This week BBC Radio 4’s Book At Bedtime is what they describe as “the only other finished fiction by Mary Shelley.” Mathilda
When I first heard that I thought I was mistaken. The trailer added that it was about her life with Percy Bysshe Shelley, but even that debatable claim is misleading.
Of course everyone knows of Frankenstein, even if fewer really know it. It’s widely available in both 1818 and revised 1831 versions, in volumes on its own or with other Gothic novels by Beckford and Walpole. The myth of its genesis is as well-known as its story.
Less famous but still widely in print, and certainly known to serious SF readers is her apocalyptic The Last Man whose leads are very clearly modeled on Byron and especially Bysshe.
Before that though came Valperga, Shelley’s proto-feminist historical novel, seen by some as partly a response to the massively popular masculine novels of Scott. More explicitly it is a direct commentary on the post-Napoleonic greed for conquest. This specificity makes it less accessible to the modern reader but there is much of interest in Countess Euthanasia as she chooses liberty over sentiment. Comparisons to her father William Godwin’s novels such as Caleb Williams are possibly closer than to Frankenstein.
After the death of Bysshe, Mary was restrained from publishing his poetry or writing about him by his father Sir Timothy. His control over her through finance was initially absolute. She survived selling articles, though these were often poorly received. Frankenstein was hugely successful but pirate copies and stage adaptations brought her nothing.
The Last Man and her fifth novel The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck thus both allowed her to write about and eulogise her late husband indirectly without incurring the wrath of Sir Timothy. Again based on historical character Shelley gives pretender Warbeck idealised qualities of grace and sensibility from which his political essence arose. Tellingly after Warbeck’s death his widow Katherine survives by compromise with his opponents.
That same element of family obligation, financial dependency and the struggle for female independence make up much of Lodore‘s plot and thematic core. Later Victorian reviews called it “biography transmuted for the purposes of fiction” though the obvious biographical elements are subtler than previously.
The last of Shelley’s novels published in her lifetime was Falkner which I haven’t read but along with Lodore has been dismissed by many critics for a focus on women’s domesticity. Others take a broader view incorporating the earlier novels to note a consistent emphasis on a feminine resolution of power relationships, and familial structures.
I won’t discuss Mathilda (or Matilda in some editions) here as you can listen yourself on this week’s Book At Bedtime. Suffice to say that though written around 1823 making it Shelley’s second novel, but it disappeared until the 1950s. (A children’s novel Maurice or The Fisher’s Cot was discovered in the 1990s.) I’d recommend taking the opportunity to hear Mathilda, but otherwise after Frankenstein, try Valperga, The Last Man and then Lodore.
Popular belief is that Mary Shelley wrote nothing of note after Frankenstein, and BBC Radio 4 insists she wrote nothing at all. The novels described here show the error there. Two verse dramas which incorporated lyric poetry by Bysshe Midas and Proserpine further emphasise her ongoing philosophy of feminist republicanism. Maybe this is why much of her work though acclaimed at the time is now ignored, but maybe too this is exactly why you should read beyond Frankenstein into the rest of Mary Shelley.
*discussion of Mary & her husband generally call him Shelley and her Mary. In the spirit of her work I chose here to use Shelley for her, as focus of this article, reserving Bysshe for him as secondary in this context.
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