Muriel Spark Mary Shelley: A Biography.
E.P. Dutton, 272 pages, $17.95
Few literary figures have been so intent as the Shelleys were on examining, with the impassioned precision specific to the very young, the differences between themselves and others. Few writers, furthermore, have so enthusiastically rearranged their circumstances so that they could translate those differences into the pages of their books and the texture of their lives. For those incurable Romantics, comparison was everything; they were obsessed by associations, by doubles, by the distance between souls and by the faith that art and love could reduce that distance. It is therefore unthinkable that Mary Shelley’s identity could be understood outside the context of her relationships to the hard-driving personalities of her father, her husband, and other figures in the Shelley circle; without those comparisons, her story is hugely diminished. Curiously, after taking care to describe the details of Mary Shelley’s relationships, Muriel Spark goes on in this newly revised biography to try to separate Mary’s thought from the influences of those vivid personalities with which she surrounded herself. The result is an extremely uneven portrait.
Muriel Spark is known primarily for her novels, but she began her writing career with an earlier version of the present biography entitled Child of Light, published in England in 1951. One wonders whether the figure of Mary Shelley interested Muriel Spark sufficiently to cause her to make the Romantic heroine’s spirit a presence in her novels. But a reading of those novels—from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to The Abbess of Crewe—reveals consistently polished, high-style surfaces and a sharp, snappy underlayer of cynicism; there are no indications that Spark has been either influenced by Mary Shelley’s own novels or moved to fictionalize any aspect of Mary’s character.
Why, then, is Spark electing to republish this biography, her first effort? As the author explains in her new preface, she has produced this revised version for publication in the United States because the earlier work appeared here some years ago in a “pirated” edition, without her permission. She explains also that further scholarship on Mary Shelley during the last thirty-six years—most notably Betty T. Bennett’s edition of her letters—has made Spark feel that yet another reassessment is necessary. Her 1951 biography is generally considered to be a standard scholarly text, along with Elizabeth Nitchie’s Mary Shelley: Author of Frankenstein (1953), Frederick L. Jones’s edition of The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1946), and R. Glynn Grylls’s Mary Shelley (1935).
The story of the Shelley circle—the jaunts through Italy, the clashes with Lord Byron, the visions and ghost stories—is so well known that, as with the Bloomsbury set, both the facts and fabrications exist companionably together as accepted truth. What we know about Mary Shelley’s life may be conveniently divided into two halves: first, her girlhood, which culminated in meeting Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was fifteen, eloping with him at seventeen, and living with him on the Continent and in London for eight years before his death by drowning in 1822; and second, the rest of her life, which she spent raising her one surviving son, attempting to earn money and respectability through her writings, editing Shelley’s poems, and redesigning, with the utmost care and for the benefit of posterity, the details of her life with Shelley into a harmonious, perfect memory.
The contrasting facets of Mary’s personality may be categorized with equal convenience within these two halves of her life. The headstrong daughter of radical parents—William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft—she was until Shelley’s death an independent, energetic spirit, eager to rebel against convention and the wishes of her father by running off with a twenty-one-year-old married poet and following him around France and Italy loaded down with books, various friends and children, and her awestruck stepsister Claire. After Shelley’s death, Mary changed swiftly into a much sobered woman with a total lack of desire to shock or defy. This sudden switch is perhaps best illustrated in a story told by Matthew Arnold: Mary, seeking advice about which school to send her son Percy to after Shelley’s death, was advised to “send him somewhere they will teach him to think for himself.” She objected immediately and fiercely: “Teach him to think for himself? Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people.” This is a touching emotional display coming from the once-wild daughter of two famous social and political reformers and the widow of an eccentric. Clearly, thinking for oneself was no longer the sweet ideal she had once held it to be; burdened with large debts and the isolation of instant widowhood, with little money coming from her husband’s estate, it was far more important to her now to concern herself with her urgent new responsibilities, which required her to make an effort for the first time to fit in and settle down. The party, to put it succinctly, was over.
Preferring not to dwell on the abrupt transition in Mary’s life from romantic runaway to solemn matron, Muriel Spark believes the assumption that Mary craved more and more “bourgeois respectability” after Shelley’s death is an “over-simplification,” and emphasizes instead how the disparate qualities in Mary’s personality were reconciled as she grew older. Spark is extremely interested in the concept of “integration,” which she returns to repeatedly throughout the book: one reads about how Mary’s mother’s “distrust and fear of men” purportedly “tends to support the view that [her] character never achieved integration.” “Mary should be properly credited,” Spark writes at another point, “with the integrating influence she exerted over Shelley, to which he himself admitted.”
