Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O'Dea, eds., Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley After 'Frankenstein' - Essays in Honor of the Bicentenary of Mary Shelley's Birth. Madison and London: Associated University Presses, 1997. ISBN: 0-8386-3684-5. Price: £39.50 ($49.50).[Notice]

  • Rachel Woolley

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  • Rachel Woolley
    University of Newcastle Upon Tyne

Entitling a volume Iconoclastic Departures raises high expectations in a reader, and awakens anticipation of originality, innovation and distinctiveness. There are, indeed, thoughtful, engaging, well-written essays included in this volume, but not enough to match either the suggestively radical nature of the book's title, or the high expectations it generates. The editors take advantage of such a timely occasion as the bicentenary of Mary Shelley's birth, to assess the state of Mary Shelley scholarship, identifying its current strengths in order to redress the past injustices that have so beleaguered Mary Shelley's literary reputation. In this, they are largely successful. The order of the essays demonstrates a strong thematic unity, and this gives a tangible method to their project: namely, re-evaluating Mary Shelley to prove that she wrote 'self-consciously, expertly and innovatively all her life' (p. 10). What has emerged, they argue, is a Mary Shelley who is a 'quiet radical ... immensely talented, fiercely intelligent, nonconformist' (p. 12). The collection is enhanced by the prominent attention it gives to the question of identity; and the contribution that feminist-psychoanalytic readings make to this should not go unacknowledged. The search for an identity of Mary Shelley as a successfully 'recovered' author dominates the collection and the sense of a women's literary canon, as well as Mary Shelley's place alongside influential male Romantics, pervades the selection. The introduction surveys Mary Shelley criticism to date, militating against earlier criticism that has 'almost exclusively focused' on Mary Shelley's domestic ties, and attempts to read her life through her fiction (p. 9). Iconoclastic Departures defines its critical position by acknowledging that 'the family' has become 'an imperative sociopsychological context within which better to understand [Mary Shelley's] contributions to the many literary forms with which she worked' (p. 10). This seems less of a departure from early, and increasingly outdated, psycho-biographical criticism than the editors would suppose. The essays do transform the significance of the family in Mary Shelley's work, but there is still a marked tendency to include biographical information, and extrapolate from it considerable literary meaning. This creates a sense of modernising or refining (psycho-)biographical interpretation rather than departing from it. The most significant conjecture in this refining process is that Mary Shelley 'retained a resistant, resiliently radical attitude to many of the established orders of her day' (p. 10) and often this argument is convincingly articulated. Divided into four parts, the themes of the volume suggest the continuing and encompassing revision of Mary Shelley's works, from Percy Shelley's contribution to Frankenstein, through to the later novels. Part I, 'Authorship Reconsidered', pursues the question of identity, exploring the relationship between authorship and editing, and the emergence of Mary Shelley as a writer. The benefit Mary Shelley derived from Percy Shelley's influence is frequently acknowledged in these essays, without eclipsing her own ability or agency. Furthermore, Mary Shelley's editing of her husband's posthumous works is not the defensive strategy argued by Mary Poovey in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). It is recast in more positive hues by Angela Jones, Sheila Ahlbrand and Gregory O'Dea as a conscious attempt to assert a public literary identity, to establish herself as writer, as Ahlbrand succinctly states: 'In the mythologising of Shelley, she mythologises herself' (p. 58). Jones also interprets Mary Shelley's construction of 'public-author/private writer' (p. 24) in History of a Six Weeks Tour as a way to critique what she terms 'masculinized Romantic Tourism' (p. 25). This text then becomes 'a kind of counterpublic discourse marshaled to revise practices of and assumptions about picturesque touring and aesthetics so …