In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson review – the girl who wrote Frankenstein

Two hundred years after the creation of the gothic masterpiece, a new study tracks down the woman behind the monster

When Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) was a high-spirited teenager, on the onset of puberty, one of her arms became “mysteriously handicapped”. Perhaps suffering from severe eczema or psoriasis, the arm grew “like a monstrous appendage stitched from some other body on to her own”. It was a formative bodily episode that led to the young woman being sent away from her family home in the stinking streets around London’s Smithfield market to recuperate in the sea air of Ramsgate. In the longer term, it may have contributed imaginative material for the corporeal form of the “creature she invents in her first novel [who] will be stitched together by Frankenstein”.

In In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein, published to mark the novel’s bicentenary, Fiona Sampson sets out to retrieve Mary Shelley – precocious child, celebrated writer, anguished mother and wife – from the shadow of the celebrity friends and family by whom she is often obscured: from her parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin; her husband, the charismatic atheist and free love advocate, Percy Bysshe Shelley; her friend and literary confidant, Lord Byron; even Mary’s own creation, Frankenstein’s monster, one of literature’s most enduring archetypes. Mary has “gone missing” from literary history, Sampson claims; she has “fade[d] to white” like Frankenstein’s creature who “goes out, alone again, onto the Arctic ice to die”.

Sampson attributes Mary’s supposed erasure to a combination of celebrity eclipse, compounded by “some hidden hand’s” destruction of her correspondence, the loss of her juvenilia in a trunk mislaid in Paris during her 1814 elopement, disappearance of volumes of her journal; and Mary’s own reticence, resulting in the lack of published autobiographical material.

In the face of this archival dearth, Sampson nevertheless builds a personality, piecing together what it must have been like to grow up and live as Mary Shelley, until we can “see the actual texture of her existence”. In places, Sampson is as adept as Frankenstein himself, giving life to a figure who convincingly aches and bleeds. She points out the importance of the sex of Frankenstein’s author, noting that the period in which Mary writes the book, from the autumn of 1816 to December 1817, is full of “intensely corporeal changes”: births (of Mary’s third child, Clara, and of her stepsister Claire Clairmont’s daughter Alba, later renamed Allegra); and deaths (the suicides of Mary’s sister Fanny and Percy’s first wife Harriet).

Mary Shelley … precocious child, celebrated writer, anguished mother and wife.
Mary Shelley … precocious child, celebrated writer, anguished mother and wife. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Frankenstein becomes a lens through which we peer into Mary’s embodied self, and vice versa. We are invited to imagine inhabiting the infected arm, the postpartum body, the “compound tiredness that must come from breastfeeding while living on an inadequately understood vegetarian diet”, the miscarriages that ensured “Mary cannot avoid knowing … that the creation of life is costly” and difficult, and “to give life to a full-term, fully human ‘progeny’ more difficult still”.

The landscapes and interiors within which Sampson’s subject moves are as crisply rendered as Frankenstein’s own plane of Arctic ice: the swiftly urbanising fields north of London’s Pancras Place, where Mary is born; the Alpine glacier that her journal recorded as “the most desolate place in the world”; the palatial rooms of a handsome palazzo in Pisa in which the Shelleys lived in splendid isolation.

Towards the end of her life, aged 51, we read of Mary attempting not to “vegetate”, in her words, at her dead husband’s birthplace, Field Place in Sussex, accompanied by her surviving son, Percy Florence, and her daughter-in-law. Sampson warns that the apparent symmetry of her later years, between her marriage and her later return to Shelley’s childhood home, risks fuelling a “deeply conservative fantasy” that the events of Mary’s life were inevitable all along. Sampson tries to rescue her from such patriarchal determinism by structuring her biography as a series of choppy freeze frames’, static painterly tableaux in Mary’s life around which she traces the run-up and fall-out. Chapters are centred around, for example, a tragically illusoryscene in which Wollstonecraft presents Godwin with a healthy baby, lit by oil lamps like a study “of the Holy Family by Rembrandt”; or, 17 years later, the moment when the writer Thomas Jefferson Hogg witnesses a tartan-clad teenage Mary appear behind a door and Percy Shelley darts “out of the room, like an arrow from the bow of the far-shooting king”; and “the most famous tableau of Mary’s life”, as she and Percy sit in the drawing room of Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, shortly before the challenge to write a ghost story is issued.