In the end, to be sure, Spark concedes that “All people contain within them the elements of conflict .... [Mary] was one in whom contrast, and therefore conflict, was perpetuated, and in this respect she is not unique within the artistic species.” Nor indeed, one might add, is she unique within the human species, but until one reaches this passage in the book one feels that Spark is insisting not only that such “integration” is possible, but that it is expected of people with such superior sensibilities as Mary Shelley possessed. While it is true that the quest for the integrity of one’s soul—for the reconciliation of warring elements within a single personality—was a noble pursuit for the Romantics, it seems anachronistic that Spark should want to carry this preoccupation into our own time. Just because Mary herself was fascinated by the idea of integrity (it is indeed the theme of Frankenstein, her first novel: the story of a tragically divided identity, a man whose emotions cannot be brought into harmony with his intellect) does not mean that her biographer must interpret her personality along its lines; in observing this lack of critical objectivity one has the sense, which grows stronger as the book progresses, that Muriel Spark is perhaps a bit too close to her subject.
Whether or not Mary Shelley’s personality ever did reach a degree of “integration” is less interesting than the extent to which both she and her husband managed to redesign their circumstances to please themselves. On this aspect of their lives Spark is perceptive and eloquent, as when she describes how Shelley blithely devised a set of “logical” reasons for separating from his first wife, Harriet. Spark shows that what Shelley believed were rational explanations were in fact moonstruck effusions which satisfied no one but himself. Writing to his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg in 1814, he explained, “I saw the full extent of the calamity which my rash and heartless union with Harriet . . . had produced. I felt as if a dead and living body had been linked together in loathsome and horrible communion .... I had even proceeded so far as to compose a letter to Harriet on the subject of my passion for another.” At the time Shelley wrote this, however, he had not yet fallen in love with Mary; there was no “passion for another.” Spark observes, “Here was a type of poetic mind working at a fundamental tempo of amorality and timelessness. Already Shelley not only rejected his married life with Harriet, but accepted a new relationship .... Shelley was in this emotionally receptive state when he discovered that Mary matched the woman of his day-dream.”
After their elopement, Shelley and Mary continued this constant adjustment of reality as they travelled through France, Switzerland, and Italy. In the journal which they wrote together during this time one notes how delightedly self-conscious they were of the high-pitched romance of their adventure; at one point, in the enthusiastic, adolescent sunburst of an extremely bad idea, Shelley actually invited Harriet to join them. (Harriet had the good sense to refuse.) Even after Harriet drowned herself in 1816, Shelley was remarkably able to disregard the reasons for her death so that he could absolve himself of blame. “His pliable spirit,” Spark writes, “embraced no feelings of remorse which might have suggested themselves to a mind more firmly established on earth, however innocent.” Later, Spark shows how the couple managed to maintain an atmosphere of robust, undiminished energy even when their baby daughter had died, both were ill, and the inconveniences of constant travel were beginning to overpower them: “This breathless pursuit of activity seems to have been a symptomatic safety-valve measure against despair.”
Despair was a constant companion to the Shelleys—both abstract dejection over life’s transience and cold depression about immediate misfortunes, like the death of their daughter. These feelings were no doubt what lay behind their constant search for ways to rearrange unpleasant circumstances. Although Spark here has a great deal of sympathy for Mary (she lost three children during this extended European journey, and Spark sensitively conveys her grief), the biographer does tend at times to make statements that seem vaguely like homilies and which add nothing to our understanding of Mary’s pessimism except a note of triteness. Spark writes of Mary, “It often seems that such people invite the Furies by their own apprehension, that misfortune gains confidence, as a fierce animal will at the sense of a stranger’s fear.”
Nor does Spark often manage to muster up sympathy for any characters besides Shelley and Mary, a failure which contributes to the book’s unevenness and again gives one the impression that Spark is too close to her subject. Of Claire, Mary’s pathetic stepsister, who accompanied the couple on their elopement out of admiration for Mary and a half-developed infatuation with Shelley, Spark has only this to say: “There can be no more insidious or inconvenient company for the truly creative mind as this parasitic type of manqué individual.”
In any case, Mary’s most creative act of adjusting reality as a means of warding off despair was her sentimental reconstruction of her life with Shelley after the poet had died. It was a task which she spent the rest of her life working at, and in a way it can be considered her most imaginative piece of fiction-spinning. To read Mary’s writing about Shelley is to examine one of the great hagiographical enterprises ever undertaken by a woman; no man, we are urged to believe, was more perfect, more ingenious, more loving. Spark writes that, after Shelley’s death, “Mary lived half her life in retrospect, the other half in preparing herself to face an uncertain future.” Both activities required an immense amount of courage, not least because both steadily reminded her of her new loneliness. Matters did not improve when Shelley’s father, Sir Timothy Shelley, threatened to cut off her small allowance if a biography of Shelley or a collection of his poems was published during Sir Timothy’s lifetime. It was at this time that Mary wrote her novel The Last Man, a futuristic fantasy about loss and isolation during a plague which destroys the entire human race.
Mary never married again, although it seems she was not without offers. Spark writes that Mary felt “the respect of all who knew her depended upon their recognition of her proud place in Shelley’s life and work, and her courageous combat with countless tribulations since his death . .. .” She developed a “self-protective hardness which preserved her sanity but which as she grew older her friends interpreted as self-centredness and frigidity.” She died in 1851 at age fifty-three, leaving behind six novels, some travel literature, and the edited collections of Shelley’s poetry, which are considered to be indispensable to all the Shelley scholarship which was to follow. She was survived by her son Percy, a perfectly dull, comfort-loving fellow who displayed none of the spirited eccentricity or any of the independence of intellect of his father, mother, or maternal grandparents.
