Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley: Writing Lives

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9780889203631: Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley: Writing Lives

Pioneers in life writing, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818 ), are now widely regarded as two of the leading writers of the Romantic period. They are both responsible for opening up new possibilities for women in genres traditionally dominated by men.

This volume brings together essays on Wollstonecraft’s and Shelley’s life writing by some of the most prominent scholars in Canada, Australia, and the United States. It also includes a full-length play by award-winning Canadian playwright Rose Scollard. Together, the essays and the play explore the connections between mother and daughter, between writing and life, and between criticism and creation. They offer a new understanding of two important writers, of a literary period, and of emergent modes of life writing.

Essayists include Judith Barbour, Betty T. Bennett, Anne K. Mellor, Charles E. Robinson, Eleanor Ty, and Lisa Vargo. Among the works discussed are Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, Letters from Norway, and Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman; William Godwin’s Memoirs of Wollstonecraft; and Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Last Man, Ladore, and Rambles in Germany and Italy.

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About the Author:

Helen M. Buss is a professor of English at the University of Calgary. Her book on Canadian women's life writing, Mapping Our Selves, won the Gabrielle Roy Prize. As Margaret Clarke, she has published novels, short stories and poetry.



D. L. Macdonald teaches English at the University of Calgary. He is the author of Poor Polidori: A Critical Biography of the Author of “The Vampyre” (1991) and of Monk Lewis (2000).



Anne McWhir is a professor of English at the University of Calgary and has written extensively on William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley and P. B. Shelley.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The question that I now wish to pose is this. Did I emphasize Mary Shelley’s passionate but frustrated love for her father, and Godwin’s lack of paternal love for his only biological daughter—an emphasis that earlier accounts of Mary Shelley’s life and especially of Godwin’s life had not given (or even allowed as a possibility)—because of my own experiences? Did I respond overly intensely—and perhaps disproportionately—to the documented instances of Godwin’s unconcern for or hostility to Mary, and wilfully ignore other instances of his paternal love and support for her? Godwin did compliment Mary, for instance, on the “vigour” of her writing in Frankenstein—even as he kept the profits from the novel for himself. As that last comment indicates, I have a very hard time seeing Godwin in a positive light as the father of this daughter, however kind he may have been to Fanny Imlay and his other children. Did I respond in this way because my own childhood relationship with my father was extremely conflicted? Because my father clearly preferred my sibling, my younger sister? Because after my father divorced my mother when I was eighteen in order to marry his mistress, he intentionally abandoned his first family and has seen me only three times in the last thirty years? As a close friend and former colleague once said to me, “A woman who loved and felt close to her father would write a different book on Mary Shelley. “

If this is the case, then perhaps we need to revise Roland Barthes’s trenchant statement about biography. Barthes called biography “a novel that dare not speak its name” (Mythologies 73), and Carolyn Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman’s Life, has insistently reminded us that all biographies are fictions. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all biographies are autobiographies that dare not speak their name.

CREATURE: [Moving into view] I know you want to know how it all turns out, but let’s leave them here on the cusp of hope and terror. I mean, what does it matter after all? As Claire said, Mary’s life will be seen by posterity as a little heap of obscure moments with one great book resting on the top.

Some of you will try to reach round me and haul her into the future. But I will be there, standing between you, the extraordinary creation of a young mind at the beginning of an otherwise dreary life.

I am, after all, unique. There never was anyone like me before or since. There have been imitators, Dickens, Poe, and countless others, who have attempted to capture and use my particular essence in their stories. I believe there’s a young writer in America who has some kind of aquatic version of me in mind.

And interpretations. I have been and will be interpreted from every possible point of view—Political, Social, Moral, Poetic. I am a virtual Frankenstein’s monster of interpretation, and I imagine there are a number among you tonight guilty of adding to the patchwork.

But you don’t need a doctorate in psychology to understand what I’m all about. Do you? I am Mary’s monster. A million little glistening resurrections of all her dead and all her lost desires. But I could be yours. Couldn’t I?

Nothing really specific—an accumulation, a pastiche of little sins, little weaknesses, things that hardly matter. And yet there might be consequences to deal with. If I have my way.

Sinks onto the chaise. Laughter from the two women interrupts him.

CREATURE: Look at them. Doomed to disappointment and mediocrity. You think I’m unkind? Would Iago have sympathy for Shakespeare? Would Satan revere Milton? And look at you, still wanting to pull them forward, to reclaim their pain and their despair and their trivial solutions. I’m telling you there’s nothing there to be learned and yet you persist in thinking there might be something. Ah, the human heart is a strange jungle.

MARY: [Moves over to the creature] Take on the world and hang the consequences. I like that. I like it very much.

She strokes the creature’s face and runs back to join her sisters. The lights fade to black, then glaring lights flash, then loud raucous music from the canon of songs based on Frankenstein, for example, “Feed My Frankenstein, “ blares out as they all joyfully take their bows.

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Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press (2001)
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Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press (2001)
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