Flavorwire Interview: Mary Shelley Biographer Charlotte Gordon on the Life, Loves, and Legacy of the Influential ‘Frankenstein’ Author


Happy 218th birthday to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein author, feminist, and daughter of writer and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. The lives and esteemed works of both Marys were recently explored in the book Romantic Outlaws , a fascinating dual biography written by Charlotte Gordon. Our own Sarah Seltzer called the text “immense, and immensely readable.” Flavorwire spoke to Gordon about Mary Shelley’s creative legacy, her struggles for legitimacy while in a marriage that often overshadowed her literary contributions, and the influence of her pioneering mother on her life and work.

Flavorwire: Frankenstein is Mary’s legacy. So much has been written about her personal connection to the narrative and the symbolism of the Creature. Mary was born essentially motherless, since Wollstonecraft died just days after she gave birth. And it seems Mary felt like her father abandoned her. So, in a way she felt parentless. Some feminist readings suggest that Frankenstein tells us that advancement and invention will essentially lead to the eradication of women or mothers. Can you talk more about this?

Charlotte Gordon: You already put it pretty perfectly. I think what I would say is that so often Frankenstein is seen as a kind of cautionary tale about the dangers of technology and too much ambition in the world of science. I tend to read Frankenstein as a parable about what life would be like, and what life is like, in a world without mothers, a world without women, and a world without the solidifying effect and influence of intimate or close relationships.

So, Mary Shelley would have felt a lot of anxiety about being a woman in 19th-century society — but especially being a woman who was creative?

She would have. Often, women who are artists or women who stepped outside the box were called monsters. Later in life — in fact, not much later — she would make a link between the Creature of Frankenstein and outcasts, and the women she knew who were abandoned by men and killed themselves. That included her husband Shelley and his first wife, and her mother’s attempted suicide. She makes a link between their despair and their monstrousness, how they’re viewed as monsters in society, and her Creature — who had the same exact reading list as she does and Shelley does. What kind of monster is sitting around reading Paradise Lost? It’s so funny.

What are some of the other parallels between Frankenstein and Mary’s own life? I was reading a letter Mary wrote to Thomas Jefferson Hogg where she refers to her deceased baby as “it” — and this reminded me of the way the Creature remains unnamed.

There’s a lot. I just want to say, it was actually a cultural convention to refer to babies as “it.” So, it’s not too unusual to do that. One thing I noticed from reading Percy Shelley’s letters is he didn’t like it.

Percy Shelley scholars will probably jump up and down if I say this, but a lot of Frankenstein’s women and the Creature’s women sound an awful lot like Percy Shelley’s women. “How come the world isn’t better than me? No one is paying attention to me?” I just feel like Mary poured her life right into the text. The men she was living with sound an awful lot like the men in the book — and not in a great way. At that time, she was so deeply in love with Percy Shelley. He could be super ambitious, but he didn’t always care about the impact of his ambition on others. Ultimately, some of his ideas and plans, she felt, would cost some of their babies their lives.

Let’s go back for a moment to Mary and Shelley’s early relationship. They met in secret at her mother’s grave. This seems like a pretty wild thing to do for the time. Why did she choose this spot? What did they talk about?

There are many things that drew me to writing the book, but when I read that, I was like “Oh my god, how can everyone not know this?” It’s so absurd and tragic. Her mother’s gravestone was absolutely her special place. Ever since she was a little girl, her father used to take her for walks through the graveyard to say hello to her mother. We think that’s where she learned how to read. It really was a kind of iconic, special place where she would go by herself. When she and Percy were falling in love, of course she’s going to take him there. But also because “Wollstonecraft,” to her daughter, was a symbol of freedom and free love. Mary Wollstonecraft thought there was nothing worse for women in the world than marriage. I think if young Mary was going to declare her love to the already married Percy, she needed that kind of symbol — a symbol of her mother who said marriage is bad for women. At the gravestone, not only did she declare her love for Percy, she’s also declaring the fact that she doesn’t care about the rules. “What do I care if you’re already married? Let’s run away together.” It does crack me up that they run away to Paris, because that’s where Mary Wollstonecraft went. And then, why did they take all of Mary Wollstonecraft’s books and read aloud from Mary Wollstonecraft?

