Readers wishing to learn about Mary Shelley as more than Mrs. Shelley will find this book useful only as a starting place, for Muriel Spark presents a very spare account of Mary’s life, before, during, and after her relationship with Shelley. Most tantalizing are Spark’s descriptions of materials from Mary’s journals and letters, references that are left for the reader to pursue. In fact, in covering events between Percy Shelley’s drowning and Mary’s own death many years later, Spark’s narrative is remarkably thin, so much so, for example, that she omits all references to Mary’s reaction to the loss of the man whom she loved most dearly.
It is when Spark turns her attention to Mary Shelley as an author that the book displays more substance. She includes an informative discussion of Shelley’s most famous novel, FRANKENSTEIN, as well as shorter but nevertheless thought-provoking considerations of two other novels, the futuristic THE LAST MAN and THE FORTUNES OF PERKIN WARBECK, a romance in the spirit of Sir Walter Scott. In addition, Spark takes an all-too-brief look at some of Shelley’s commentaries on her late husband’s poetry and pays passing consideration to her own very limited canon of verse. In both cases, the material presented will prove inadequate for anyone wishing to learn very much about these aspects of Shelley’s writing.
It is indeed unfortunate that Spark has unwittingly perpetuated the myth of Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley as the wife of Percy Shelley, a woman who also happened to write FRANKENSTEIN, rather than treating the central figure of her book as a person in her own right. This bias is amply demonstrated by Spark’s primary focus on the superficialities of Mary’s eight years with Shelley and by her sketchy treatment of the time before Mary met him and after she was widowed--forty-five of her fifty-three years.