Mary Shelley Retrospective – Let’s be frank, she’s not just a one-hit wonder

This January marked the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s masterpiece of science-fiction and horror has, quite rightly, become something of a classic since she anonymously published the book in 1818. The book went through several different editions over the years but the 1818 is still, in my mind, the definitive version of the story. If only because it so closely resembles the story as it was first ever told. We all know the story of how Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein and it is, in all probability, part of the reason the story has endured for so long. One Summer in 1816, Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron, and John Polidori all gathered at Byron’s villa Lake Geneva in Switzerland. They propose a writing competition to create horror stories to tell each other the next night. The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley in a waking dream:

I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life …

After some work and editing, the idea that Mary came up with that Summer in 1816 became one of the most important novels to come out of the Romantic period. After all, it has spurned a monstrous number of film and television adaptations and has inspired many more writers. Shelley is praised for her vivid imagination and modern thinking. She went far beyond the science of her day to imagine something that has withstood the test of time and changed the landscape of gothic horror. It’s a book that I have countless times now and have enjoyed more and more with every read. It featured in my both my Undergraduate coursework and my final Postgraduate dissertation. I bloody love this book and am happy to commemorate it’s 200th anniversary.

 

However, I’m not here to talk about Frankenstein today. So much has already been said about the wonders of the book and the story behind it’s creation that my mindless typing definitely wouldn’t enhance. No, I’m here to talk about the works that Mary Shelley created post-Frankenstein that are not as well remembered these days. For one of my recent Instagram posts I had to take a picture of a book or author who I think it undervalued. I chose two novels that I love but don’t think enough people read these days. There was Mary by Mary Wollstonecraft and The Last Man by Mary Shelley. Both of these books were ones that I read during my time at university and, I am willing to admit, are novels that I would never have read on my own account. Now my post got some positive feedback with a few people agreeing that these books are worth praising and I’m really glad that I’m not alone. However, I also had one comment saying how shocked they were that Mary Shelley wrote another book. I’m not trying to shame this person because, as I already mentioned, I wouldn’t have known about The Last Man it it hadn’t been forced upon me. I just think it’s a shame that so many writers become overshadowed with one key work that the rest is almost sent off into oblivion.

I will be honest and say that, in most cases, Mary Shelley’s writing hasn’t stood the test of time because it’s sort of gone out of fashion. She wrote a few historical novels, a couple of pieces of travel writing, and some books that were most likely labelled as romances. But she does have a bigger list of works to her name than just The Modern Prometheus. Mary Shelley was, for a long time, merely known because of her breakthrough novel and her attempts to get her husband’s poetry published. I’m here to tell you that she’s so much more and list a few of her other works that might be worth a punt.