That was my next question. During Mary’s travels to Switzerland, they read her mother’s works aloud. How did Shelley feel about Wollstonecraft’s writings on women?

Oh, he admired her so much. In fact, before he met young Mary, he stared at her mother’s portrait. He was intrigued to meet young Mary, because he heard she was so much like her mother. Mary Wollstonecraft was still, by the time he met Mary, one of the most famous women in Europe. Although, she had been, by that time, called a whore and been kind of discredited. Still, amongst radicals, her Vindication of the Rights of Men and Vindication of the Rights of Woman were still really famous. And her lifestyle made her famous. To someone like Percy, she was totally admirable.

He would have read everything by her, and anyone who considered themselves a “radical” would have read her work?

Or a lot of it. They would have really admired her.

Were those texts easy to get at that time, since Wollstonecraft was such a radical figure?

Yes. And some of the older generation had read them when they first came out. If you think about the Romantic poets… one thing I was taught in college was that Romanticism started in 1801 with [William] Wordsworth and [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge’s prologue to their collected poems. But in fact, Wordsworth and Coleridge read a Mary Wollstonecraft book called Letters Written in Sweden. What’s really great about it is that Mary Wollstonecraft, after her heart was broken by this really bad, sexy American [Gilbert Imlay], for lots of complicated reasons, is roaming around Scandinavia. She’s supposed to be doing business there, but she notices when she’s roaming around in nature looking at waterfalls and pine trees, and then comes home and writes about it, that she starts to feel better. So, she publishes this book about this experience of wandering around in nature with essentially a broken heart, because this man abandoned her — but how nature heals her and helps her be introspective. It’s really beautiful writing. These two young poets read it, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and they say, “We’re going to write like that.” So, she inspired the birth of Romanticism. So, even if Shelley hadn’t been a radical, he might well have read her through the tradition of the next generation of poets. She was a Romantic inspirer. The idea that your writing should be introspective, and it’s good to put emotion into your work, and people want to know your inner life, and psychology is super important — these are all new ideas when she was writing this.

Knowing all that, was there a lot of pressure that Mary felt to live up to the legacy of her mother?

Totally. She writes about that. In fact, Shelley pressured her. She writes about that in her diary when she’s working on Frankenstein, that she wants to live up to her parents’ literary heritage. And she says Shelley is pushing her to do that. She really saw that as almost a kind of inspiration, but yeah, pressure.

Have you ever seen Ken Russell’s film Gothic?

I did years ago. In fact, I know the woman who played Claire [Clairmont]. Every time I see her I want to say, “Claire!”

I’m thinking of his movie, because at this point Mary and Shelley arrive at the Villa Diodati to spend time with Lord Byron, Polidori, and Claire Clairmont. Russell paints a very colorful picture of their time together, suggesting it was all drugs, sex, and spookiness. What was it really like for Mary at the Villa? I know you go into some of this in the book.

I’m afraid I don’t remember the Ken Russell version well enough to speak to the differences. But, Mary had a baby. So, in a funny way that made her “other” from the rest of the crew. She loved that time and would always look back on that time as a sort of halcyon era when she was with the great minds and artists of the time. There were a lot of romantic criss-crosses that were happening, between Claire and Byron, and Claire and Shelley. Claire was at the center of a lot of the sexuality that was going on that summer. But Byron was already sick of her and really didn’t want to have sex with her. She kept flinging herself at him. I think Byron probably had a huge crush on Shelley. Shelley probably had a crush back on Byron, but probably didn’t quite know that about himself. But he was such a flirt. Anyone he talked to, he was into being as intimate as possible with them at all times.

