2018 marks not just the 100th anniversary of Scottish writer Muriel Spark’s birth, but also the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s science fiction classic Frankenstein.
Time flies, friends.
Spark admired Mary Shelley. Extra exciting for me, her biography of the English novelist is where both my Muriel Spark project and participation in the Frankenstein 200 festivities intersect.
In other words: I get twice the bang for the buck, bishes!
Frankenstein is one of those novels you think you know, until you actually read it. It’s so different from the film adaptations. Those are fun, but the book goes far deeper. It’s also stranger, and that’s saying a lot. Same for Dracula. Neither book should be judged by the films. The resemblance is at best vague.
I’m heading into my third reading of Frankenstein after Spark’s bio about its author. The background is fascinating, since I’ve never known much about Mary Shelley except she wrote an iconic novel as the result of a bet. Almost as impressive, she felt no intimidation going up against literary heavyweights Lord Byron and her lover Percy Shelley, also in on the bet. She was only a kid, a mere teenager, while the two men already had staggering reputations for genius.
You go, girl. You go.
I have to be honest, here. The behavior of the Romantic poets – especially Shelley and his pal Lord Byron – is spoiled and distinctly lacking in ethics. Sure, I wish I had a patron to take care of my bills, so I could spend my time drinking and having picnics with my erudite friends. But honey, other writers bust their arses producing not when the muse strikes, but when the rent is due.
Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Percy Bysshe Shelley pimped Mary out for money. He pimped her out. A wealthy lawyer friend of his had an unspoken arrangement; love letters from Mary to this man imply she was just waiting for her baby to be born so they could get it on for cash. Shelley and Mary kept no secrets. She wasn’t running around behind his back. Percy was just that classy.
Ironically, that baby died.
Shelley was forever running from creditors, yet, on at least one occasion when a friend felt sorry enough to slip him a fiver (most likely to shut him up), he and Mary went to see a play before spending the remainder on food and accommodation. Bitch, please.
I don’t want to paint them all with the same brush, but between Shelley’s bad behavior and Lord Byron’s even worse, it leaves a bad taste. The two men left women and children along the side of the street, because geniuses cannot be bothered. Byron was okay for money, but didn’t hesitate knocking up Mary Shelley’s half-sister, dumping her at Mary’s, and prancing off to Italy. The result? Mary was left feeding both her half-sister and the child, while George merrily spread his seed elsewhere.
And Percy Shelley? The estranged wife he left for Mary committed suicide from despair, leaving their two children orphaned. Hoping to gain custody, he finally married Mary to make himself appear more respectable. Unfortunately, the courts gave him a big ol’ dose of nope. His children were adopted out to another family.
Mary’s own mother – iconic feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – lived with her lover William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s father), yet Godwin all but disowned his daughter for shackin’ with Shelley. The apple didn’t fall far from that tree, but it didn’t look so appetizing held by his 19-year old daughter.
These people did hypocrisy well, too.
I don’t mind being in the minority when it comes to these poets. I cannot muster patience for elitists, much less elitist bed-hoppers. Makes you wonder why I love Virginia Woolf so much. She and her group were no different. Good lord, she was a snob, and a brilliant one, but you’d need a scorecard to figure out who slept with whom in that bunch. Maybe I can do hypocrisy, my own self.
I’d better get back to it. I want to polish off the biography, move on to Frankenstein, then read Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye by March. But first, sleep. Because some of us who love reading and writing must still get up and go to work in the morning.