In Search of Mary Shelley

by Fiona Sampson, Profile, £18.99

Published to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, this is not a straightforward biography so much as a series of fascinating glimpses of its precocious author. The method might be a way of leapfrogging over years where the record is scanty, or confessing that lengthy episodes simply lack interest.

The 30 years of Mary’s sedate widowhood after the death of the poet Shelley take up a fraction of the book, their nine-year relationship well over half. This literary partnership is at the core of these pages, yet there’s a fundamental problem of interpretation.

The regular use of “Percy” to denote Mary’s husband is always a giveaway in a biography. It was not a name he used. He was Bysshe to family and Shelley to friends. “Percy” sounds effete to modern ears, and its adoption generally signals a wish to ridicule or belittle him. A heavy authorial hand weighs down on the poet: his ill-health is hypochondria; he doesn’t elope with the 16-year-old Mary, he “snares” her; his death is “hubristic” rather than a tragic accident; and his dramatic and effective intervention to save Mary’s life after a miscarriage is “no more than anyone would do for a stranger”. Too much of this risks making her look like a fool for choosing him. Sampson, a brilliant poet herself, doesn’t even seem to appreciate the poetry.

She really gets going when attacking the poet’s various muses. The fascinating Claire Clairmont is damned as a “typical poet’s girlfriend”. Jane Williams, who inspired With a Guitar, to Jane and other lyrics, is dim and dull. Mary herself exhibited an attractive generosity when she came to edit the love poems: “There are … verses I should well like to obliterate for ever, but they will be printed.”

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