From the Tea-BookShelf of Stephanie Dodaro
May contain spoilers!
I began this book over a year ago, and for some reason I had put it down until recently. Whether it was the long and complex way in which the writers begin with Mary’s family tree, where all women are also named Mary, or whether it just was not able to grab me until that fateful moment when Mary meets Percy, I just could not pick it up again until a few weeks ago. A friend and fellow book lover suggested a reread of Frankenstein in honor of the Halloween season (and coincidentally the 200th anniversary of said novel) for a book club. I decided it was a good time to go back to this book and simultaneously read Frankenstein. I also highly recommend the reading of these two together. It vastly enhanced my experience, deepened my understanding, and made the novel all the more fascinating to see the parallels to her own life experiences.
Once past the evolution of her family tree, from her mother’s liberated lifestyle and her upbringing, the book quickly takes shape. The parallels between Mary and the creature she creates in Frankenstein start to become abundantly clear. She, like the creature, are motherless, as her mother died in childbirth. So much of her life, in fact, finds its way into her novel to such a degree that I am amazed that I was never aware of it. I first read Frankenstein more than twenty years ago. I am not sure whether I was able to read this deeply into it as I could do now that I was reading Hoobler’s book. Percy, an admirer of Mary’s father William Godwin and his work, had become friends with Godwin. Therefore, Mary meets Percy, and they take off together, Percy abandoning his wife and two children to run off with her. I was completely taken by surprise to learn that Percy was something of a hippie, believing in free love and very much an activist. Along the way, they meet Byron, already an international celebrity and known as much for his looks as for his writing. Byron brings Polidori, his personal physician, and Mary brought her half-sister, Clare.
All throughout their journeys, they discussed some of the newest scientific developments, many of these ideas will find themselves in her future novel. She heard about capturing lightning in Leyden jars, reanimating dead frogs with electricity and many such things as she would never forget. She gave birth to two children with Percy, in these early days, neither of whom would survive, which raised questions for Mary, “Could she create life and not death in those she loved? Was she a monster?” (93). She dreamed of her baby coming to life again, rubbing it before the fire to make it live again. Were these early experiences inspiration for her novel?
My favorite chapter by far was “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe”, of course about Byron. I did not know so much about Byron before reading this, and I really appreciated the background because it explains a lot, for example, why Polidori would basically describe Byron in characterizing his vampyre for his short story. Byron was already the best known poet of his time and enjoyed international fame. Even Percy was in awe of him, and said that he could not write in Byron’s presence, afraid of never writing another line of poetry so long as he was around him. (Byron, a psychic vampire?)
Soon after the publication of her novel, which received good reviews and was quickly adapted for stage, a series of unfortunate deaths begins to plague Mary’s life, hence the subtitle of this book. It starts with her half-sister Fanny and Percy’s first wife. However, it does not stop there, and by the end of the book we realize that Mary finds herself alone, not so unlike her monster. She tries to find her place in society, but alas is shunned by most due to her unconventional life choices. Here the eerie part is how much like her nameless monster she really is, shut out by society and mostly only known for her father’s, her mother’s or her husband’s name.
Mary’s novel poses some very real questions about blind ambition and the potential dangers and fear of modern science. How far should one go in prolonging or creating life? Yet, it does not stop there, as she has also broached a psychological or sociological question of nature versus nurture, what was responsible for the monster’s evil ways? Was it neglect or was it his nature?
A brilliant biography and history of the birth of one of the greatest Gothic (maybe even the first science fiction) novels ever written. Well worth every bit of 5 stars!!