Reviews

Betty T. Bennett. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. ISBN 080185976X. Price: US$16.95.[Notice]

  • Syndy McMillen Conger

…plus d’informations

  • Syndy McMillen Conger
    Iowa City, Iowa

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 ...