You'd be forgiven, on first glance, of thinking that Fiona Sampson is attempting to cash in on the recent craze of books featuring "girl" in the title, and it's not a crazy assumption given that her subject is Mary Shelley, author of the novel that was 1818's answer to The Girl on the Train.
Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, Shelley’s first novel, was published – initially anonymously – to what Sampson describes as “noisy critical reception”. The author of this astonishing, genre-defining novel was not only female, but also only a girl: 18 when she started writing it, 21 when it was published. That said, she’d certainly had more life experience than most girls her age, not only by early-19th century standards, but also by today’s.
Mary was born in London in 1797 to two famous parents. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; and her father was the writer, novelist and political philosopher, William Godwin. Wollstonecraft and Godwin's marriage was a brief one. Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Mary, the couple's only child, who was Godwin's firstborn. In typically unconventional fashion, however; Mary was his wife's second as she had previously had an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, by an American adventurer she'd met in France.
After his wife’s death, Godwin raised both Mary and Fanny, ostensibly on his own, although with various female assistance in the form of servants and friends of his late wife, until, four years later, in 1801, he remarried. His second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, was also already a parent of two – Charles and Claire – so the household doubled in size.
In 1814, when both Mary and Claire (who by then had formed a close sororal bond) were just 16, Mary eloped to Europe with the 21-year-old poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. This was scandal-worthy for a multitude of reasons. Shelley was one of a group of young intellectuals who had been regular visitors to the Godwins for years, part of the “intellectual zeitgeist” in which Mary was raised. Thus, not only did Shelley betray the trust of his mentor; he also betrayed his wife. He was already married, the father of one child, and his wife Harriet was pregnant with their second, which meant Mary agreed to the escapade without the promise of matrimony and in the full knowledge that she would henceforth be shunned by polite society. Godwin and his wife were struck by a further blow by the fact that the young lovers took Claire with them, thus also tainting her reputation by association.
The next few years were a horror show. By the time she finished writing Frankenstein, Mary had given birth to and buried three children of her own; Claire's daughter Allegra (fathered by the "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" Lord Byron) had also died; and both Percy's wife Harriet, who was again pregnant, and Mary's elder sister Fanny, had taken their own lives. One of the things Sampson's biography does best is to show just how entangled birth and death were in Mary's world.
In the very first chapter, Sampson describes with stomach-churning detail the agonies of Wollstonecraft’s demise. She bleeds heavily after delivering Mary, the placenta not detaching by itself, thus a doctor is called, who “pulls” it away, “in pieces, by hand”.
This was excruciatingly painful, but was only the start of Wollstonecraft’s suffering. When she eventually died of puerperal fever 10 days later – the infection no doubt introduced to her bloodstream by the doctor’s dirty hands – the pain was such that it was agonising even to breathe, and she was also vomiting and most likely, suffered from diarrhoea too. In addition to which, for the last five days of her life she was kept permanently drunk thanks to the “wine diet” prescribed by the doctors in attendance.
The deaths of Mary’s own babies two decades later only reinforced what her own arrival in the world taught her about birth and death existing in tandem, thus her famous story of monstrous progeny originated in no small part in the then all-too-common realities of monstrous childbirth.
In what seems to be a self-conscious drawing on some of the scenes from Mary's life that have already passed into popular culture – Mary, as a small child, who learns to write by tracing the letters on her mother's gravestone; the same setting a few years later, the site where she and Percy supposedly consummate their relationship; telling ghost stories by candlelight at Byron's Villa Diodati where the idea for Frankenstein first came to her – Sampson wends her narrative through a series of tableaux, from the nativity scene of Godwin and Wollstonecraft with their newborn child, Mary, in a tartan dress standing at a half-opened door, or resting her seasick head in her beloved's lap as they make an ill-timed Channel crossing in bad weather.
Sampson set herself the task of rescuing Mary from those she claims have overwhelmed the young woman's achievements – her famous parents and her husband, immortalised as youthful Romantic hero after his death, by drowning, at the age of 29. As such, Sampson is neither as removed nor as impartial as the traditional biographer.
She’s keenly sympathetic to the toll Mary’s near-perpetual state of pregnancy and nursing must have taken on her. Meanwhile, she looks upon the male characters in this milieu with a mixture of contempt and disdain. “It sounds as ridiculous as a children’s TV cartoon,” she exclaims, of Percy’s and Byron et al’s self-named sailing gang, “The Corsair Crew”.
On another occasion she grudgingly acknowledges that Percy saved his wife’s life following a miscarriage by plunging her into a bath of ice: “though it’s no more than anyone would do for a stranger,” is Sampson’s verdict on his so-called heroism.
Relaying much of the action in the present tense, Sampson creates a keen sense of immersive immediacy, but, this doesn’t mean she eschews modern vernacular or comparison. Those who like their biographers more aloof might disagree, but I found this made for refreshing, informative reading.