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Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Writing Lives

Edited by Helen M. Buss, D. L. Macdonald, and Anne McWhir
Subjects Literary Criticism
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Paperback : 9780889203648, 340 pages, June 2001


The question that I now wish to pose is this. Did I emphasize Mary Shelley’s passionate but frustrated love for her father, and Godwin’s lack of paternal love for his only biological daughter—an emphasis that earlier accounts of Mary Shelley’s life and especially of Godwin’s life had not given (or even allowed as a possibility)—because of my own experiences? Did I respond overly intensely—and perhaps disproportionately—to the documented instances of Godwin’s unconcern for or hostility to Mary, and wilfully ignore other instances of his paternal love and support for her? Godwin did compliment Mary, for instance, on the “vigour” of her writing in Frankenstein—even as he kept the profits from the novel for himself. As that last comment indicates, I have a very hard time seeing Godwin in a positive light as the father of this daughter, however kind he may have been to Fanny Imlay and his other children. Did I respond in this way because my own childhood relationship with my father was extremely conflicted? Because my father clearly preferred my sibling, my younger sister? Because after my father divorced my mother when I was eighteen in order to marry his mistress, he intentionally abandoned his first family and has seen me only three times in the last thirty years? As a close friend and former colleague once said to me, “A woman who loved and felt close to her father would write a different book on Mary Shelley. “

If this is the case, then perhaps we need to revise Roland Barthes’s trenchant statement about biography. Barthes called biography “a novel that dare not speak its name” (Mythologies 73), and Carolyn Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman’s Life, has insistently reminded us that all biographies are fictions. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all biographies are autobiographies that dare not speak their name.

CREATURE: [Moving into view] I know you want to know how it all turns out, but let’s leave them here on the cusp of hope and terror. I mean, what does it matter after all? As Claire said, Mary’s life will be seen by posterity as a little heap of obscure moments with one great book resting on the top.

Some of you will try to reach round me and haul her into the future. But I will be there, standing between you, the extraordinary creation of a young mind at the beginning of an otherwise dreary life.

I am, after all, unique. There never was anyone like me before or since. There have been imitators, Dickens, Poe, and countless others, who have attempted to capture and use my particular essence in their stories. I believe there’s a young writer in America who has some kind of aquatic version of me in mind.

And interpretations. I have been and will be interpreted from every possible point of view—Political, Social, Moral, Poetic. I am a virtual Frankenstein’s monster of interpretation, and I imagine there are a number among you tonight guilty of adding to the patchwork.

But you don’t need a doctorate in psychology to understand what I’m all about. Do you? I am Mary’s monster. A million little glistening resurrections of all her dead and all her lost desires. But I could be yours. Couldn’t I?

Nothing really specific—an accumulation, a pastiche of little sins, little weaknesses, things that hardly matter. And yet there might be consequences to deal with. If I have my way.

Sinks onto the chaise. Laughter from the two women interrupts him.

CREATURE: Look at them. Doomed to disappointment and mediocrity. You think I’m unkind? Would Iago have sympathy for Shakespeare? Would Satan revere Milton? And look at you, still wanting to pull them forward, to reclaim their pain and their despair and their trivial solutions. I’m telling you there’s nothing there to be learned and yet you persist in thinking there might be something. Ah, the human heart is a strange jungle.

MARY: [Moves over to the creature] Take on the world and hang the consequences. I like that. I like it very much.

She strokes the creature’s face and runs back to join her sisters. The lights fade to black, then glaring lights flash, then loud raucous music from the canon of songs based on Frankenstein, for example, “Feed My Frankenstein, “ blares out as they all joyfully take their bows.

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley: Writing Lives, edited by Helen M. Buss, D. L. Macdonald, and Anne McWhir




The Politics of Autobiography in Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley | Gary Kelly

The Personal Pronoun as Political: Stylistics of Self-Reference in the Vindications | D. L. Macdonald

The Power of the Unnamed in You in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark | Syndy McMillen Conger

Reveries of Reality: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Poetics of Sensibility | Lawrence R. Kennard

“The History of My Own Heart”: Inscribing Self, Inscribing Desire in Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Norway | Eleanor Ty

(Un)Confinements: The Madness of Motherhood in Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman | S. Leigh Matthews

Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Jacobs: Self Possessions | Jeanne Perreault

Memoirs Discourse and William Goodwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Helen M. Buss

A Mother’s Daughter: An Intersection of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Charles E. Robinson

Mary Shelley: Writing/Other Women in Godwin’s Life | Judith Barbour

Further Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: Lodore as an Imagined Conversation with Mary Wollstonecraft | Lisa Vargo

Speaking the Unspeakable: Art Criticism as Life Writing in Mary Shelley’s Rambles in Germany and Italy | Jeanne Moskal

Biographical Imaginings and Mary Shelley’s (Extant and Missing) Correspondence | Betty T. Bennett

Reflections on Writing on Mary Shelley’s Life | Anne K. Mellor

Caves of Fancy | Rose Scollard

Works Cited



Judith Barbour is an honorary associate in the School of English at the University of Sydney. She is the author of articles on Mary Shelley and John William Polidori, and is editor of the University of Sydney electronic edition of “Mary Shelley’s Life of William Godwin,” from the Shelley-Godwin Manuscripts of the Abinger Collection deposited at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The internet address for this edition at the Scholarly Electronic Text and Imaging Service (SETIS) of the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library is: http://setis. library. usyd. edu. au/arts/godwin

Betty T. Bennett teaches literature at the American University, Washington, DC. She is the author of Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar (1991) and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction (1998), the editor of The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1980–88), and the co-editor (with Charles E. Robinson) of The Mary Shelley Reader (1990) and (with Stuart Curran) of Mary Shelley in Her Times (2000).

