Anne K. Mellor’s Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (1989), is, as the name implies, both a look into the often difficult life of Mary Shelley, as well the ways in which her education, relationships, and personal misfortunes shaped her ideology and heavily influenced her works. The novel feels more intimate than previous biographies, by accessing Shelley’s unpublished works and personal letters, which often depict a woman who felt that her childhood and marriage did not live up to her ideal of an egalitarian, bourgeois family – a reoccurring theme in the span of the entire work. Shelley’s most famous novel, Frankenstein, is discussed in depth, including a chapter devoted to the political and scientific atmosphere at the time of the work, but her later novels and short stories are largely left untouched, or mentioned only to further what seems to be Mellor's overarching thesis of the work, that the male-dominated “hierarchical power-systems both within the nuclear family and in the society at large” are the real monsters in our world, not the hulking, zombie-like creatures of Dr. Frankenstein, and how the domestic sphere can create or influence these systems (217).
The Roots of Shelley's Ideologies
The tone that pervades the biography is distinctly feminist and focuses almost entirely on the female and the family. The work begins with the early years of Shelley’s life, then, a Wollstonecraft, who grew up without a mother, but bequeathed with a set of progressive ideals that stressed education and women’s rights. Shelley is depicted as a precocious but anxious child, who “became intensely attached to her father (Godwin), her only parent, whom she worshipped” (6). In a letter, Shelley stresses that her main goal or function as a child was “to be something great and good”, as prescribed by her father, with whom she was never able to have a stable relationship (179). An entire chapter, entitled “Fathers and Daughters, or “A Sexual Education” is devoted to the numerous works that depict idyllic father/daughter relationships that Shelley envied yet never experienced, and takes on a psychoanalytic, bordering on Freudian view of Shelley and Godwin’s relationship. Mellor speaks in depth concerning one of Shelley’s lesser-known works, Mathilda, which chronicles the incestuous love of a father for a daughter, which Mellor describes as “pure wish-fulfillment”, as it was Shelley’s repressed desire to “both sexually possess and to punish her father” (195). This is largely blamed on the death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft during childbirth, which left Shelley prone to “excessive and romantic attachment” to Godwin, and can be seen reproduced in such characters as Mathilda in the work of the same name, Ethel in Lodore (1835), and Elizabeth in Falkner (1837) (199). The only other chapter to discuss Shelley’s later works, “Love, Guilt and Reparation: The Last Man, focuses predominantly on the moments in The Last Man that closely mirror Shelley’s personal life, especially her idealization and depiction of her husband Percy Shelley in the characters of Woodville and Adrian. In the former, Shelley gives the superlative version of her husband, as a beautiful, successful, caring, and admirable man (143). In Adrian, Mary quickly pulls this characterization away, and expresses her then-current view of her husband as an emotionally distant, narcissistic father (149). Percy is often depicted in a negative light by Mellor, and is used mostly as a device to further Mary Shelley’s (and by extension, Mellor’s) view that lack of parental care creates its own type of monsters.
The Family and the Female in Frankenstein
Frankenstein was groundbreaking due to the fact that the concept of an all-male reproductive creation myth was unique, as all others before either required female participation or divine intervention (38). Mellor suggests that the removal of the female is both used to strengthen the idea that a woman’s role is essential to have in a thriving family, and is also an autobiographical projection of Shelley’s anxieties about pregnancy, death of her children, and fears about being a capable mother (41). Her fears of parenting also manifest themselves in her writing as detailed in the next chapter, “My Hideous Progeny”, where Mellor points out several key correlations between Frankenstein and Shelley's own life – the story of Frankenstein occurs over exactly nine months, and the nine months dated in the frame narrative letters are the same nine months of Mary’s third pregnancy, and the final letter is penned two days after Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797 (55).
Percy is brought up and quickly disparaged again for his control over Mary, who, worried about the success of her work and the strength of her literary voice, allowed her husband to make an immense amount of “corrections” to her manuscript, which Mellor describes as “often more graceful than her husband’s revised versions”. Mary’s decision to let Percy edit so heavily reveals her subconscious thought that there existed a “hierarchical relationship…between her husband and herself”, which is exactly what she so often wrote against in her stories (59). A mirrored structure to the one the Shelley's shared is threatened in Frankenstein when the creature desires a female monster to be his mate and partner. Victor Frankenstein shows a moment of rational thinking that he neglected when creating the male monster, suddenly imagining a snowball of negative effects that a woman monster could cause if let loose in society. Mellor believes that Victor is afraid of a woman creature reproducing because her “reproductive powers” and “uninhibited female sexual experience” could “threaten the foundation of patriarchal power” (120). Therefore, men of science and law must use their occupational tools to repress women (122). The chapters “A Feminist Critique of Science”, “Promethean Politics” and “Usurping the Female” all seem to begin with the goal to contextualize Frankenstein with the advancements of the day or to place it in relation to Shelley's life, but they all seemingly end with scathing feminist critiques of societal constructions.
While Mellor’s study of Shelley’s life and works could often feel too heavy handed with its obvious feminist lens, it did successfully enumerate the myriad ways that Shelley injected her desires and struggles into her stories throughout her lifetime. Mellor is able to consistently bounce back and forth in each chapter between biography and literary criticism that facilitates the reader in understanding Shelley’s authorial intentions and the reasons behind them; however, some chapters felt extraneous if we consider the main theme of (Shelley's) work to be the attempts and failures of the egalitarian bourgeois family in Shelley's stories. There seems to be a blurring of whose thesis is paramount - as readers, are we to focus on Shelley's or Mellor's analyses?
Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.
Suggested Further Readings
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California, 1978. Print.
Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-century Women's Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986. Print.
Levine, George Lewis., and U. C. Knoepflmacher. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Berkeley: University of California, 1979. Print.
Contributed by Kelsey Berkel