Murdering to dissect, indeed

Mary Shelley biography exaggerates her importance and trivializes her great contemporaries

Review Biography


The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

Little, Brown / 336 pages / $24.95

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters," proclaimed one of Goya's best-known etchings, created when Europe, having dozed off at the end of its Age of Reason, was awakening to some real monsters: the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic wars. And there were fictional ones too: the horrors of the Gothic novel, and the most famous Gothic of them all, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

The story of the birth of Frankenstein is well-known; it was even dramatized as a prologue to James Whale's great horror flick, Bride of Frankenstein. Mary and her husband, Percy; their friend, Lord Byron; Claire Clairmont, Byron's mistress; and the physician John Polidori spent an evening telling hair-raising stories at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in 1816. It was 18-year- old Mary who came up with the most compelling narrative: the story of a scientist whose attempt to create life went terribly wrong.

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, the authors of scores of books, mostly for children, have ventured into adult territory in The Monsters, placing the composition and publication of Frankenstein at the center of a biography of Mary Shelley. But as their title hints, they're dealing with more monsters than the one in Frankenstein. The monsters of the Hooblers' book also include Percy Shelley, Byron, and Mary's father, the political philosopher William Godwin, each of whom gets an extended and none-too-admiring biographical sketch in the book.

Mary was named for her mother, Mary Woll- stonecraft, who wrote one of the first great feminist manifestoes, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792. Five years later she married Godwin, whose atheism and political radicalism were so widely known that when he died in 1833, one Tory publication set aside the traditional prohibition against speaking ill of the dead and proclaimed, "It might have been better for mankind had he never existed." She gave birth to their daughter in August 1797 and died 11 days later.

The younger Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin grew up in an unconventional household that included her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, whom Mary's mother had borne out of wedlock; Mary Jane Clairmont, whom Godwin married in 1801; and Mary Jane's daughter, Claire, who never knew who her father was. At one of the gatherings of intellectuals in her father's house, Mary met the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and in July 1814 they ran away together to the continent, accompanied by Claire.

Shelley was already a figure of controversy because of the radicalism of his essays and such poems as Queen Mab. The elopement with Mary added scandal to the mix: He was married, and his wife, Harriet, was pregnant. She gave birth to a son in November. Mary also gave birth, in February 1815, but the child, a girl, survived only 11 days. Mary and Shelley would finally marry in 1816, after Harriet committed suicide. In the meantime, Claire set her sights on Lord Byron, becoming his mistress in 1816 and giving birth to their daughter, Allegra, in January 1817.

The Hooblers dwell in great detail on all this fervid bohemianism, which makes their book entertainingly lurid. What they don't do, however, is shed much light on the ostensible subject: Frankenstein. They struggle to make far-fetched connections between Mary's life and her fictional creation. When Mary's half-sister, Fanny, killed herself, Godwin forbade anyone in the family from claiming the body: "No one knows whether Fanny was buried in a potter's-field grave or if, as sometimes happened with other unclaimed bodies, hers was acquired by a Frankenstein-like medical experimenter," the Hooblers comment. And they ludicrously assert that by editing Percy Shelley's poems after his death, Mary was "becoming Victor Frankenstein, reassembling her dead husband in perfect form."

They also overstate the uniqueness of Mary's achievement, asserting that in her creation of a "mad scientist" protagonist, "she was ahead of her time in imagining that scientific discoveries could be as scary as the witchcraft and sorcery of the past." But skepticism about science was integral to the Romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationalism. In 1798, for example, Wordsworth had written:

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things;

- We murder to dissect.

Frankenstein, whose subtitle was The Modern Prometheus, was written out of the same concern about human overreaching and hubris that inspired Goethe's Faust, the first part of which was published in 1808.

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