shows a sorrowful, compassionate Mary cradling the drowned Percy—thus ratifying the analogy between Percy Shelley and Christ that Mary Shelley frequently maintained in her writing about him. Though it may seem odd that Mary is herself thus represented as the mother of the man whose lover and wife she actually was, this aspect of the sculpture might well have its own emotional accuracy. As she lived to an age a full generation beyond that attained by Percy, and as she solemnly devoted herself to tending to the needs, as she saw them, of his posthumous reputation, perhaps Mary did come to feel maternal toward the older man who had once swept her off her teenage feet. In any event, the Pietà imagery seems appropriate, and the memorial may well quicken one’s impulse to hail Mary. She was not the mother of God or of Percy Shelley, and her life resembled the legendary career of the Madonna little more closely than does that of the rock diva who currently bears the title. But many of us will always revere her as the mother of science fiction.

I will conclude with an issue which, though minor, can—I assure you— become quite annoying after one has read enough about Mary Shelley. Her increasing prominence means that we will just have to adjust ourselves to the fact that two canonical English authors not only share the same surname but also were intimately connected to one another, in both personal and literary terms, and hence will frequently be discussed in the same context. To refer to "Shelley" and "Mary Shelley," as was once all but universal and remains common, is confusing and at least faintly sexist. To reverse the procedure (so that, for instance, one might refer to Percy as "Shelley’s husband") is now becoming popular, but only dubiously mends the sexism and does nothing to mend the confusion. The only good solution is to hit a few more keys and refer consistently to "Mary Shelley" and "Percy Shelley." This strict equality of denomination is not only pellucid but also, I think, entirely appropriate for the most remarkable literary couple of all time.


Asimov, Isaac. "Introduction." The Rest of the Robots. London: Panther, 1968. 9-12.

Crook, Nora and Pamela Clemit, eds. The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley. 8 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 1996.

Fisch, Audrey A., Anne K. Mellor, and Esther H. Schor, eds. The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond "Frankenstein." New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2000.

Roberts, Robin. A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1993.

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