MARY DIANA DODS, A GENTLEMAN AND A SCHOLAR. By Betty T. Bennett. William Morrow. 304 pages. $22.95. FRANKENSTEIN," Mary Shelley's 19th century classic, tells the story of a scientist who creates a monster, which destroys him.
Mary Shelley, second wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was 19 when a nightmare inspired her to write her strange masterpiece. Seven years later in 1825, after the deaths of her husband and three of her four children, Shelley produced an even stranger tale. In this one, Shelley created a man -- actually, ,, two men -- from a woman. The tale was inspired by a dream and by necessity. It was hidden for 170 years. And it was true.
Betty Bennett, professor of literature at American University, considers Mary Shelley to be much more complex than biographers have recognized. To better understand her, Bennett edited three volumes of Shelley's letters. While she was editing those 1,276 letters, she found another complex woman. It began as she puzzled over the identity of two men: David Lyndsay, a minor 19th century writer, and Walter Sholto Douglas, husband of Shelley's friend, Isabella Robinson. Researching these men, Bennett learned that neither of them existed. What existed was a woman, Mary Diana Dods. Explaining why and how Dods assumed a man's identity, "Mary Diana Dods, a Gentleman and a Scholar" becomes a detective story and a penetrating look at woman's place in literary history.
In the 19th century, Bennett explains, there were few women writers. Women were not poets; they were poetry. A woman's intellect, according to John Ruskin, was "not for invention or creation . . ." Poet laureate Robert Southey put it even more bluntly: "Literature is not the business of a woman's life . . ."
Some women disagreed and took literature as their business. Among them were George Eliot, George Sand, the Bronte
sisters, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Mary Diana Dods. Several of these women wrote under men's names. But they, except for George Sand and Dods, dressed as women, lived unassuming lives and believed their work would secure their place in literary history. They succeeded. Dods, of course, is the exception.
Dods, as Bennett learned through 12 years of meticulous research, met Shelley in London, in 1825. At 40, Dods, "Doddy," the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish nobleman, had dark curly hair, black eyes, a sickly complexion, a misshapen body and extraordinary intelligence and wit. Shelley was immediately drawn to Doddy and her companion, Isabella Robinson. When Shelley learned that Doddy had literary aspirations and that Robinson was pregnant and unmarried, she formulated a plan. This is the plan that Bennett unearthed by piecing together thousands of historical and biographical documents.
Those documents, as Bennett presents them, show Doddy writing for the respected literary magazine Blackwood, as David Lyndsay. Later, as Walter Sholto Douglas, Doddy moved to Paris with Robinson. Here they posed as husband and wife and brought up their child. Neither mother nor child experienced the shame of illegitimacy. And Doddy, the "father," devoted her life and talent to literature. Unfortunately, that devotion was short-lived; her writing didn't sell. And Doddy died in debtor's prison -- a failure as a woman, as a man and as a writer.
As Bennett demonstrates, Doddy failed because she was an illegitimate child and, therefore, a non-person. She failed because she was a physically unattractive woman and, therefore, not wife material. She failed because she was a woman. As a woman, she wasn't given the tools with which to write well. Above all, she lacked confidence in her own voice. Ultimately, and this is the point of Bennett's book, Dods failed not because she lacked imagination, but because society lacked imagination.
This life of Mary Diana Dods shows that she did not have a life. She had a dream. It was an impossible and tragic dream -- reminiscent of the nightmare that inspired Shelley to write "Frankenstein." In Dods' case, however, she was neither the HTC scientist nor the monster, nor the author of books. She was merely herself.
Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.