One of the things that happened was that Shelley kind of went crazy. They’re sitting around talking. It really was stormy. It was the “year without a summer,” because of that Indonesian volcano. So, it had been storming, that’s true. They were up late, true. They sat around and told scary stories, true. Byron really did say who can write the scariest story. And they really all did try. My favorite part about that is Shelley tried, and then gave up and started writing poems about himself like he always did. Byron tried, gave up, and started writing poems about Byron. And Mary sat down with her baby and started writing Frankenstein. She went through two very important drafts within the space of a year and a half.

I just have to clarify something. In the preface that she writes for a month-later version of Frankenstein in 1831, she tells this story that is not true, and I think people should know the truth of it. From evidence from the diary and the letters of the people who were there, it seems clear that Mary had absolutely no trouble sitting down and composing her story. She wrote every day. She was into it. We have notebooks on the first draft. We see how hard she worked on it. In 1831 — after she had been called a whore and people said, “How could a woman write such a monstrous thing,” and she was struggling to make a living as a single mom, and Percy is long dead — she writes this story in the prologue where she says everybody could write stories except for her and that the idea came to her in a dream. And I think that is entirely another fiction, another story she needs to tell as a woman about her process. She was a very serious writer. The story didn’t come to her full-blown in a dream, you can see her revisions. She had to figure out a way to say, “It’s not my fault, I didn’t mean to write the story.” People really said this was an unwomanly book.

Back to the Villa Diodati, there were tons of sexual criss-cross currents. A restless Byron was just trouble. He got bored and would stir up trouble anywhere he would go. But the thing that’s interesting about Byron and Mary are the rumors that they slept together. We don’t think they ever did. One of the things I like about Byron and Mary’s relationship is that Byron totally respected Mary. He would have her read drafts of his work. She would copy things over, which meant she was going through a kind of editorial process with him. He saw her as an equal. He was an unconventional enough thinker to see this young woman’s genius.

Both Marys had unconventional romantic and sexual relationships, but both women were married and a part of their legacy is dominated by the men they loved. Can you talk more about this and why they chose to pursue marriage despite their beliefs?

Mary Wollstonecraft truly did not believe in marriage. She saw what had happened to abused wives — an older sister who was abused by her husband and a mother who was abused by her alcoholic father. In the 18th century and the 19th century, if you became a wife, you surrendered all your economic and legal rights to your husband. Anything you had was his. You were really rendered legally, economically, and politically powerless. Divorce was almost impossible without an act of Parliament. I think there were three divorces in the 18th century. You were trapped. Forget ethics, Mary Wollstonecraft thought marriage was a dangerous and oppressive institution. However, she also experienced first-hand what it was like to be an unmarried mother. So, with her first unconventional relationship — she didn’t marry the man — everyone thought she was married, and she wasn’t exiled for that. She was worried about what was going to happen to her little girl after she was abandoned. So when she falls in love with Mary’s father, William Godwin, who was also hugely against marriage, they decided they were going to have to compromise because they didn’t want the baby to be a social exile, especially since Mary had already been on the brink herself. They decided to get married. They were greatly ridiculed by all their radical friends. In the case of Mary Wollstonecraft, she did it to protect the child.

