Mary Shelley’s story up to publishing Frankenstein
Mary Shelley is a beautifully filmed movie that tells the interesting life story of Mary Shelley – interesting as much for the people that she shared her time with as much as for the writer herself. The scenes of Victorian London and Scotland are stunning, the costumes gorgeous, and the interiors of the Villa Diodati that Mary spends a wet few months in as she starts to write her classic novel are worth the price of the movie in themselves. If only it were possible to stay in such a place in 2017.
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Mary Shelley family background
The first and most obvious theme of the movie is the influence of family. Mary grew up the eldest daughter of two famous radical writers: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Mary Wollstonecraft was an early feminist, whose most famous work’s title riffs off Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, being titled A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Although Mary died shortly after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley, it was clear from the movie that Mary revered her mother – her private place when she wanted to get away from people was the cemetery where Mary was buried. William Godwin was a writer and liberal philosopher, and brought up both Mary and her younger sister, with their lives being centred around the radical bookshop that Godwin ran in London. Social life revolved around poetry readings from some of the leading lights of the literature of the time.
Drawn to emulate her parents, Mary spent her free time reading, and in creative writing. From the movie it would seem that she lacked the radical bent of her parents, although she did espouse their libertarian attitude to sex and relationships.
Mary and Percy Shelley
The family was in trouble financially, and Mary was sent away, to live with the radical William Baxter, in Scotland, and it was during this time that she met Percy Shelley, a rising young poet from a wealthy background, and her father’s some time benefactor and political follower. It was love at first sight. Unfortunately for Mary, it turned out that Shelley was already married, and had a young daughter. It was family money, and lots of it, that brought the other main character into Mary’s life, Lord Byron. Taking up an offer to spend a summer with super-rich Byron in Geneva; Mary, Percy Shelley, Mary’s step-sister and John Polidori while away weeks taking drugs and drinking heavily until boredom forces Byron to propose a contest – each person is to write a ghost story and the others are to judge it. In this challenge Frankenstein, inspired by the recent discovery of galvanism, was born, as was The Vampyre by Polidori.
Another theme we see is hypocrisy. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft seemed to have an open relationship – certainly Mary had affairs – and Godwin railed in Political Justice that marriage was a repressive monopoly. William failed to offer the same freedom of arrangement for Mary when he forced her to choose between his love and the love of the married Shelley. Mary similarly, although professing a belief that everyone should be able to love as they choose, resented Shelley’s affairs. For Mary, loving as she chose was loving Shelley alone, and she expected the arrangement to be reciprocated.
Is personality disorder an essential attribute of the creative genius? Shelley’s affairs and abandonment of his wife and young daughter suggest sociopathy, and Byron was a classic narcissist – the pair being two of the writers of the era that deserve the title of genius. Thinking through history it isn’t hard to find other examples.
And then there’s sexism. It is perhaps ironic that the daughter of one of the leading early feminists should suffer sexism when she wanted to publish her famous work. The original publisher would only publish the book, we’re told, on two conditions. Firstly the author was to be anonymous, and secondly, Shelley had to write the forward – the implication being, maybe, that Shelley would be taken as the author, thus generating more sales than if an unknown woman (at that time still Mary Godwin – she hadn’t married Shelley yet). Shelley certainly seemed (at least in the movie) to be willing to play along with this fiction. The world was put to rights, although the initial damage couldn’t be undone, when Mary’s father published the next batch of the book, and put Mary’s name on it.
And a final interesting thought from the movie was that the story of the lonely creature desperate for human love was an expression of Mary herself, neglected by Shelley, and pushed away by her father.
Mary Shelley movie review
My verdict – a beautifully made movie that tells an interesting and rarely told story. Elle Fanning is fabulous as Mary, and Maisie Williams has a small part. 9/10.