I picked up this book because I have read (and loved) the original story of Frankenstein and have a long standing interest in its author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), who is a fascinating woman of her time or any time. Unfortunately, this book didn’t turn out to be all I had hoped. Awarded three stars on Goodreads.
Historian M.R. (Mark) Arnold has crafted a well-researched novel about Mary Shelley’s life and the experiences she drew from in writing Frankenstein. Beginning with her childhood — dominated by a beloved father and influenced by a cruel stepmother and their blended children. At 16, she meets the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the two soon take off together, accompanied by Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont.
Sharing a philosophical belief in free love, the three flaunt many of the rules of 19th century society and face a good deal of criticism and ostracism. Arnold does a good job capturing the feel of that society — particularly the evening salons where intellectuals gathered to talk over big conceptual ideas (like the definition of life), quote from Shakespeare, reference Greek myths, and read poetry to one another. The language and voice of the book feel true to this era as well.
But as I made my way through, I came to feel the author became side-tracked with his own interest in the battling egos of Percy Shelley and friend Lord Byron. And, as a result, much of what I longed to read about Mary Shelley was simply not there.
I wanted to read more about the difficulties of a woman at this time trying to write, get published, and be taken seriously in a world dominated by men. Let’s explore her resentment, for example, when both Percy and Byron suggest substantial edits to her manuscript, often simply changing HER narrative to reflect their style?
Or more about the struggle balancing her desire to write, her relationship with Percy, and her parenting responsibilities (i.e. the timeless questions all women face, especially when trying to break out of gender norms). There are a few references to Mary nursing her babies but, since much of the time the couple is quite poor, it’s not clear who was actually minding their children?
By the end, I had to conclude the book suffered from having been written by a man who was unable to truly put himself in the mind of the book’s female protagonist and consider that her everyday concerns would have had a much wider scope than simply writing a book.
More about the author, Mark Arnold.
If you haven’t already done so, I strongly recommend reading Mary Shelley’s original 138-page gem of a book (Original Title: Frankenstein Or The Modern Prometheus), which is so much richer and more emotional than the monster movies most of us have seen. (I cried at the end.) A Kindle version is available for FREE. And, if you’re interested in a more faithful and nuanced video version, try Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), starring Michael Sarasin, included free with Amazon Prime.