So, 16-year-old Mary Godwin, who will become Mary Shelley, sees herself as the carrier of her mother’s ethical principles. No way is she going to get married. But then she lives out the consequences of what it’s like otherwise. After she, Percy, and Claire run away together to Paris, they come back to London. Not one person will talk to them. They have no money. They lived a terribly difficult life, moving every six weeks or so to a new apartment. Percy had to hide or he’d get thrown into debter’s prison. It was a life of tremendous loneliness and great suffering. She lost her first baby due to all the stress of it. She had the baby prematurely. The baby only lived for three days. She was only 17 years old. It was a miserable life. When Percy’s wife killed herself, I don’t think she even thought twice. They got married. Percy married Mary, because he wanted to get hold of the two children by his first wife, and he thought that was the only way he could get them. It turned out he didn’t. But they did it entirely as a social compromise. I think they saw it entirely different from marrying for love. Mary, by that time, had probably already figured out some of Percy’s relationships with other women. She would, I think, probably have deep flirtations with other men. But the marriage was important to protect the children, and to try not to be such social exiles. But for poor Mary Shelley, it really almost didn’t work. She actually lived during a much more conservative time than her mom. She, unfortunately, makes it into the Victorian era. What a horrible time to be a woman. That’s when she writes that preface. You can feel her struggling with what it means to be a woman, a writer, and the wife of a scandalous poet.

Since the publication of Frankenstein, people have argued about how much of a role Percy played in writing the book. You mention in your book that the number of word edits he assisted with pales in comparison to the work she did. But some people still point to Percy as the main creative influence. Why?

Inherent misogyny and stupidity. There’s absolutely no evidence to support that. It’s an emotional and irrational point. We have the notebooks. We can see exactly who did what. People can look at them. The person who should be under suspicion is Percy — how much of his poetry did Mary write? That’s a more interesting question. He left his papers in such disarray, she really did have to reconstruct many of his poems. From a scholarly viewpoint, Percy should be more under the cloud of suspicion. But they really didn’t think in those pedestrian ways. Percy did write his poems. He wrote them in six different places and on many pieces of paper. You’d have to be a genius to put them together. And I suspect Mary was a genius and did a lot to make some of those poems coherent, especially “Ode to the West Wind.”

Mary Shelley, herself, is responsible for some of the rumors about Percy writing Frankenstein and partly for how people thought about Percy’s work. To get back into society and be able to make money again as a single mom, she really singlehandedly worked on resurrecting Percy’s reputation from this awful free-love advocate and scandalous guy to an angel. It’s because of Mary and the stuff she writes about him: “He was too good for this Earth. He was so pure.” So, that’s what the Victorians thought about him.

Mary Shelly worked on Frankenstein when Percy was working on Prometheus Unbound, which feel like total opposites in tone — but in the same sphere.

I think that Frankenstein and Prometheus Unbound are two halves of a marital quarrel. Frankenstein was “the Modern Prometheus” and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is his response to his wife’s Frankenstein. I think that her dark, pessimistic, and almost cynical view of human nature, based in part on him, was just not his view of the world. He really believed mankind could solve the world’s ills through our Promethean capacities. When he publishes Prometheus Unbound, it’s during one of their most bitter times. They’re fighting, their child had died, he’s falling in love with another woman. It really is an interesting literary record of a marriage in disarray.

The second edition of Frankenstein wasn’t published anonymously. It had Mary’s name. And she dedicated the book to her father. Mary felt like her father abandoned her, shipping her off to boarding school and the Baxter family in Scotland. Was this the reason for the dedication?

Mary never acknowledges the hurt that Godwin did to her for all those years. In a way, her mother and her father were the primary people in her life. She was always trying to win her father’s approval, from the time she was little. He had praised the book as one of the greatest ever written. The dedication was sort of about finding that relationship. What’s interesting to me is that when she died, she hadn’t asked to be buried with Percy in Rome. She said, “Bury me with mommy and daddy.”

Was all the death and trauma surrounding Mary considered more than normal for someone to deal with during that time?

I think we can say yes, it’s more. Especially the suicides. The suicide of Percy’s first wife and the suicide of her half-sister Fanny Imlay had haunted her all of her life. At the time, she ran away with Percy and never thought about Harriet, Percy’s first wife. I think she always felt haunted by Harriet. She did have a kind of metaphysical or paranormal thing about it. At some point, I think Mary says to Percy that she believes Harriet is taking their children from them in punishment. First, they lose a girl and then they lose a boy. She felt punished by Harriet for what she had done.

