My haunting search for MARY SHELLEY

On her journey to uncover the woman behind Frankenstein, Suzanne Burdon discovered a tale of sibling fear and loathing
Don’t leave me alone with her. She’s been the bane of my life since I was three years old!’ These were the words of Mary Shelley to her daughter-in-law, who had kindly proposed giving Mary, then in her 50s, some time with her visiting stepsister, Claire Clairmont.

I read this some four years ago and found it so intriguing that it led me on a fascinating journey into the early 19th century. What could have caused such a vehement reaction? Why was Mary so anxious about being left alone with her stepsister? I knew little of Mary Shelley. Like many people, I was vaguely aware that she had written Frankenstein when she was quite young. I knew also that she was married to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

That is when I discovered that I am an obsessive researcher. As a sociologist, most of my working life has been spent conducting market and social research, and when I started reading Mary’s story there were many aspects of it that resonated strongly with modern life. It was operatic in its dramatic ups and downs. There were more scandals, deaths, tortured relationships, loves and losses than in several seasons of Desperate Housewives. Enduring it all was Mary, a strong but also vulnerable young woman in socially unsympathetic times. I glimpsed someone who was a teenage rebel, grieving mother, determined author and long-suffering lover of a man well ahead of his time. I wanted to get to know her better, and especially to understand the insidious and damaging influence of her stepsister, Claire Clairmont.

There are many biographies of Mary, but she is often crowded out by the famous people around her and the complexities of her lifestyle. Finding the real Mary seemed a bit like trying to find a lost child at Paddington Station in rush hour. I badly wanted to understand her emotions and motivations more clearly.

One of the pleasures of writing this book has been the research – not only visiting many of the places associated with her life, but also spending hours burrowing in libraries around the world. There is nothing like touching and seeing original letters and manuscripts. In the Bodleian there was a lovely little notebook in which Mary had sketched a children’s story and a lock of hair was pressed between the pages.

The first thing that struck me was how young they all were. Mary was 16 when she met Shelley and he was already married with a child. With the Geldof family recently in the news, I was struck by the similarities between Percy Shelley and Bob Geldof, the singer-songwriter and political activist. Shelley was also radical, wanting to save the world, wild in appearance, charismatic, and an atheist – and he was a rebel who had been disavowed by his baronet father. He believed in poetry as a force for reformation and change. Poets, he asserted, ‘are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. The popular poets were also the pop stars of the day, as was his contemporary, Lord Byron – girls would wait for hours with binoculars to get a glimpse of him. Celebrity culture is not so new.

One of the places I visited was St Pancras Old Church in London, where Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is buried (she died 10 days after giving birth to Mary). Mary spent hours there to be near to her mother and it is the site of her first encounters with Shelley. I thought it odd that a churchyard would be a place in which to spend time, but found that it is still pretty and peaceful.

At 16, Mary was strong-minded and clever, raised in a world of books and ideas. Her mother was the author of A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman. Her father was William Godwin, a philosopher and political theorist, who wrote a groundbreaking book called Political Justice. Shelley was a disciple of her father, and in Mary he saw a girl who had the genes to achieve great things, as well as being attractive. He also expected her to share the anti-establishment views of her parents. His wife, Harriet, was beautiful but could not match him in intellectual aspiration. In Mary he felt he had found his soulmate. However, she had a surprisingly conservative streak and Shelley needed all of his persuasive powers to convince her to run away with him. Their diaries and letters are no help in reimagining this period, but the recollections of their friends give some clues to their dramatic and clandestine courtship.


When they eventually eloped they were like teenagers on a gap year. They recklessly set off to France, only weeks after Napoleon was defeated. They had little money, few clothes and the optimism of the very young. The only shadow on their bright future was that when they left London in the early hours of a July morning, they had taken Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with them. There seemed to be no good reason for bringing her along, especially as Claire and Mary were not blood relations and were not close or even compatible. It was even more incomprehensible, because Claire was in love with Shelley. Why did Mary let this happen, especially when the decision infected everything that happened to her from then on and had an impact on her relationship with Shelley? This was one of the puzzles I tried to unravel.

After they made it to Switzerland, they found they had exhausted their funds and had to find a cheaper way to return to England, so they travelled on a boat along the Rhine. It transpires that there is an atmospheric old hilltop castle near Gernsheim in Germany, as you travel their route, called Frankenstein Castle. The alchemist Johann Dippel, who was reputed to exhume bodies for anatomical research, once lived there. The seed of inspiration for the novel’s title may have been planted as the travellers passed close to the ruins.

Frankenstein was conceived in the Villa Diodati, Lord Byron’s summer residence near Lake Geneva in 1816, as a result of a challenge to write a ghost story. The Villa Diodati is still there. I was puzzled that the gestation for such a novel was in July, with driving rain and endless thunderstorms supposedly the backdrop to the inspiration. Then I discovered that 1816 was known as the Year Without A Summer. Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted spectacularly – the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history – and Europe was blanketed in dust. People thought the end of the world had come so it was indeed a fitting setting for a Gothic masterpiece.

Mary and Shelley were at Byron’s villa in Geneva because Claire, in an attempt to outdo Mary, had seduced Byron and become pregnant by him. She persuaded the Shelleys to follow Byron when he fled London for Switzerland. Even though he no longer wanted a relationship with Claire, he tolerated her for the agreeable company of the Shelleys.

Bath was where Mary and Shelley then took Claire, to conceal her pregnancy from their parents, and where the deaths of Mary’s half sister, Fanny, and Shelley’s wife caused chaos in their lives. My research next took me to the Buckinghamshire village of Marlow, where the Shelleys managed to live a happy year in Albion House just after Claire had given birth to Byron’s baby, and where Mary and Shelley helped the poverty-stricken lace makers of the village with blankets and money. Shelley even donated his shoes to one poor man.

They spent the last four years of their time together in Italy, partly for Shelley’s health but initially to give over Claire’s baby to Byron in Venice. There were many sites of their travels to visit – San Giuliano Terme, Bagni di Lucca, Pisa, Rome, Livorno and Naples. They moved constantly, partly to explore, but often to escape trauma and grief. Pisa was where they spent longest, were finally happiest and found like-minded friends. They called it their ‘paradise of exiles’.

When they left Pisa, it was to go to a summer retreat, Casa Magni, which fronted the sea on the Gulf of Spezia. They shared the small villa with their English friends, other ‘exiles’ Jane and Edward Williams, and their children. Here they brought Claire to break the news that her young daughter had died while in Byron’s custody.

Seeing the seaside town now, overrun with holidaymakers, it is hard to imagine it as the wild and isolated place of those last days, that Mary hated. This was where she suffered a miscarriage and nearly died, and Shelley had to have ice brought in by boat so that he could immerse her in an ice bath to stop the bleeding. Nevertheless, Shelley loved it there because he and Edward Williams could indulge their obsession with boats. The verandah still conjures images of Mary and Jane scanning the sea in hope that their men would return alive from their final sailing expedition. (Shelley and Williams both drowned in a storm in July 1822).

Another unexpected discovery was that Frankenstein was adapted for the stage several times in Mary’s lifetime. She seemed to be unconcerned that music was added and that the script was meddled with. One production was so scary that women in the audience fainted. The theatre productions added to the book’s popularity, and led to further editions of the book being printed.

I have loved every minute of the years I have spent with Mary Shelley and I hope that readers will, like me, see her as a complete person, flawed as well as favoured, applaud her courage and sympathise with her trials.

Almost Invincible: A Biographical Novel Of Mary Shelley, by Suzanne Burdon, is published by Criteria, priced £9.99.