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The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of…

The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein

by Dorothy Hoobler

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"At the heart of the book (Frankenstein) is the mystery of creativity and its consequences, something that concerned - even, at times, tormented - all five of the people at Villa Diodati. In their outsized passions, their remarkable talents, their distorted personal lives, their never-satisfied yearning for love - they were all monsters."

Most people have heard of that dark, stormy summer night at Lake Geneva when Lord Byron, Percy & Mary Shelley, Claire (Mary’s stepsister, pregnant by Byron) and Polidori (Byron’s doctor) listened to ghost stories told by candlelight. The group also exchanged news of the most interesting scientific and medical discoveries of their day. All five came away inspired to write, though of the resulting efforts, only Mary’s Frankenstein achieved lasting success.

The Monsters, though obviously favoring Mary, is a communal, corporate biography of these individuals, who would remain linked after they left the cottage. Using letters and journals Hoobler weaves a tapestry that gives a fascinating portrait of their life together. I didn’t know much about any of these individuals before I started in and I was completely unable to stop reading about them.

John Polidori was the outsider of the group, so naturally his role is small, but still interesting. He only studied medicine at his father’s insistence but had aspirations of being an author. Polly Dolly (as Byron named him) apparently gave himself license to pursue his passion after finding himself in such literary company. When published, his gothic novel, The Vampyre, was rumored to be penned by Byron. I think Polidori learned well from his former employer. By allowing the controversy he knew sales would increase and the notoriety would make him famous.

Lord Byron’s reputation keeps him popular but I never understood how much of a rockstar he was in his day. His behavior certainly kept me shaking my head, it seems celebrities have not changed much. Hoobler helped me to understand that overcompensating for his self-esteem issues resulted in some wild antics, and the attention he got as a result then fed into his vanity. Byron seems to me like a line of toppling dominos, a complete mess but fun to watch. I’m convinced that being a true friend to him would have been a tough exercise and was really the only admirable thing I found in Percy.

The train wreck of Claire Clairmont’s life was completely her own doing and I found myself largely apathetic to her situation. And even angry, at times, at how her actions affected Mary and Percy. It’s like that old nail-horseshoe-horse-war proverb. Had not Claire solicited Byron, she would not have fallen pregnant by him, she would not have introduced him to Percy, Percy might not have embraced sailing and he might not have drowned, etc. I also did not care for her behavior with Percy and the strain she put on his marriage. But then again, had Percy been a man of morals or had Mary put her foot down, Claire wouldn’t have been able to do so. So, it’s really the what-ifs that make me dislike Claire.

The Monsters vividly paints the tragedy of Mary Shelley’s whole existence. Her father gave her her own mother’s name after the woman expired from the birth. Of course, Mary also had her father’s name until she was (finally) wed to Percy and took his name. She went where Percy went. Whatever schedule Percy kept, she kept. She even lost most of her children (only one lived to adulthood). So Mary never really had much to call her own, until Frankenstein. Hoobler really focuses in on that in the novel and how Mary expressed her own feelings and desires through it. I gained a new appreciation for Frankenstein while reading about Mary.

And Percy. I don’t like Percy. His unconventionalness ruffles my conventionalness and that’s really the heart of it. Byron’s actions, though not any more moral, didn’t seem to bother me as much as Percy’s and I don’t understand that yet. But I didn’t find any affection (of my own) for Percy in these pages.

The Monsters was a page-turner for me and I’m not a huge biography reader, so I think those that like biographies will really enjoy it. I also think it works well as a travelogue. It would make a fabulous tandem read alongside Frankenstein even though it’s not gothic in nature. But don’t let that keep you from cuddling up with it on a dark and stormy night… ( )
1 vote VictoriaPL | Oct 14, 2011 |
This is perhaps the best biography I have ever read. It's almost novelesque in the brilliancy of its storytelling. The book is about the complex web of relationships between Mary Shelley, her not yet husband, Percy Bysche Shelley, and George Gordon Lord Byron. Threaded into this are Mary's step-sister (the mother of one of Byron's children) and a dozen or so other literary and philosophical figures of the time. The narrative, somehow without loosing focus or momentum, takes us back into the lives of the poets' parentage, including a close up look at Mary's parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, who were important figures in their time. In doing so, we are allowed an opportunity to understand just how their aims at a marriage free society and equal rights for women affected Mary as a child and molded her into the woman who would run away with a poet and write a horror classic.

