“Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. Lover of Shelley. Author of Frankenstein …”
The strapline to Shared Experience’s Mary Shelley captures with startling accuracy exactly what stance this play takes on the life of its subject. Just add in a reference to philosopher William Godwin as her father and you’re there. Because what Helen Edmundson’s text does, admittedly rather well, is to define Mary Shelley on the basis of her extraordinary family, the famous poet with whom her autobiography is inextricably tangled, and the novel for which she is remembered. All of this it achieves very well on its own terms, but it’s an approach that feels uncomfortably reductive.
While the strapline may be revealing, the title of Edmundson’s play is somewhat misleading. Encompassing the period of her life between first meeting Shelley and eventually marrying him – the moment at which she technically becomes the figure of the title by taking her husband’s name – this is as much about Mary’s family as it is about her own inner life. Shared Experience show us her and Shelley’s mutual infatuation, the stormy relationship with her father, who refuses to speak to her for many months, and her two dramatically different sisters: the insufferably silly Jane and the more sensitive, serious and reserved older sibling Fanny. We are witness to the various struggles of the family, the constant scrambling for money and the devastating loss of Mary’s daughter Clara.
In the title role, Kristin Atherton makes a sparky Mary, conveying her precocious intelligence and appealing confidence while also occasionally peeling back this outward gloss to remind us that she is just a teenage girl, one who trembles at the thought of the love that consumes her and who is prone to fevered fits of jealousy. We are only given true access to her inner emotions, however, through visually inventive dream sequences, which under Polly Teale’s direction become some of the production’s most memorable moments. William Chubb makes a suitably prickly intellectual as Godwin and it is not hard to see why all three sisters fall for Ben Lamb’s Shelley, but it is Flora Nicholson’s poignant, beautifully understated turn as Fanny which becomes the surprising show-stealer, revealing more about this supporting figure than we ever really learn about Mary.
Near the end of the play, as Mary explains the plot of Frankenstein to her father, it becomes clear what purpose the chosen details of her life are serving, beyond simply presenting us with a fictionalised biography. Mary dreams of the possibility of bringing her child back to life; she struggles to come to terms with the rejection of her seemingly indifferent father; she has been raised in the absence of a mother – the connections between life and fiction are perceptibly and none-too-subtly drawn. It is nothing new to suggest that Mary Shelley’s extraordinary creation was inspired by some of the more distressing aspects of her own experience, but to have such words plainly drop from the author’s lips seems to draw a line under the theory.
But, to borrow a phrase from John Lennard, dimly remembered from one of the university set texts at the back of my bookshelf, “art is not autobiography”. One of the most damaging criticisms to have dogged the writing of women over the years is the suggestion that it is drawn purely from personal experience, incapable of the same feats of imagination as, to take a convenient example, the output of the male Romantic poets. It is just such an argument that caused suspicions that Frankenstein was the product of Shelley’s imagination rather than his wife’s and that has led generation upon generation of critics to point back to the writer’s life. A startling act of invention is devalued to little more than a fanciful elevation of abandonment issues.
With my feminist hat firmly on, Edmundson’s approach uncovers a troubling reduction of a great work of literature. I should perhaps admit at this juncture that Frankenstein is among my favourite novels, but my point has less to do with my personal opinion of the book and more to do with the reception of literature written by women in a wider sense. In a piece that otherwise offers interesting and intelligent windows on the position of women in a patriarchal society, in keeping with the focus on great women seen in Shared Experience’s previous work, the emphasised connection between Mary Shelley’s life and work and the foregrounding of the influence of two strong men in the form of Godwin and Shelley glares out disappointingly.
To be fair to Edmundson and Shared Experience, this is a quibble that largely arises from my own approach to literature and I suspect that most audience members would have no such concerns. Art and autobiography have a long love affair that even Roland “Death of the Author” Barthes failed to fully dissolve, and there is undoubtedly a certain enduring curiosity excited by this group of free-thinking radicals. One of the most interesting aspects of this production is in fact how it treats the problematic intersection of these thinkers’ beliefs and lives, unmasking the hypocrisy and inevitable human frailty that lurk behind genius. For all Godwin’s espousing of unconventional relationships, he cannot reconcile himself to the thought of his own daughter running off with a married man, while Shelley’s fervent belief in an open, experimental “community” looks a lot like self-serving indulgence of his own adulterous impulses.
In a nice nod to Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, Godwin refers to himself, the poet, Mary and her mother as “legislators of mankind”. But what Edmundson’s writing cleverly acknowledges is the tension between a belief in the advancement of humankind and a genuine respect for humanity, the latter of which is often lacking among all the talk of “political justice”. To wheel out a hackneyed phrase, Edmundson seems to be suggesting that here the personal is political. After all, a community of any kind cannot exist without a consideration of the relationships within that community. In neglecting people in favour of ideas, the ideas of these individuals lose some of their sway, and Mary’s gradual recognition of this forms one of the more fascinating developments of her character.
Ultimately, however, little new is revealed about this extraordinary woman, whose life contains enough to fill several plays. In this sense, Edmundson is wise to restrict herself to the space of a few years – the years in which Mary’s character was arguably most shaped – yet there remains something faintly unsatisfying about the approach that she and Shared Experience have taken. In the end, perhaps one of the most effective elements of the production is Naomi Dawson’s design, which hems in the scenes between overflowing bookshelves; a helpful reminder that literature is also a leading character in this drama, but one that too often lurks in the background.