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Thoughts on Mary Shelley and tragedy

July 22, 2011

I recently read the biography of Mary Shelley by Emily Sunstein, and then read it a second time because the pathos and tragedy of her life touched me deeply. It seemed to me that her life would make an excellent movie or a novel, but of course it’s an extremely sad story.

Here’s the conundrum: how does one frame a tragic tale in order to make it bearable? We still watch performances of “Romeo and Juliet,” we still enjoy reading about Marc Antony and Cleopatra, and no one can forget the courage of Joan of Arc. We know “it will end badly” before we ever dive into these stories, but we do it anyhow. So what makes these sad stories perennial; why do we gladly retell them over and over? Presumably there is some essence about them that speaks to the eternal human condition: the universality of romantic love in the first two tales, or the eeriness of Joan’s obeying the guidance of angelic voices to find victory in battle, followed by failure and death when the voices disappeared.

The outline of Mary Shelley’s life is this: she was the daughter of two preeminent ethical philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who both boldly defied British norms of their day regarding marriage and religion. Mary’s mother died two weeks after giving birth to her. Years later, the young would-be poet Percy Bysshe Shelley came to pay his respects to Godwin and became a regular visitor. Shelley and the 16-year-old Mary fell in love and eloped despite the fact that Shelley was already married. Godwin was a proponent of free love except when it involved his own teenaged daughter; enraged, he forbade her to visit the family she left behind. The young couple moved constantly, traveling between England and the Continent, associating with writers and people who shared their Romantic ideals. They saw themselves as revolutionaries who were working to overturn the stale old ways. They experimented with ethical vegetarianism, they believed that hereditary nobility was wrong,  they believed in sharing money with those who had less than they, and they believed that love would conquer all. Mary wrote the first draft of her novel “Frankenstein” during this period. But Mary’s older half-sister who had been left behind at Godwin’s house committed suicide, followed a couple weeks later by Shelley’s abandoned wife, and the public blamed Mary and Shelley for their deaths. Although Shelley and Mary did not believe in bourgeois marriage, they wed in an attempt to regularize their relationship in the eyes of the public and to ensure that Mary’s father would speak to her again. Even so, they were not received by most English people of that time and were continually snubbed and slandered. Mary suffered several miscarriages, two of her three children died, her relationship with Shelley suffered as a result; and finally Shelley himself drowned while boating with a friend. Mary had never believed in the concept of a vengeful God who punished moral trespassers, but she began to wonder whether she had been wrong.  At the age of 24, all joy was ended and she never wed again.

A friend who listened to this short resume of Mary’s life told me “I wouldn’t read that book, it’s too depressing.” But could there be a way to tell it that would make people willingly seek it out, as they do with Romeo / Juliet and Antony / Cleopatra? Like them, it’s a love story involving two people who would do anything for each other. Like “Joan of Arc” it involves death (perhaps too many deaths) but it’s really about someone whose tragedy lay in outliving her loved ones. It’s about young revolutionaries who wanted to turn the world upside down but failed; they would have fit in perfectly during the unrest of the 1960s. Shelley and Mary were born too soon, perhaps, out of their proper time. Perhaps their experiences and sufferings in some way prepared the world for changes that would come later, slowly but inevitably. There’s much in Mary’s story that strikes a chord in my own heart as a reader; why couldn’t it do so for others as well? It’s probably a matter of how the story is framed, whether there’s an ultimate gain in the face of so much loss. That’s the big challenge I’m working on during the course of the summer.

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