The melancholy, anger of Mary Shelley

January 15, 1995|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times

A radical English reformer, and widower of the eminently nonconforming feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin was shocked when their 17-year-old daughter, Mary, eloped in 1814 with a married man. He refused to receive them. It was only when Percy Bysshe Shelley's wife, Harriet, regularized matters by drowning herself in the Serpentine that he relented. Magnanimously, he agreed to the lovers' marrying and went on to ask his son-in-law for money.

Between the Godwin-Wollstonecraft-William Blake generation and that of the Shelley circle, there was a break somewhat like the one between aging American radicals from the '30s and their '60s flower-children. There was a hippie touch to the Shelleys and Byron.

After Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia and Byron died of a fever in Greece, Mary was left to descend from timeless sublimities to daily squalors. It was, in fact, only a few years after their elopement -- during one magical Lake Geneva summer with Shelley, Byron and her sister Claire, who was Byron's lover -- when things began to darken. Two children died not long after the Shelley-Byron pack settled in Italy. Shelley's health was precarious. There were infidelities.

As early as 1817, Mary was recalling the Lake Geneva idyll (it was there that she began writing "Frankenstein") with anguish. "Why is not life a continued moment where hours and days are not counted -- but as it is a succession of events happen -- the moment of enjoyment lives only in memory and when we die where are we?" she wrote her husband.

Back in London two years after the drowning, lonely and struggling to support herself, Mary wrote to Edward Trelawny, a close friend at the time: "The eight years that I passed with our lost Shelley does not appear a dream, for my present existence is more like that -- surely his state is not more changed than mine. When I first came to England, change of scene, the seeing old friends and the excitement with which the uncertainty of my situation inspired me, made me, though not happy, yet pass the day unrepining. But now each hour seems to add a load of intolerable melancholy."

Melancholy alternating with anger are the leading notes in many of the letters published in this selection, an abridgment of the three-volume edition edited by Betty T. Bennett. Ms. Bennett has included her copious and illuminating footnotes, and the introduction she wrote for the longer version.

Mary Shelley was not a natural letter-writer. She writes sentiments, often eloquent ones; and she writes concrete needs, disasters and appeals, often touching ones. What she lacks is intimacy and a taste for communicating particular things. She is better at vision than observation; the letters give a sense of her feelings but not of herself.

All her life she was plagued with accusations of coldness. They were made by former friends. (As some people have a talent for friends, Mary Shelley had a talent for former friends.) She denied it passionately, but passion is not really the opposite of coldness.

On the other hand, she had much reason to be cold; and when the coldness gives way to naked anguish she writes with great power. Ms. Bennett is certainly right in distinguishing the difficulties of an unconventional woman fighting to write and to live in a man's world. Even before there was much bruising, she had to contend with Sir Walter Scott's review of "Frankenstein." It was admiring, and that was the trouble: He assumed that Shelley must have written it. "Frankenstein," she wrote, was certainly hers; it was far too "juvenile" to be Shelley's.

Caught up in her husband's lofty west wind, she was blown about Italy, bearing -- and losing -- one baby after another. The letter telling of Shelley's disappearance, her anguished efforts to find out what had happened, the growing evidence that he was lost and the discovery of his body is vividly and movingly written. After his death, she was penniless.

She settled in bleak London quarters to earn money with her pen: novels, short stories, essays, travel books and potted collections of literary lives. "It is pleasant writing enough," she comments of her Grub Street routine, "sparing one's imagination yet occupying one and supplying in some degree the needful which is so very needful."

Title: "Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley"

Editor: Betty T. Bennett

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Length, price: 480 pages, $19.95

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