Written first as an introduction to the 1996 Pickering edition of the novels and selected works of Mary Shelley, then revised as a monograph for Johns Hopkins University Press, Betty Bennett’s Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction offers readers an expertly done overview of Mary Shelley’s life and works. Each of the four chapters situates Mary Shelley’s literary achievements in geopolitical time and place, discusses them in generic and intellectual contexts, and reviews previous criticism on the subject.
Bennett articulates her vision in chapter 1, “Early Journeys, 1797-1818,” in order to apply it to Mary Shelley’s major life events and literary works. First, Bennett sees Mary Shelley as one of the most “illustrious disciples” of her famous parents, the radical thinkers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft—a disciple who modeled her life and works on their beliefs “in the power and the responsibility of the individual to effect change, on their own activist and risk-taking engagement with their society, and on their ability to recognize transition--in themselves and in the society—and to respond accordingly.” Together Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, also a disciple of her parents, “projected a new world order” that “reflected Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s belief in an attainable democratic society structured on reason and social progress, inculcated through universal education,” but in addition she, in part influenced by her husband, “altered the emphasis on reason in favor of a philosophy that advocated universal love as well.” Second, Bennett sees Mary Shelley unequivocally as an individual thinker and writer, one who—from early in her literary career—imaginatively reshapes and subverts the genres she chooses to work within, one whose perspective is uniquely her own, and one who speaks in a “fully evolved Romantic voice of her own.”
Chapter 1 discusses History of A Six Weeks’ Tour and Frankenstein. They are not frequently considered side by side, but this chronological juxtaposition gives Bennett an opportunity to point to a political perspective at work in both texts that serves as a principle of content selection and bends genres into parodic structures. Mary Shelley’s “detestation of war and the concern for the abuse of power” surfaces frequently in both these books, as Bennett sees them, contributing to the uniqueness of History—a travel book with few precedents, Bennett notes, other than Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Norway, and defining the problem at the center of Frankenstein: Victor Frankenstein’s failure “to take responsibility for his own actions.”
Chapter 2, “Italy, 1818-1823,” continues to trace Mary Shelley’s radical political consciousness through four more of her early literary achievements: The Cenci, written by Percy Bysshe Shelley but with the extensive collaborative help of Mary Shelley; Matilda; Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca; and Proserpine and Midas. These works emerged during the eventful years of “peripatetic life in Italy” remaining to Mary Shelley and her husband before his tragic death and her return to England in August of 1823. Bennett’s command of the people, places, ideas, and periodic crises that constituted Mary Shelley’s context in those years gives this chapter a grounded and gripping quality. Bennett’s approach to her subject enables her to cast credible doubt on some psycho-biographical critical theories about the Shelleys’ relationship, Mary’s relationship with her father, and Mary’s relationships with the women who were her husband’s “auxiliary objects of love and inspiration.” The Mary Shelley to be glimpsed in these pages is a loving and unconventional wife, a devoted daughter, a young wife and mother devastated by the loss of three children, and a dedicated artist strong enough to acknowledge her debts to others yet make a considerable and unique contribution to the ideas and literary forms that engaged her. Chapter 2 is brief but lively.
At the outset of Chapter 3, “Return to England, 1823-1837,” Bennett briefly discusses Mary Shelley’s chief aims in editing and publishing Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Posthumous Poems, his father’s interdict against publishing anything more of his son’s literary work during his lifetime, and Mary Shelley’s many short works (stories, essays, books reviews, and biographical sketches) produced between 1824 and 1839. Bennett devotes most of the chapter, however, to critical analyses of four of the author’s novels—The Last Man, Perkin Warbeck, Lodore, and Faulkner—with a steady eye on “issues of power and politics” that inform them all. For example, Bennett says, “Lodore dissects aristocratic values to demonstrate that ultimately they are deleterious both personally and societally. In their stead the novel proposes egalitarian educational paradigms for women and men, which would bring social justice as well as the spiritual and intellectual means by which to meet the challenges life invariably brings.” New students of Mary Shelley will appreciate the lucid and concise plot synopses of these novels, but Bennett’s attention to first reviews is a welcome addition to this chapter for all Mary Shelley scholars. These reviews, according to Bennett, consistently resisted the political and philosophical themes so central to Mary Shelley’s vision, misled their readers by presenting her work as conventional and domestic, and unfortunately established the direction literary criticism would take until the present century.
Chapter 4, “Last Journeys, 1837-1851,” brings relevant comments from Mary Shelley’s correspondence to bear on her contribution to Reverend Dionysius Lardner’s five-volume Cabinet of Biography before moving on to discuss more fully Mary Shelley’s final editions of the works of her husband: The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in four volumes; Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley in two volumes; and the one-volume Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Bennett suggests that, even without the biography that P. B. Shelley’s father forbade her to include in these editions, Mary Shelley offers contemporary readers, through carefully constructed prefaces and notes, “her critical judgment of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s works” and biographical and historical particulars about the “circumstances of their composition.” With these editions, Bennett believes, Mary Shelley produced a “final collaborative work with Shelley, providing him with professional editorial expertise as years earlier he had provided her[,]” and “the turning point in firmly establishing P. B. Shelley as a major author in the English canon.” If, because of audience concerns, Mary Shelley’s “reformist agenda” is subdued in the editions, for Bennett, it is front and center in her Rambles in Germany and Italy: “Rambles goes against the grain of the era in its blend of Romantic values, female emancipation, and political advocacy.” Bennett acknowledges signs of Mary Shelley’s continuing loyalty to the lives, works, and ideas of her mother, her father, and her husband in the Rambles; nevertheless, she recognizes the current political commentaries and the disarming “tourist persona” as the author’s own. Bennett ends her monograph with a brief description of Mary Shelley’s death and afterlife in biographies and critical commentaries, first strictly controlled by her devoted son and daughter-in-law, later unwittingly reconstituted by critics up until the present century: “Ironically, the own family extended the work of depoliticization and domestication that the critics of her novels had begun years earlier [. . .]. So efficient was the filter of the era that even today [. . .] the inherent dissonance of her works [is] glossed over as ambiguous subservience or psychological affliction.” The appended chronology, notes, and selected bibliography all bear quiet witness to Bennett’s editorial expertise; and although relatively short and hence necessarily cursory, the monograph is much strengthened by Bennett’s thoroughly informed scholarship.