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Mary Shelley by Miranda Seymour
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Mary Shelley

by Miranda Seymour

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I have a love/hate relationship with Miranda Seymour's rambling account of the fascinating life of 19th century gothic novelist Mary Shelley. While the subject matter is truly intriguing, Seymour fails to do justice by the long-suffering Mrs. Shelley.
The daughter of a well-known feminist who died in childbirth and a philosopher father, Mary Shelley was destined for tragic greatness. She led a tumultuous life on the edge by 19th century standards - running off with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley at the age of 16 was just the beginning of a lifetime marked with scandal. Mary was a hot topic for gossips throughout Europe in her day. She suffered through her poet husband's infidelities and early death, the deaths of all but one of her children, abusive behavior from family members, and serious money problems. She wrote her greatest work, Frankenstein, at the age of 19, and her career essentially went downhill from there. While she remained a fixture on the fringe of rebel literary society, she never achieved the social acceptance or literary respectability she longed for.
Unfortunately, Miranda Seymour manages to take this whirlwind of a life and bore you to tears with it. Her dry writing style and unpleasant habit of over-examining and revisiting minute details are exasperating. Seymour's prose occasionally takes on a slangy tone that I found mildly annoying and inconsistent. The book has it shining moments of clarity; however, I was often put-off by the author's confusing method of organizing her facts. She jumped back and forth in time and it was often difficult to discern what year in Mary Shelley's life Seymour was trying to discuss. It took me forever to finish "Mary Shelley" (to the point where it became a joke among family and friends) - the only reason I persevered is because I really wanted to know how this fascinating life culminated. Call me a glutton for punishment - even though the presentation was maddeningly dry and poorly organized, Mary Shelley herself is captivating. Perhaps another writer will take up her case more concisely some day. ( )
  mefs | Mar 5, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802139485, Paperback)

She was the daughter of pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical philosopher William Godwin, both reviled for their unconventional views. She ran away with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was 16 and wrote Frankenstein when she was 19. Three of her four children died in infancy; her husband drowned before she turned 25. Yet Mary Shelley (1797-1851) persevered to write other novels (none so famous as her first), to nurture her husband's literary status (decidedly shaky at the time of his death), and to support her son and acquire a devoted daughter-in-law who was partly responsible for her rather dull posthumous reputation as the quintessential devoted widow. British novelist and biographer Miranda Seymour paints a more nuanced portrait of Mary as a sharply intelligent, sometimes cantankerous woman who did not always graciously suffer Percy's blithe impetuousness and principled infidelities (possibly including one with her stepsister). Guilt at being the innocent cause of her mother's death may have played a part in the genesis of Frankenstein, Seymour acknowledges, but so did Mary's views on slavery, the landscape of Scotland, and the tales she heard there as a teenager of disastrous Arctic expeditions. The story of how Frankenstein came to be written while the Shelleys were vacationing in Switzerland with Byron is well known, but Seymour retells it well. Her strong account of how Mary's character was formed in conflict, first with an unloved stepmother and then with a difficult husband, makes the subsequent 30 years of her life more understandable and almost as interesting as the first quarter century. Drawing on feminist scholarship of the last 30 years but written for the general public, Seymour's lucid biography captures the whole woman, not just the author of Frankenstein or the grieving widow of Percy Shelley. --Wendy Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:03 -0400)

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