I’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein three times in the last six years, since I was 16, and I’ve long been fascinated by the life of its 19 year old author.
I have a recurring daydream of what it must have been like to be the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism, and political radical William Godwin; to be the mistress and then wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a friend of Lord Byron.
By the time she wrote Frankenstein at 19, Mary Shelley had spent her entire life surrounded by the presence, the conversation, and the influence of some of the most fascinating political and literary minds of the 18th and 19th centuries. She’d also by then experienced more than her fair share of tragedy and loss. Shared Experience brought some of that daydream to life for me in their very enjoyable production.
Written by Helen Edmundson and directed by Polly Teale, Mary Shelley is a lively and enlightening insight into Mary’s turbulent experiences as a young woman.
The play opens with a 16 year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin reading Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – her father’s controversial and revealing biography of her mother, who died not long after Mary’s birth. A dramatic reenactment of Mary Wollstonecraft’s suicide attempt immediately establishes the girl’s fascination with her mother’s history, and Wollstonecraft’s influence over young Mary’s life.
Mary’s father William Godwin is introduced in the family home and bookshop on Skinner Street, London, where her step-mother Mrs Godwin insists that Memoirs is “hardly appropriate reading for a 16 year old girl” and Mary retorts, quite rightly, that “it should be compulsory reading for all 16 year old girls.”
Her first meeting with Percy Bysshe Shelley is portrayed as a passionate meeting of hearts and minds, through their mutual love for poetry and writing, and his intense admiration for the political philosophies of both her mother and father. What I was disappointed by, however, was that, after these initial expositions, the play turns to focus far more closely on the relationships in the story, at the expense of Mary’s literary and political influences.
The narrative tracks the romance between Mary and Shelley; the tension this causes between Mary and Godwin; the tragic loss of their first daughter Clara; step-sister Claire’s unfortunate affair with Lord Byron; and the harrowing suicide of her half-sister Fanny, Wollstonecraft’s eldest daughter. This all leads up to the somewhat muted ‘happy ending’ of Mary’s eventual marriage to Shelley and reconciliation with her father, during which she tells him of her almost-finished masterpiece Frankenstein.
While these are all hugely significant events in the life of the young writer, sadly much of this progression felt a bit too slow-paced and lacked the intellectual feast I’d been craving. Mary reads from one or two of Wollstonecraft’s letters and there are a number of vague references to Godwin’s philosophy of “Political Justice”, but I would have liked to see these ideas and philosophies expanded further, beyond the indistinct notions of love, truth, and compassion for the vulnerable, which ran through the performance.
Similarly, there were references to Shelley’s work, and to his and Mary’s passion for reading and writing together, but I came away feeling this could have been explored further. The Shelleys’ friend Lord Byron, although discussed, was present only in the form of Claire’s fit-to-burst baby bump; there was none of the witty intellectual sparring that I imagine made up their time in Geneva together. I felt I had an insight into the worldly events which shaped Mary’s writing, but not into her intellectual evolution.
That said, the production as a whole was still very good. The set was simplistic but effective, framed by wonderfully disordered bookshelves and with an imposing, versatile wooden table at the centre of the stage, serving as a dining table, study table, boat, bridge, bed and even Wollstonecraft’s grave. Some of the characters were perhaps a little caricatured – irresistibly caddish Shelley, intensely flighty Claire, and battle-axe Mrs Godwin – but all were endearing, moving and compelling.
Mary’s father William Godwin is a particularly interesting character, and the tempestuous relationship between father and daughter is given real prominence – his affection for Wollstonecraft lingers over much of the first half, and there is some sense of his influence on Mary’s political and literary development. Shelley seems almost to take her father’s place as her companion on matters of writing, politics and philosophy. Meanwhile Godwin’s increasing debts, and the scandal of Mary’s affair with Shelley, see his radical political ideas give way to a more conservative concern for reputation, order and law. The couple’s marriage is similarly portrayed as a capitulation to these inescapable social values.
The play’s final scene is a frank and moving conversation between Mary and Godwin which takes place just moments before Godwin walks his only daughter down the aisle. They speak openly about political philosophy, about their radical callings to change the world, and it is here that Mary first describes Frankenstein to her father. The interpretation imposed by the play invites the audience to view Godwin as the obsessively ambitious Frankenstein who, having created a politically radical monster in the form of his own daughter, is disappointed and even frightened by what he sees. It was exactly the kind of candid, intellectual dialogue that the play could have done with a bit more of.
There are myriad different interpretations of Frankenstein and there are many more levels of complexity in her work than the play fully touched on, but Mary’s incredible biography certainly provides a greater depth of understanding, and the play profoundly highlights many of the most significant events that shaped her work.
If you get the chance to see it, do go along – laugh at the literary humour, cry at Mary’s heartbreak, and learn about the fascinating life of one of my favourite women writers.