The Determined Heart
Mary Shelley’s life provides rich material for this biographical novel. Born to an early feminist mother who died giving birth, Mary was raised by an egotistical father. As a child she met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles and Mary Lamb, and a kindly “Uncle” Aaron Burr, who moved to England after his infamous duel with Hamilton. Her wicked stepmother and even worse stepsister seem to be out of a fairy tale, but their portrayal seems historically accurate.
Mary elopes with a married nobleman referred to as Bysshe, the author of romantic poetry and essays on free love and atheism. Eventually they flee to Italy, where she loses baby after baby. His friend Lord Byron, a heartless cad, impregnates her stepsister, but as the story progresses, Shelley proves to be even more insensitive. After his wife’s suicide, they eventually marry, and Mary continues to regard him as her romantic hero, but by the time he drowns, the reader might be glad to be rid of him.
The best parts involve the gestation of Frankenstein. As a girl Mary lived near an abattoir and a gallows. Later she developed an interest in vitalism and the power of electricity. When Byron, Shelley and Mary made their famous wager about writing a Gothic tale, Mary used her gruesome experiences to create an immortal story. Her novel was not only commercially successful; it began a new genre and continues to spawn countless adaptations and parodies.