  • Matilda
I’m starting with Shelley’s novella Matilda because, I’d say, after Frankenstein it’s one of her best works. It was her second piece of long fiction after Frankenstein; written around 1819/20. Matilda was written during the period that Mary was mourning the deaths of her two children and, naturally, was dealing depression. She was isolated from her husband and in a very dark place. The novel itself deals with the much loved Romantic themes of incest and suicide and is often read as being autobiographical. Whether or not that is the case, it is certainly a story that is worth a read as it challenges the traditional notion of a Gothic romance and, if there’s one thing I love, it’s a Gothic romance that places the power in female hands.
The narrative is told from Matilda’s perspective as she recounts her life on her deathbed. Her mother died when she was very young and, struck by his grief, her father left her to be raised by her aunt. Years later he comes back and reveals his incestuous love for his daughter. So, yeah, I can kind of see why this hasn’t necessarily become the classic that Frankenstein was but this is such a wonderfully written book. I’m not going to say that it isn’t without flaws but it’s also not the worst thing that was written during this period. You can definitely see the influence of both of her parents on her writing and there is a lot of rich material to get through. It’s also not very long which is always a bonus.
  • The Last Man
If Frankenstein has become a staple in the science-fiction then The Last Man deserves to take its place alongside it. Not only is The Last Man one of Mary Shelley’s own favourite works, it is also a rather dark post-apocalyptic novel. If there’s one thing people love these days it’s anything post-apocalyptic. The Last Man was first published in 1826 and received the worst reviews of Shelley’s career. They criticised the writer’s dark outlook and described the content as derivative. It was a novel that was mostly forgotten until the 1960s when it was reprinted for the first time since a pirated copy reached America in 1933. It received new critical attention and has been reviewed slightly more favourably since. I read this in my third year of university at the end of the second term. I can’t say that my first reading was entirely successful because I was ready to break up for the holidays. It also didn’t help that, despite sharing a few similarities with Frankenstein, this novel is nowhere near as accessible. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not readable. It’s certainly worth reading for all of the biographical references to her husband and his friends. There’s also a great deal of social and political context that can be taken from it. I wish I’d studied it better because its something of a goldmine.
The Last Man starts with Mary Shelley telling her readers that she came across some prophetic writing in a cave in 1818. The writings come from a lone survivor telling the story of a future world that has been ravaged by plague. The rest of the novel retells the story of how the world perished and Lionel came to be the last man in existence. This is quite an interesting science-fiction novel but the tone is altogether more bleak than Frankenstein. It’s not the easiest thing to get into but it is worth the effort.
  • Falkner and Lodore
Two of Mary Shelley’s more ‘conventional’ novels but that’s not to say they are boring. They would typically have been described as romances as they deal with more domestic issues. That is not to say that they are without political content, of course. It is still possible to read a great deal into the works beyond their basic narratives. It’s still the Romantic period, after all. Falkner follows a young woman’s education under the tyrannical father figure. The heroine, Elizabeth Raby, is caught between the man who raised her and the man she loves. It is only through Elizabeth’s feminine charm that the two men can reunite and form a harmonious bond. I won’t pretend this is a must-read but if you feel like going through all of Mary’s books then its something to consider.
Lodore is a very similar novel to Falkner and was pretty much written off by 19th critics. Modern day academics have found value in the work but, again, I’m not going to sit here and say this book will light your world on fire. It offers important context to Mary as a writer but won’t necessarily offer up much fun. It follows the fate of the wife and daughter of the titular Lord Lodore, who is killed in a duel early in the novel. Both of these novels deal with women in very interesting and important ways. It is clear, here, that Shelley was keen to dissect the patriarchal standards that ensured young women were dependent on their fathers and husbands.
  • Valperga: Or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance
I haven’t read Mary Shelley’s historical novels because, frankly, I never needed to. If someone didn’t force me to read stuff like this then I had no intention of doing it off my own back. I did read a few novels like this in my time but, though they are praised, Shelley’s works haven’t exactly lasted. When it was released Valperga was received quite well and praised by critics. Though it was counted as a romance novel with the important political aspects being ignored. The novel deals with the adventures of the real-life 14th century despot, Castruccio Castracani, who became the lord of Lucca and conquered Florence. The narrative sees his armies threaten the fictional fortress of Valperga, governed by Countess Euthanasia. Castruccio loves the Countess so forces her to chose between him and political freedom. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get round to reading Valperga but it’s one of those books that has piqued my interest every time I read something about it. Maybe one day I’ll tackle it… but I don’t hold out much hope.
Her second historical novel is one that I really know nothing about besides what I’ve just read on Wikipedia. It deals with the life of Perkins Warbeck, a pretender to the British throne. Warbeck claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, who was one of the Princes in the tower. As nobody really knew what happened to Richard, Warbeck got some followers until he was eventually captured and made to sign a confession. Mary’s novel takes a Yorkist viewpoint and picks up the story as if Warbeck were indeed the real Richard of Shrewsbury. Again, there is plenty of evidence for Mary’s political leanings in this novel but, unfortunately, I don’t have a great deal to say. It doesn’t stand as great evidence in its defence that I can’t find much information about this book but it does sound kind of interesting.
  • Travel writing
Travel writing became a big thing in the Romantic period and there are plenty examples of writers of this period discussing their travels. Personally, I think Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is one of the greatest things I have read and is so full of emotion. It got me so interested in the whole genre that I nearly wrote my postgrad dissertation on it. If I had, there is no doubt that I would have consulted the travel writings of Mary Shelley. History of a Six Weeks’ Tour describes a trip she took with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Rambles in Germany and Italy was written about two trips Mary took with her son Percy Florence Shelley.  Both of these works are key in that they describe in detail Mary’s political standpoint and feature obvious references to the political and social context of their writing. I know travel writing isn’t necessarily the most desirable choice to pick up but there is something to be found in these texts. As agreed by the critics who happily praised both works when they were published.

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