Helen M. Buss (aka Margaret Clarke) is a professor in the English Department at the University of Calgary. She is the author of novels, plays, and poetry, as well as books and articles on Canadian literature and life writing. In 1983, she won a best first novel prize in Manitoba for The Cutting Season, and in 1983 won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for her study of Canadian women’s autobiography, Mapping Our Selves (1993). Her current writing and research centre on the memoir form. She has recently published Memoirs from Away: A New Found Land Girlhood (1999), and has completed a book on women’s uses of the memoir form, with the working title Repossessing the World: Reading and Writing Contemporary Women’s Memoirs.

Syndy McMillen Conger teaches English at Western Illinois University. She is the author of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Language of Sensibility(1994) and co-editor of Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley after Frankenstein (1997). Gary Kelly teaches English at the University of Alberta. He is the author of Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft (1992) and Women, Writing, and Revolution, 1790– 1827 (1993), and the editor of Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft (1980).

Lawrence R. Kennard is a doctoral student in English at the University of Calgary. He has published articles on Coleridge. D. L. Macdonald teaches English at the University of Calgary. He is the author of Poor Polidori: A Critical Biography of the Author of “The Vampyre” (1991) and Monk Lewis: A Critical Biography (2000), and the co-editor of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1994; 2nd ed. 1999), and The Vindications, by Mary Wollstonecraft (1997).

S. Leigh Matthews is a doctoral student in English at the University of Calgary, where she specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canadian literature and theories of life writing. She is currently researching and writing her dissertation, “Self(s) Surveyed: Intersections of Identity in Canadian Women’s Prairie Memoirs,” and has forthcoming a number of articles on other Canadian lifewriting texts.

Anne McWhir teaches English at the University of Calgary. She is the author of articles on Burke, Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley, and the editor of The Last Man, by Mary Shelley (1996).

Anne K. Mellor teaches English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Blake’s Human Form Divine (1974), English Romantic Irony (1980), Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (1988), Romanticism and Gender (1993), and Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780– 1830 (2000), editor of Romanticism and Feminism(1988), and coeditor of The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein (1993) and British Literature, 1780–1830(1996).

Jeanne Moskal is a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Blake, Ethics, and Forgiveness (1994) and of articles on the travel writings of Ann Radcliffe, Mariana Starke, Lady Morgan, Mary Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft. She is editor of Travel Writing, by Mary Shelley (1996; volume 8 in The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley), and of Letters from Norway, by Mary Wollstonecraft (forthcoming), and co-editor of Reading and Teaching Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- Century British Women Writers (forthcoming).

Jeanne Perreault teaches English at the University of Calgary. She is the author of Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography (1995).

Charles E. Robinson teaches English at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight (1976), editor of Mary Shelley’s Tales and Stories (1976), of her Mythological Dramas: Proserpine and Midas (1992), and of The Frankenstein Notebooks: A Facsimile of Mary Shelley’s Manuscript Novel, 1816–1817 (1996), and co-editor (with Betty T. Bennett) of The Mary Shelley Reader (1990).

Rose Scollard is a Calgary playwright. She is the author of Bête Blanche/Tango Noir (1988), Uneasy Listening: Three Plays for Radio (1995), and Shea of the White Hands (1995), and co-author of Aphra (1997).

Eleanor Ty teaches English and women’s studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario. She is the author of Unsex’d Revolutionaries: Five Women Novelists of the 1790s (1993) and Empowering the Feminine: The Narratives of Mary Robinson, Jane West, and Amelia Opie, 1796–1812 (1998), and editor of The Victim of Prejudice (1994) and of Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1996) by Mary Hays.

Lisa Vargo teaches English at the University of Saskatchewan. She is the author of articles on Anna Barbauld, Anna Jameson, and Mary Shelley, and is editor of Lodore, by Mary Shelley (1997).


Pioneers in life writing, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818 ), are now widely regarded as two of the leading writers of the Romantic period. They are both responsible for opening up new possibilities for women in genres traditionally dominated by men.

This volume brings together essays on Wollstonecraft’s and Shelley’s life writing by some of the most prominent scholars in Canada, Australia, and the United States. It also includes a full-length play by award-winning Canadian playwright Rose Scollard. Together, the essays and the play explore the connections between mother and daughter, between writing and life, and between criticism and creation. They offer a new understanding of two important writers, of a literary period, and of emergent modes of life writing.

Essayists include Judith Barbour, Betty T. Bennett, Anne K. Mellor, Charles E. Robinson, Eleanor Ty, and Lisa Vargo. Among the works discussed are Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, Letters from Norway, and Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman; William Godwin’s Memoirs of Wollstonecraft; and Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Last Man, Ladore, and Rambles in Germany and Italy.


``Most of the scholars represented have written extensively on the period in which Wollstonecraft and Shelley were writing, and many are established leaders in the field. ... The book is refreshingly multivalent. ... The contributors offer a number of impressive theoretical points with significance beyond the subjects at hand. ''

- Audrey Bilger, Biography, 25.2, Spring 2002

``This collection of essays on the lives and writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley is an achievement for which the editors, the press, and the Calgary Institute for the Humanities. ..should be congratulated. ... The present volume offers much of value not only to Shelley and Wollstonecraft specialists but also to two much larger constituencies: those engaged with feminist thought and praxis, and students of life writing in all its forms. ... The collection ends with Caves of Fancy a sharp, sexy dramatization by Rose Scollard of the lives of Mary Shelley, Fanny Imlay, and Claire Clairmont. ... It is a lively conclusion to a volume that significantly advances the study of life writing, of these two women's lives, and of their writings. ''

- Anthony John Harding, English Studies in Canada, 291 (3-4), 2004