This is an unusual biography of Mary Shelley, the author best known for Frankenstein and The Last Man. I really wanted to like it but unfortunately the writing style was too strange.
It wasn’t a bad reading experience and I did learn a lot about Mary Shelley, her friends and the times they lived in. The first couple of chapters were especially good. There was no timeline. Evidence for Mary’s childhood is scarce so the author did an excellent job of piecing these early years together. What grated on me was the mixture of tenses, which for a biography of someone who lived two hundred years ago was quite odd to read. I think if only the present tense was used, this might have worked better. However, telling us what Mary is doing now (i.e. placing ourselves in 1818 or whenever), then saying what is going to happen to her, then presenting all this from the perspective of today, was too muddled. I also thought there were too many questions without answers, as if the book was fiction. That said, Fiona Sampson is a poet and the style is suitably literary and a little self-indulgent.
The author is in search of Mary Shelley but I’m not sure if she really found her. Usually when I read a biography, such as that of Queen Victoria or Jane Austen, I feel close to the subject, appreciate her even more and am mourning her by the end of her life story. I didn’t feel this at all with Sampson’s book. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a straightforward biography of Mary Shelley, but if you want glimpses and conjectures and an unusual style, you might enjoy it.
First published in 2018 by Profile Books.