In fact the Frankenstein was the result of a dare issued by Byron himself. After a night of ghost stories and stormy weather, in which Percy Shelley was reduced to screams and tears and fist of terror (Mary's breasts were staring at him), Byron proposed that they each, along with his personal physician (and what else?) construct a horror story of their own. Byron started, but did not finish. As did Percy. Polidori began the first tentative passages that would one day become "The Vampyre" the model by which Bram Stoker and Stephanie Myer would one day fashion their vampires. The young and apparently inconsequential Mary had nothing, however, until a dream, several days later inspired the birth of Frankenstein's monster. Hers was the only story to be finished as a direct result of the dare, and, as we know, she became a formidable literary figure in her own right. As for "The Vampyre", it was published many years later, and only as a result of Polidori's bitterness toward Byron, in which the great poet is resembled in the key figure.

This book is so full of language and atmosphere, it really deserves a star place on my shelf. Though I am not a student of the Romantics or of the Regency era, it is, nevertheless, a fascinating peek into the lives of a few kindred souls who, for a time, steered that ship. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the era or the Romantic movement, or in the poets and authors themselves, or...well...anyone really who likes to hear a good story well told. And it's all true. You couldn't make up fiction this extraordinary. ( )
  vrchristensen | Oct 7, 2011 |
I went back and forth with whether or not I enjoyed this book. The first couple chapters were difficult for me to get into. Several times I was thoroughly drawn in by the events taking place, but eventually I would get bored again. I did really like reading the journal entries and excerpts from letters between various famous authors and those they associated with- they made the people seem more real. And what scandalous lives they all led!! Wollstonecraft, Godwin, the Shelleys, Lord Byron, Polidori, Fuseli- all seemed to have very little morality by the end! I was unaware that adultery was so rampant among the great literary minds of the period! Overall, a great read for historical and literary buffs, not so great for leisure reading. ( )
  StephaniePetty | Jul 30, 2011 |
Wow. People lived scandalously even in the Romantic period! This book introduces the reader to the famous back story of how Frankenstein was written. The lives of Mary Shelly, her family, her husband Percy Shelly, and their friends Lord Byron and Polidori (Byron's doctor) are explained in rather good detail, revealing secrets about them all, and their motivations that are never mentioned in any English classes I've heard of. I love the way the authors linked events from Mary Shelly's life to her inspiration for her greatest novel and even to certain aspects of the novel such as places and events depicted in the novel.This was a great book and I recommend it to anyone interested in the histories of authors, or in the romantic age itself. The book can easily serve as a short biography of any of the characters I mentioned and a few more. It has very interesting information about everyone including Lord Byron and Percy Shelly's relationship as well as their lives as described by their friends, their lovers, and even themselves. ( )
  homeofharris | Oct 23, 2010 |
This is the story of the famous "ghost story contest" initiated by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816, which resulted in the writing of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. More broadly, it's the story of the people who were gathered together that fateful summer; Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin (Shelley's lover, who would later become Mary Shelley); Mary's step-sister Claire Claremont, who was Byron's lover and had probably also been Percy Shelley's lover; Dr. John Polidori, who would write his own novel as a result of his involvement in the group --The Vampire, which introduced elements that influenced Stoker's Dracula). It also attempts to analyze how the life experiences of the group influenced their writings.

I'm not sure how to rate or review this. My knowledge of the subjects of this book is limited; however, I know just from what I've read on threads here (regarding a Percy Shelley biography) that some of the conclusions the Hooblers have drawn about Mary Shelley's life contradict what others have published. The Hooblers acknowledge that the surviving record allows for various interpretations -- many letters and pages from the journals of Mary Shelley and others have not survived.

I'm not sure how expert their interpretations are of the literature, especially the poetry -- I am not an expert on poetry.

However, it was a pretty good read. These are fascinating people living in a fascinating time, and I thought that the book gave a resonable overview of their lives and influences upon one another. ( )
  tymfos | Jul 20, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316066400, Paperback)

One murky night in 1816, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lord Byron, famed English poet, challenged his friends to a contest--to write a ghost story. The assembled group
included the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; his lover (and future wife) Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; Mary's stepsister Claire Claremont; and Byron's physician, John William Polidori. The famous result was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a work
that has retained its hold on the popular imagination for almost two centuries. Less well-known was the curious Polidori's contribution: the first vampire novel. And the
evening begat a curse, too: Within a few years of Frankenstein's publication, nearly all of those involved met untimely deaths. Drawing upon letters, rarely tapped archives, and their own magisterial rereading of Frankenstein itself, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler have crafted a rip-roaring tale of obsession and creation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:07 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"The Monsters tells the story of the real-life characters surrounding the creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Drawing on private diaries, personal letters, and contemporary accounts, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler have crafted a spectacular narrative of artistic creation and personal destruction. They reveal not just the true origins of two of the most famous monsters in popular culture, but also the monstrous and tragic nature of the young people who gathered that summer on the shores of Lake Geneva."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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