Happy birthday, Mary

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born on this day in 1797, the daughter of radicals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Well-educated and not particularly happy at home (there was some friction between Mary and her stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont), it was only natural that when a handsome young poet showed up, she’d fall in love and run off with him. Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, who later had a torrid affair with Byron, accompanied them to Europe.

Shelley already had a wife, Harriet, but these were the heady days of sex, opium, and the sonata form. Godwin, his radical sexual politics put to the test, became estranged from his daughter.

In the summer of 1816, Shelley, Mary, and Byron were in Switzerland and it was there, in response to a challenge to tell the best ghost story, Mary started to write Frankenstein.

After Shelley’s death in 1822 she returned to England and supported herself as a writer until her death in 1851, penning short stories, essays, poems, and reviews, and several other novels.

I’m not doing justice at all to Mary’s adventurous, unconventional, and sad life, so I encourage you to read a book that does–Passion by Jude Morgan. It’s about the women who became entangled with Byron, Shelley, and Keats, beautifully written, and with a wonderfully strong sense of time and place. I was going to save this one for my beach reads, or best reads of 2007 blog, but it’s so good I have to tell you about it right now, and what better time than Mary’s birthday.

Have you read this book or any other book, fictional or biographical, about the Godwins, Mary, Shelley, Byron et al? Do you have any recommendations?

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Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

I’m so fortunate that Janet insisted I schlep this big, heavy, wonderful book home from RWA National. I loved it. Hell, I LURRRVED it, or however it is the Smart Bitches say it.

It’s gorgeously written, but the main thing I kept thinking was yes, if I were in Caroline Lamb’s, or Augusta Byron’s, or Fanny Brawne’s, or Mary Shelley’s position, I think I might feel like that. All these women had so many difficulties — money, health, difficult men and demanding families, inner demons (Caroline) and a complicated world that was changing around them.

The most entertaining, touching, instructive book I’ve read in a great great while — I read pieces of it out loud to Michael in bed, and I thought certain parts were quite hot, too.

Tracy Grant
15 years ago

Great post! I haven’t read “Passion” but I’ve been meaning to. Mary Shelley’s life is fascinating. I read a wonderful biography of her by Miranda Seymour. I read it primarily because I was trying to get the flavor of radical/intellectual/bohemiam life in the times, but I found myself totally drawn into the fascinating story of herr life.

Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

It’s a truth little acknowledged, I’m afraid, that radical/bohemianism is still pretty much the dark side of the Regency romance moon. We still mostly see the period through Austen/Heyer Tory lenses.

And in many ways it’s safer and prettier that way. The Shelley circle wasn’t as safe a place as Mary (or most women, I suspect) would have wished it, and there were very few HEAs. In The Slightest Provocation, my heroine says a quick “thank you, no” when Shelley hits on her. When I wrote that scene, I didn’t know how many women he did hit on, in a way that sounds more like 60s SDS than I would have imagined.

But the radicalism, the belief in new ideas and possibilities — the passion — tug at the heart nonethless.

Another touching and wonderful book about the period is Love’s Children, by Judith Chernaik, the story of the year in which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, 1817 — both the first conception of it in Italy and the succeeding year in England — told, like Passion, from alternating povs of 4 women: Fanny Imlay, Harriet Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Claire Clairmont.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
15 years ago

What a wonderful post, and now I have yet another book to add to the TBR pile. I’ve always been fascinated with the four of them ever since I saw the play “Bloody Poetry”. Anyone see the awful movie Ken Russell made called “Gothic”? Gabriel Bryne was a wonderful Byron in it.

15 years ago

Oh geez, I’m so ignorant about these people, other than the basic facts on who they are, what they did. . . the most I read is a small book of Lord Byron’s poetry. But that book looks mighty interesting though. . . 🙂


Janet Mullany
15 years ago

One of the scary Twilight Zone-ish things that Pam and I have in common is that we both, in one of our books, had our heroine hit on by a famous poet. In Dedication, Fabienne is propositioned by a poet whom I based extremely loosely on Byron (he’s short and out to shock). And that episode in The Slightest Provocation had me laughing myself silly!

I recommend Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and “The Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron” by Edward Trelawney.

I think I did see part of “Gothic”–so, so 60s; the only Ken Russell film I’ve really loved is Women in Love, which I saw a year or so again and didn’t find at all dated, which I think is a great credit to him.

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

I do wish you people would stop mentioning BOOKS!! My budget can’t handle much more of this!!!!!

Seriously, you’ve given me yet another area of Regency life to explore. Mills & Boon likes me to do the seamier side of the Regency, so I need to muck around in the muck, so to speak!

(I ordered Passion)

Tracy Grant
15 years ago

Pam, I *loved* the bit in “The Slightest Provocation” about Shelley hitting on your Mary (and the Byron-esque figure in “Dedication” sounds great too). Reading the Miranda Seymour biography, I was a bit startled by just unfaithful he was. The radical/bohemian lens definitely doesn’t show a neat and tidy world, but I think it’s all the more interesting because of it.

I never saw “Gothic”, but I have seen two other movies about that summer, one I’m blanking on the name of, the other “Rowing with the Wind” with a very young Hugh Grant as Byron and a very young Elizabeth Hurley as Claire Claremont.

Diane, I guest blogged yesterday on History Hoydens about “The Dark Side of the Regency” (http://historyhoydens.blogspot.com).

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

Diane, I guest blogged yesterday on History Hoydens about “The Dark Side of the Regency” (http://historyhoydens.blogspot.com)

Very good post, Tracy!!!!

Georgie Lee
15 years ago

Last summer I finally read Frankenstein. What a great study in the way our demons can haunt us to exhaustion. I’ll have to get “Passion.” It sounds like a great read.

15 years ago

Ooooh, Passion sounds excellent!

At this point, I’ll have to wait for Yule. It’s on my list to the Great Elf in the red suit. 🙂

Keira Soleore
15 years ago

Janet, thanks for the recommendation. I’ve added it to my this weekend’s bookstore run.

Pam, did you pick this book up at the book fair or from the goody room? Perhaps radical bohemianism can be combined with Anna Campbell’s vision for Regency Noir and made acceptable?

Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

It wasn’t in the goody room, Keira. Janet gave me her copy. And she’s also recommended I check out Anna Campbell — thanks for your prodding as well.

The thing, perhaps, about radical bohemianism, is that it first benefits men at women’s expense. In any real world that pregnancy/childbirth thing will tend to get in the way. And so, some of the strongest, smartest women will always opt for other — perhaps less honest — power positions, like that of a Lady Melbourne, for example.

It’s hard to satisfy our lusts for power, equality, respect, romantic rebellion, and a HEA all at the same time. (Nor did the male romantics do so well either.)

And definitely not a “comfort read”.

Cara King
15 years ago

I never saw “Gothic”, but I have seen two other movies about that summer, one I’m blanking on the name of

Tracy, might it have been Haunted Summer? That had Eric Stoltz as Shelley, Philip Anglim as Byron, Laura Dern as Claire, Alex Winter as Polidori, and Alice Krige [Borg queen!] as Mary. And it has some interesting stuff in it, IMHO…


Tracy Grant
15 years ago

Thanks so much, Cara! I think it was “Haunted Summr” . I thought I remembered the cast being more British over all, but Alice Krige sounds right (though to me she’ll always be not the Borg Queen but the heroine from “Chariots of Fire” :-).

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