Before going on to discuss Mary Shelley’s own works, Spark concludes the biographical section of her book with a restatement of her central thesis that Mary, besides being the wife and daughter of famous literary figures, “was also a professional writer of lasting fame.” Of what does this “lasting fame” consist? If one knows anything at all about Mary Shelley, it is doubtless her role as the seventeen-year-old author of Frankenstein, a work of precocious brilliance. This book’s unfortunate fate is of course that the complexities of its central characters, Victor Frankenstein and his monster, have been overpowered in the public’s imagination by the monster’s caricature. The name of Frankenstein is less likely to evoke Mary Shelley’s “Promethean man,” who abhors the creature he has created, than it brings to mind the bolts-in-the-neck cartoon creature of Saturday morning television. Spark has long been considered one of the most perceptive critics of this book, showing how influences such as the Gothic tradition, William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” contributed to the complexity of this immature, baldly terrifying, exuberantly improbable ghost story.
Spark’s championing of Mary’s other novels is not nearly as persuasive. The Last Man is interesting for its reflection of Mary’s depression while she wrote it, but as a work of fiction it is not, despite Spark’s protests, a very readable book; it is humorless, melodramatic, and heavy. What Spark prefers to see as its “mesmeric evenness” is in truth merely dull overwriting. Upon its publication in 1826, the London Magazine and Review called The Last Man “an elaborate piece of gloomy folly—bad enough to read—horrible to write,” and in this case one can only agree. The historical romance Perkin Warbeck, an attempt to emulate Sir Walter Scott, is not even available in a modern edition, but when Spark argues that “as an entity, Perkin Warbeck is of less value than are its component parts, which merit attention since they confirm certain stable elements in Mary’s writings,” her faint praise seems only to emphasize the novel’s failures. Of Mary’s poems, one of which, “A Dirge,” Spark reprints in the book, the less said the better; Spark speaks of a “deeply latent” poetic talent in Mary, but if some latent tendencies are best left undiscovered this is surely one of them. Mary herself confessed in a letter that “I can never write verses, except under the influence of a strong sentiment & seldom even then.”
Spark ends her biography with the following pronouncement: “To a great extent Mary Shelley inherited an environment fifty years or more behind her time, and occupied one fifty years ahead of her.” This seems totally unconvincing, for Spark’s biography has shown that what was fortunate and what was cruel in Mary Shelley’s life— her lucky parentage and her alliance with Shelley, her forced solitude and her, painful desire for respectability—all of these factors firmly determined her particular course. The life she might have had fifty years after her time is not only an irrelevant but also a futile consideration for, as Spark herself says, “Mary Shelley breathed the air of her times, as we breathe ours.” Without her very specific context she would of course have been a different woman, a different writer; the society she rebelled against as a girl and the status she sought as a widow were significant in the development of her character, just as the intellectual ammunition she received from Godwin and Shelley became indispensable to her own writing.
Spark quotes a passage from Mary’s journal to show the seeds of a philosophy that she feels distinguishes Mary’s thought from that of Godwin and Shelley, a philosophy Spark calls a “practical manifesto of love”:
… & as Sterne says, that in solitude he would worship a tree, so in the world I should attach myself to those who bore the semblance of those qualities which I admire .... Let me love & admire [my fellow creatures] at their just rate, neither adding or diminishing, & above all, let me-fearlessly descend into the remotest caverns of my own mind, carry the torch of self-knowledge into its dimmest recesses ….
These are indeed the words of a bold-minded woman, but they constitute no convincing philosophy, and rather than pointing to the separateness of Mary’s vision, they emphasize her preoccupation with the connections it is possible and desirable to make between distinct personalities (“I should attach myself. . .”). Mary herself realized that context, comparison, and connection are the important, the essentially human, characteristics worth dwelling on—characteristics that Spark has provided in this biography, but which she has tried to counterbalance with examples of “separateness” in efforts to lift this writer beyond her milieu into a falsely aggrandized pantheon where writers who happen to be women, only because they are women, have in recent years been forcibly entombed.
Spark is fortunate to have as her subject a woman whose life was interesting and whose talent was far from inconsequential; these happy facts have saved her from many dangers that threaten biographers bent on superficially congratulating less interesting, less gifted woman writers. One feels that Spark’s unsuccessful attempt to extract Mary from her environment comes not so much from a desire to exalt the author beyond her due as from a simple lack of critical distance, a fault which has not been corrected in this revision of a book written over thirty years ago. Spark in her preface admits that, upon re-reading her earlier work, she “was amused to perceive that my prose style had taken on a touch of Mary Shelley’s.” Muriel Spark’s is an interesting biographical problem: in coming so close to her subject that she begins to take on aspects of Mary Shelley, she loses sight of the person whose essence she so carefully pursues.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 10, on page 68
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