Catherine Reef is the author of the new young adult biography Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein's Creator. Her other books include Victoria and Florence Nightingale. She lives in Maryland.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on Mary Shelley in your new young adult biography?
A: I had so many good reasons to write about Mary Shelley. First, Frankenstein, her most famous book, continues to be widely read by people in a broad age range. Young adults study it in high school and college English classes, and some even seek it out on their own.
Second, 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, which means that a biography of Mary Shelley published this year is especially timely.
And third, and perhaps most important in terms of creating an absorbing narrative, Shelley’s life story is such a compelling one. Think of it: she eloped with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was 16 years old and began writing her classic horror novel two years later. She had to cope with children born and lost, suicides, drownings, and early widowhood.
In my book I write that if an author were to pack all this melodrama into a novel, readers would complain that the goings-on were too wild to be believed. But nonfiction can accommodate tales that are stranger than fiction, can’t it? It’s a cliché, perhaps, but it’s true.
Q: Two hundred years after Frankenstein’s publication, what do you see as its legacy—and that of its author?
A: A quick study of Mary Shelley’s evolving reputation shows us that an author’s literary legacy is not always immediately apparent. For decades after her death, Shelley was remembered primarily as the wife and helpmate of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The fact that she wrote a strange and popular novel while in her teens was merely a curious footnote to history.
It wasn’t until the feminist movement gained strength in the second half of the 20th century that Mary Shelley was recognized as an important Romantic writer in her own right. New editions appeared of her lesser-known works, which for decades had been difficult to find; books she wrote that had never been published were finally brought out in print.
The world rediscovered a writer who had explored in depth such emotions as grief and guilt, who had delved into the psychological state of an incest victim.
Frankenstein, Shelley’s most famous novel, is an acknowledged classic of the horror genre. It is studied in schools and is the subject of academic dissertations. The story’s hold on the collective imagination is so strong that even people who don’t read 19th-century novels are familiar with Victor Frankenstein and his creature, from films and popular-culture references—from cartoons, toys, comic books, food products, and more.
And the notion of creating a “Frankenstein’s monster” frequently serves as a metaphor for human endeavor that has spun out of control and taken on an unintended life of its own.
The importance and influence of Frankenstein can be seen in the efforts being made to mark the 200th anniversary of its publication. For instance, Frankenstein at 200 was the title of a recent conference held at Washington University in St Louis.
Also, the National Geographic Network has announced that Mary Shelley will be the subject of the third season of its Genius series, to be broadcast in the fall.
And the Pierpont Morgan Library in Manhattan is mounting a major exhibition titled It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200, which will run from Oct. 12, 2018, through Jan. 27, 2019. I have offered just three examples of special programming to mark the event. There will be others as well.
Q: How would you define the relationship between Mary Shelley and her husband?
A: When you open my book Mary Shelley, you encounter two fragments of poetry, one written by Percy to Mary, and the other written by Mary after Percy’s death and addressing him. The verses are a clue that you are about to read a love story.
In fact, the Shelleys’ elopement and marriage constitute one of the great love stories in the history of literature. Look at what each partner willingly gave up to be with the other. Percy abandoned his pregnant wife and child. Mary turned her back on her family and sacrificed her reputation, which meant that she had lost her place in society and could expect no proper suitors to come calling.
Several times during the years they were together, first as lovers and then as spouses, the two weathered tragic and difficult circumstances: chronic financial hardship, being shunned by their families and some old friends, the deaths of three children, the suicide of Percy’s first wife. Each by itself was devastating enough to tear other couples apart, but the Shelleys stayed united.
The relationship wasn’t perfect; he was impulsive and sometimes unfeeling or neglectful, and he seemed to have a roving eye. She could bury her emotions and appear cold and uncaring.
Yet when Percy died in 1822, at age 29, Mary grieved profoundly. She was only in her 20s herself, but she never had a desire to marry again—no one could match Percy in her estimation. She kept a relic, an organ pulled from his cremated body that she believed to be his heart. It was still in her possession nearly 30 years later, when she died.
Q: Mary Shelley was the daughter of an early feminist thinker. How do you think feminism affected Shelley’s own life?
A: Mary Shelley was very much her mother’s daughter, although she had no memories of her. Mary Wollstonecraft died when her infant girl was 11 days old.
The elder Mary left a strong impression, however, through memories shared by her husband, William Godwin; through her portrait, which hung prominently in the Godwin home; and through her writings, which young Mary, an avid reader, came to know well.
In their elopement and unconventional lifestyle, Mary and Percy Shelley saw themselves as followers of Wollstonecraft’s example, heeding the callings of their hearts and seeking experience and enlightenment through travel.
Mary Shelley was also a disciple of Wollstonecraft’s in her writing. For example, her novel Lodore (1835) calls for better education of girls, which was one of Wollstonecraft’s themes.
The concerns and accomplishments of women figured prominently in much of Shelley’s other work. The novel Mathilda, which remained unpublished in Shelley’s lifetime due to its subject matter, is the work that examines the effects of incest on a young woman.
And in biographical sketches of European writers that she wrote for hire, Shelley included women worthy of mention, writers her editors would have comfortably overlooked.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: These days I am researching and writing a young adult biography of the legendary Sarah Bernhardt, who was possibly the world’s first superstar. The daughter of an unmarried Jewish courtesan and thought to have been born in 1844, Bernhardt rose to prominence on the French stage and won numerous fans throughout Europe and in the Americas.
There is no doubt that she was talented and charismatic, but she was also an early master of the art of publicity. She adopted an eccentric style of dress that included a hat made from a stuffed bat and a live chameleon as an ornament on her jacket. She had herself photographed in a coffin in which she claimed to sleep, and she took off in a hot-air balloon with much of Paris watching.
All of this makes for fun reading, but there is more to the Divine Sarah’s story that makes it a more important one. Did you know that she was a great patriot? During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, she almost singlehandedly turned a closed theater into a hospital for wounded soldiers and tirelessly nursed the men herself.
In the early 20th century, when France was fighting World War I, she became one of the first performers to travel to the front lines and entertain troops. There is much to admire about this colorful, persistent, giving woman.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: A strange phenomenon I have encountered more than once in my biographical research is the way a certain theme or motif will appear and reappear throughout a person’s life.
In Mary Shelley’s case, I repeatedly came across references to contact with the dead and the regeneration of life, concepts that of course are basic to Frankenstein.
As a child Mary Godwin found comfort playing on Wollstonecraft’s grave; at home she listened while her father and his learned friends discussed scientific efforts to bring life to dead tissue; the same topic fascinated Mary, Percy, and their friends when they summered at Lake Geneva in 1816.
Mary kept a souvenir of Percy’s body, as I mentioned earlier, and later in life, at her father’s burial, she had the opportunity to stare into her mother’s opened grave. You will spot these occurrences when you read Mary Shelley, and maybe you will discover others!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Catherine Reef.