Reading the Letters of Mary Shelley – Brief Thoughts on the Second 1899 Volume

The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Volume II by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Offering a fascinating insight into the mind of Mary Shelley, with curated extracts of her journal accompanying some of her correspondence to some of her friends and colleagues. This is a reprint of the two volume 1899 publication curated by Florence Marshall. One always has to be cautious when reading the letters of someone like Mary Shelley. While her letters were private, given that she was more than aware that she had become a public figure, it was clearly in her mind that her letters may, at some stage, be made public. She therefore, at times, seemed to write for a much broader audience than the person she wrote to. There are therefore many ways her letters can be read. That is the joy that awaits the reader.

This second volume of letters covers the period following the death of her husband Percy Shelley in July of 1822, until her own death in 1851, tragically young, from a brain tumour. She was only 53. In 1822, she had already written her greatest work, Frankenstein, and the creature of her creation seemed to haunt her throughout life, there are shadowed references to it throughout her letters and journal.

She was a widow and a mother who worked tirelessly to provide a living for her son, all while trying to support a father that was unable to support himself, carrying a burden which no young woman should have to cope with. Her own financial pressures were never far from her mind, as she struggled to help her father evade the worst of his own mismanagement of his financial affairs. Despite the difficulties that were the legacy of her parents and her husband, her respect for them shines through.

More than anything, however, the letters show a woman constrained – constrained by financial pressures as her father-in-law refused to provide a meaningful income for Mary and her child following her husband’s death, constrained by her own choices, as her decision to elope with Percy while he was still married to another woman painted her in a notoriety she was never able to wash away, constrained by the fame of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft having also been condemned by the social mores of her time for having had a child out of wedlock. She wrote, with keen awareness: ‘Years ago, when a man died, the worms ate him; now a new set of worms feed on the carcase of the scandal he leaves behind him and grow fat on the world’s love of tittle-tattle.’ She was the morsel that tittle-tattle chose to feed on. Much of what she did was an attempt to mitigate this damage, and shield her son from it.

Mary Shelley was all to aware of these limitations which constrained her – to the point where they stifled her voice, ‘abused by pretended friends for my lukewarmness’ as she put it, on the subject of the question of women’s rights. Her letters show that there was so many things holding her back from being able to speak freely.

The reader is left wondering – had she the complete and total freedom to write as she chose, what more could this remarkable writer have written?

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Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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