What Would Mary Shelley Read?

On January 1, 1818, the first edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in London. The author, Mary Shelley, was only 20 years old. It wasn’t until the publication of the second edition, in 1823, that Shelley was given credit for her book. This year we are seeing a surge in books commemorating the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication.

Mary Shelley was a woman ahead of her time. I think  she would enjoy reading these books by female authors.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White. In her author’s note, White states that she wanted to write from the point of view of the minor (i.e. female characters) and what a brilliant decision this was. Whether you’ve read the original or not, you know enough to understand what Victor is up to. He is the one who comes off as the real monster.

The book opens with Elizabeth looking for Victor, who has disappeared. Flashbacks fill in a backstory of White’s own creation, but that feels as though Mary Shelley would approve. It starts off a bit slowly, but it is worth persevering because the ending is perfect – much better than the original ending.

Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein, by Lita Judge tells the story of Mary Shelley’s monsters (personal, familial and societal) and how they led her to write Frankenstein. In the same way that Frankenstein was a genre-defying  blend of romantic and gothic literature with science fiction,  Mary’s Monster is a genre-defying illustrated historical novel in verse.

Judge does a marvelous job setting Mary Shelley’s story in its historical context.  Judge’s poetry and black and white illustrations beautifully evoke the darkness and difficulties Mary Shelley faced. Readers will be angered by her treatment at the hands of  her father and step-mother and inspired by her perseverance in the face of the numerous obstacles she faced as a woman, alone, in the early 19th century.

Catherine Reef has written a much more straightforward biography in Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator.  The book opens dramatically with  the discovery of the remains of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s heart in her desk after Mary’s death. It puts Shelley into her historical context and helps us understand the society in which she lived and its attitudes towards women. Shelley’s dramatic life story is as dramatic as it is romantic and   an abundance of period illustrations help place readers in her world.

For the less squeamish non-fiction lover, I recommend Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankentstein by Kathryn Harkup. Divided into three parts, the book gives a short biography of Mary Shelley, an explanation of the scientific knowledge Victor Frankenstein might have used to create his monster, and the story of the book’s publication.

It is a glimpse into the sometimes macabre world of Enlightenment science and medicine. Bizarre experimentation and popular scientific beliefs will astound modern readers. And maybe even creep them out a little.

Adrienne Gillespie