But some of the deaths of the children were due to Percy’s stupid decisions. For example, they stayed in Rome too late. They should have gotten out of the city, into the country for the summer, and they didn’t leave soon enough. Claire was already sick. Percy insisted they travel across Italy during the hottest days of the summer in August to help out Claire who was having trouble with Byron. I don’t think Mary ever forgave that. There were a lot of stupid decisions that poor Mary felt torn about. Poor Percy, though. It was not like he wanted his children to die, but he was just such a child himself.

You write about how much he suffered watching her suffer.

Both Marys experienced a tamping down of their legacy after death. It took many people to help acknowledge their importance. You mention Muriel Spark’s biography in 1951, which helped bring Mary Shelley’s work to prominence. Can you explain what it was about the book that drew attention to her work?

Mary Shelley, by the time she died, was seen as a perfect Victorian wife — which I feel like I have to repeat a couple of times, because it’s so astonishing and so weird. At age 16, she’s known as a whore. She’s known as a whore, quite literally, through her 30s when she and Byron and Shelley are traveling around together, and when they’re in Italy together, her name is synonymous with scandal and promiscuity in society. But, because of the work she does, at the end of her life — especially after painting Shelley as this angel, and her as this dutiful wife and secondary figure — that image she created stuck. That was also, in part, due to her stupid daughter-in-law, who burned a lot of the diaries and letters that Mary had carefully left behind so people of a more enlightened era would get to read them. We don’t even get to know the half of it. But, by the time it’s the 20th century, people only care about Percy. Mary is seen in a lesser light, as though Frankenstein was the only great thing she ever wrote, and it was only because Percy helped her. This was perpetrated by the great Shelley biographer Richard Holmes, who saw her as a kind of shrew. So, Muriel Spark’s contribution in the 1950s was to bring back this idea of Mary the radical and rebel. It didn’t really stick. Not that many people read it, unfortunately. But it dispersed the image of a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood Mary. I’m very grateful to her for that. But it wasn’t until, really, the ‘80s and ‘90s, and Miranda Seymour’s gigantic and fabulous biography of Mary Shelley, that we begin to see the complexities of Mary Shelley as a writer, thinker, and intellectual. So, we’re talking the last 16 years, there’s been a real reckoning with her.

So, this is still pretty relatively new.

Yes. She becomes an iconic figure for first-wave and then second-wave feminists. In academia, she became an iconic figure in the 1970s, but in general the reputation she was stuck with until fairly recently was as a secondary wife — a wife to Shelley, and lesser genius and compromiser, and someone who cared more about social standing than being the true rebel that her husband was.

In writing the book, what was something that drew you closer to these women?

Probably the thing that most drew me to the book, and I know this is a Mary Shelley conversation, but the thing I’m most personally connected to and fascinated by are Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters begging her lover to come back. I could not believe that the woman who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was also the author of these letters. That contradiction is one that I feel in my own life and see in so many of my friends’ lives — that we are working so hard to be independent agents in our lives, but when it comes to love, so many of us have made compromises, giant mistakes, or fallen flat on the ground so people can stomp all over us. That contradiction is really interesting and troubling for me. I hope that’s not so true for your generation.

I loved writing the book. I felt like I had these two great teachers and friends in the Marys. I learned so much from them. I was so inspired by them. I love reading their letters and diaries.

There’s one final story about Mary Wollstonecraft I loved. Because the Godwins had an office that was separate from their house, they would pass notes back and forth like our emails. Three or four notes a day. If you go to the Bodleian, you can read these little notes. They’re so amazing. They’re like: “Honey, can you bring my glasses. I think I left them over there.” My favorite one is where Mary says: “You said that we were going to have an equal relationship and you were going to share in household duties — yet I have had a terrible morning, because I’ve had to spend the whole morning dealing with the plumber while you’ve been working in your office. I think my time is just as valuable as yours.”