Doomed to Live

When I was an English major in college too many years ago now to count, what we eager students of English literature knew of Mary Shelley was something of a footnote or addendum to her more famous husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Yes, we knew she wrote Frankenstein, but science-fiction wasn’t as serious or important as mainstream or traditional literature—or so we were taught.

In grad school, I was warned by my advisor it would be better not to focus on science-fiction for my dissertation because potential university employers might not take it seriously.

That was then, this is now.

Percy Shelley, along with Lord Byron and John Keats, is still regarded as among the most influential of the younger Romantic poets. But his wife Mary may now be a more familiar name and author for younger students, largely because of her masterpiece Frankenstein, the first great sci-fi novel and, in retrospect, among the most prescient novels of its time.

Mary has certainly eclipsed Percy in popular culture. A good example is Mary Shelley, the 2017 film with Elle Fanning in the title role. Unlike previous efforts, like Ken Russell’s wild, manic Gothic (1986) and Ivan Passer’s more controlled Haunted Summer (1998), both of which dealt with the odd circumstances concerning the conception of Frankenstein, the new film maintains a focus squarely on the novel’s young author.

Co-written (with Emma Jensen) and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudia Arabia’s first woman filmmaker, the movie strikes contemporary tones in telling of a young woman trying to establish credibility and identity in a male-dominated world 200 years ago. Al-Mansour’s film is fairly faithful to the historical facts.

The story opens in 1814 London, where 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Fanning) and stepsister Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley) work in their father’s failing bookstore. William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), a novelist and radical social philosopher of some renown, is financially bereft. Mary’s stepmother is blatant is her dislike of the the girl, so Mary turns to reading and writing gothic fiction. Her favorite retreat? The gravesite of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after Mary’s birth.

Then Mary meets Percy Shelley, as famous for his freethinking as for his poetry. He follows her to London, and convinces Godwin to hire him as a kind of mentor, as he secretly courts Mary. Only later does Mary learn Shelley has a pregnant wife and a child.

Like her mother, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Mary flies in the face of convention, running off with Shelley and bearing his child, much to her father’s chagrin and disappointment. Claire goes with the wayward couple, to escape the confines of ordinary life.

Severe money problems aren’t the only burden they share. Mary finds that she and Shelley have different ideas about the reality of free love, but their commitment to each other gets them through that, as well as the death of their first child.

Then comes the fateful summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva, where, as guests of the notorious Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and his physician John Polidori (Ben Hardy), a famous contest was held: Who could write the best ghost story?

The pros, Byron and Shelley, produced next to nothing. Polidori began The Vampyre (published in 1819) which may have later influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Polidori’s model for the bloodsucking nobleman was Byron. Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818—most people thought it was the work of Mary’s husband until a later edition, published by Godwin, established her authorship.

The film Mary Shelley resonates with intelligence as well as fidelity to setting and subject. Elle Fanning, only 20 during filming, continues to impress with her range and maturity. The rest of the cast are equally compelling, though none are well-known here in the States.

If you like literary intrigue, the unseen immorality of the Regency era and lovely period piece filmmaking, Mary Shelley is a must-see.