It was a dark and stormy night in 1816 when some bored writers were staying by Lake Geneva, and one of them suggested they all try their hands at writing ghost stories. They took up the challenge, and the result was Frankenstein, written by a teenage Mary Shelley. The others, Lord Byron who made the suggestion and Dr Polidori, Byron’s doctor, wrote their stories too, but none of these achieved the fame gained by Mary’s story of a scientist and a monster.
I had a fabulous time recently going to films in the British Film Festival and enjoyed watching Mary Shelley, which depicts that famous night and its outcomes. In spite of several historical inaccuracies and strange changes of setting – much of what actually took place in Italy was moved to London – the film did in essence convey the genesis of Frankenstein and show how hard Mary’s life was. Douglas Booth, the actor who portrayed Percy Bysshe Shelley, was utterly beautiful, and Elle Fanning was a good Mary, but Byron was very badly portrayed and was not nearly handsome enough.
The film reminded me of what an extraordinary story it is – Shelley and Mary, daughter of the radical couple Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, courting at her mother’s grave, eloping, wandering through Italy with Byron and her step-sister, and finally Shelley’s early death by drowning at the age of 29. If you would like to discover where and how the film was inaccurate, and learn more about these two remarkable writers, there are some excellent books you can read. The Godwins and the Shelleys by William St Clair is a riveting read, and it is hard to imagine a better biography of a poet than Richard Holmes’ Shelley: The Pursuit. For a good biography of Mary, turn to Mary Shelley by Miranda Seymour, and to discover more about her amazing mother, you can read Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin, and there’s also Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon.
I’d have hated to be married to Shelley and feel deeply sorry for Mary who had to cope with miscarriages, the deaths of children, money worries, endless uprootings, and then Shelley’s death, but I am still in love with him. I love his atheism, his liberal views on government and power and of course most of all I love his poetry. Everyone knows his great attack on power, Ozymandias, but try reading The Mask of Anarchy, his response to the infamous Peterloo massacre of 1819 (when protesting workers were fired on by troops in Manchester). Shelley is one of the greatest of all poets and I hope the new film will encourage people to go to his works and get to know him better.
I’d love to hear your opinion. Please leave a comment.
Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Mary Shelley, born 30 August 1797
Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Percy Bysshe Shelley, born 4 August 1792
Susannah Fullerton: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Susannah Fullerton: Frankenstein is 200
The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family by William St Clair
Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes
Mary Shelley by Miranda Seymour
Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
The Mask of Anarchy by Percy Bysshe Shelley
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