Friday, November 15, 2013

THE MONSTERS by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler

I picked this up at the local library after having heard of it here and there, and while it's not exactly of the genre I deal with, it takes a look at some prominent figures and works in it, and so is worth delving into.

This is, basically, a biography of Mary Shelley, focusing on her authorship of Frankenstein, and also looking into the lives of those around her during the famous "haunted summer." We get an enjoyable look into the life and writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and her marriage to William Godwin...radicals and revolutionaries both, they resisted marrying until a child comes along, and they eventually cave in to convention to be sure their child will be regarded as legitimate.

But Mary Wollstonecraft dies soon after giving birth, and young Mary grows up in an unsettled home. Eventually she meets young Percy Bysshe Shelley, the noble-born poet and radical who is inconveniently married, and the two run away together to Europe...accompanied by Mary's stepsister Clara (soon to be called Claire), who soon becomes Mary's rival for Percy's affections.

It's a hot mess, when you throw in Lord Byron and his neurotic and needy doctor, John Polidori, who has literary ambitions but not the talent to realize them. And all the bed-hopping going on, and turbulent relationships, between Mary and Percy, and Claire and Byron, and Claire and Percy, and...well...who knows who else. Mary craved a stable home life but Percy kept her moving from one place to another, never staying anywhere for long. And then there was the fateful summer of 1816, The Year Without A Summer (caused by historically low solar activity and a series of volcanic eruptions that threw a load of dust into the atmosphere that blocked the sun), a summer of failed crops and frequent storms and cold temperatures and food shortages and riots and typhus and death.

Of course, there's the whole well-known summer that resulted in Frankenstein, but there's also Mary's dead child, and Claire's child by Byron, Allegra, who dies young, and the suicides of Percy's wife and Mary's sister. Needy Polidori eventually self-destructs, Byron gets in over his head trying to be a Greek patriot, and Percy's fascination with the sea, and inability to swim, destroys him eventually.

The portraits of the personalities involved are compelling and realistic. Percy is restless, perhaps too self-absorbed, and is a model for Victor Frankenstein in many ways. Byron is immensely talented and immensely handsome, but also with serious body image issues that lead him to go to great lengths to disguise a malformed foot, and to always go on crash diets. John Polidori is blinded by optimism and a need for affirmation and reassurance; despite his own talents and striking good looks (he was quite dishy, even when next to Byron), he was always striving for something just beyond his grasp.

Like I said, dishy.
The tragedy of some of these characters' lives touches me; I came away really liking Mary and wishing she could have had better. She and Shelley were an ill-sorted couple, and although she seems to have loved him and devoted herself to his memory after his death, it sometimes seemed as if they would have been better off going their separate ways. Byron was compelling and yet often contemptible. Polidori is likable despite his pathos; he needed support and some good friends, even though he seems like he could have been a bottomless pit of emotional need.

But a fun part of this is the discussion of how not only had Mary given horror one of its most iconic characters, but also how Polidori had codified and defined the image of the vampire for generations to come. The Hooblers look at how Mary's life and circumstances may have shaped her writing of Frankenstein, and how her early politics and radicalism softened in later life...leading to a revision of her signature work that blunted some of its sharper edges.

It does have a few debits, including occasional conjectures not backed up by much documentation, and it ignores Mary's final work, a travelogue of Germany and Italy that included quite a bit of political and philosophical commentary that is now regarded by many as her second-best work. But I can forgive that given its focus on Frankenstein.

This is a quite enjoyable and informative peek into the lives of some influential people in the genre, and of a time of poetry and miniature portraits and long holidays by the lake and amateur scientific experimentation. If you're interested, get it and read it.

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