Hadley Fraser as Frankenstein and Shuler Hensley as the monster in Young Frankenstein at the Garrick theatre.
Hadley Fraser as Frankenstein and Shuler Hensley as the monster in Young Frankenstein at the Garrick theatre. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

The freeze frame structure allows Sampson to gloss over periods of life that she considers largely superfluous to the meat of Mary’s intellectual achievements, particularly the later years that don’t contribute to the writing of Frankenstein. But this methodology – this sifting of a life according to moments that posterity has deemed consequential – sits awkwardly at odds with Sampson’s self-stated biographer’s duty to “hugely enlarge” Mary and try to comprehend her. So when, for example, Mary, Percy, Claire and their children set out for a continental trip in 1818, and we are warned that “four years from now all three of the infants who make that rough March crossing of the English Channel will be dead of infectious diseases”, we are abruptly disconnected from Mary’s “inner life” and brought closer, instead, to the biographer’s position of retrospective knowledge.

Despite her aims to understand Mary’s thoughts and motivations, Sampson – herself a poet, editor of Percy Shelley’s poetry and literary critic – is acutely aware of the limitations of “inner life” biography. Early in In Search of Mary Shelley, she considers the importance of mirrors: the stepsister in whom Mary saw herself reflected and distorted; the necessity of the “blind side” that transforms a sheet of glass into a mirror; and the advent of the Spiegelkabinett, the specially arranged German mirror cabinets that dared users to discover “a hitherto unsuspected ugliness” (a metaphor for the Romantics’ discovery of the irrational, unruly subconscious lurking behind the apparent serenity of the conscious, rational mind).

Biography, too, is a form of mirror. It both reflects and distorts, not only its subject, but the biographer too. Biographers are the blind side to the reflection, the Frankenstein to the pieced-together creature. In 1835, Mary reflected on how “the true end of biography” was to deduce “the peculiar character of the man” from the “minute, yet characteristic details” that punctuated the life: from the specifics of place and clothing and bodily experience in which Sampson’s biography excels. And it is their shared faith in biography as a valuable exploration of character, despite the imperfections of the genre, that is perhaps what brings Sampson closest in her search for Mary Shelley.

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein is published by Profile. To order a copy for £13.99 (RRP £18.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Rachel Hewitt

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Frankenstein at 200 – why hasn't Mary Shelley been given the respect she deserves?
Shelley’s Frankenstein has spoken to technological and cultural anxieties from the Enlightenment to #MeToo. But its author’s achievements have too often been dismissed or treated with scepticism

Fiona Sampson

13, Jan, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson review – a dazzling reanimation of Shelley’s novel
Hard science and dreamy Romanticism combine in a meditation on the responsibilities of creation and the possibilities of AI

Sam Byers

24, May, 2019 @8:00 AM

Mary Shelley by Muriel Spark – review
Victoria Segal admires Muriel Spark's biography of Mary Shelley, which focuses on the woman and refuses to be distracted by the celebrities in her life

Victoria Segal

05, Apr, 2013 @4:13 PM

Article image
In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein review – a life after deaths
This vibrant, incident-packed biography of the novelist is haunted by all the people she lost

Rachel Cooke

07, Jan, 2018 @7:30 AM

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – review

Valentine: 'Every book that has been written about artificial intelligence since Frankenstein owes something to Mary Shelley. I found the relationship between monster and creator compelling and fascinating'


06, Aug, 2014 @2:00 PM

Article image
My hero: Mary Shelley by Neil Gaiman
Gothic fiction had been all the rage for some time, but Shelley's Frankenstein still changed everything. By Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

18, Oct, 2014 @7:00 AM

Article image
Girl by Edna O’Brien review – a masterclass of storytelling
The Irish author lays bare the trauma of Nigeria’s abducted schoolgirls in this remarkable novel

Alex Clark

06, Sep, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
Frankenstein by Dave Morris – review

Mary Shelley's novel has been recreated as an app. Kate Pullinger tries it out

Kate Pullinger

17, May, 2012 @8:00 AM

Article image
Kenneth Clark by James Stourton review – Mary Beard on Civilisation without women
Clark’s patrician manner, and the ‘great man’ approach of his famous TV series, now seem outdated. This biography retrieves his influence, but has worrying sexual politics

Mary Beard

01, Oct, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Civilisations: How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith by Mary Beard – review
Islamic calligraphy and whistling statues – we’ve come a long way from the Kenneth Clark’s patrician worldview

Kathryn Hughes

01, Mar, 2018 @7:29 AM