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Book Review

The Life and Sad Times of the Creator of 'Frankenstein'

MARY SHELLEY; By Miranda Seymour; Grove Press; $35; 672 Pages

October 29, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Seymour's sensitive and intelligent account of Mary's long widowhood (she was only 25 when Shelley died) sympathetically delineates the constraints she was under and shows how diligently she worked to foster Shelley's reputation in a climate that had grown markedly inhospitable to some of his more radical ideas. Mary also tried to earn a living by her own talents, writing several more novels and some historical studies of Italian and French literature that Seymour thinks have been unjustly neglected. She never remarried, although there were some romantic possibilities, including reformer Robert Dale Owen, storyteller Washington Irving and playwright John Howard Payne (who wrote the song "Home, Sweet Home").

As Shelley's fame continued to grow, Mary's reputation underwent a number of permutations, continuing into the next century. In her youth, she was seen as an ardent young radical who defied convention. Later, she was portrayed as a cold, nagging wife who had been unable to respond to her husband's genius.

Frequently, and not without reason, the widowed Mary was viewed as the suppressor of awkward facts, credited or blamed for molding the Victorian image of Shelley as ethereal angel. More recent scholars, like Emily Sunstein, have resurrected Mary as a boldly creative spirit who never lost hope. Seymour paints a sadder, and probably truer, picture of a hard-working, gifted woman, loyal even to friends who'd betrayed her, but haunted by a deep sense of loss and remorse. In stressing Mary's anxiety and vulnerability, Seymour makes her courage and self-sacrifice seem all the more poignant.

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