It is one of those dreary, ceaselessly rainy nights of February. The sound of rain echoes in my century-old apartment, where I await my cared one to come. He will arrive all nervous, fluttered, affected, flinching while advancing, and he will leave my place the same way. But my life between his coming and leaving is intensified. This perpetual betweenness, between one’s coming and leaving, between seeing and seeing again, between one good gathering and another, is all I strive for. Transitional as they are, like the planes we take, like hours spent in cars, never themselves significant but towards something seemingly greater, it is the transitional places and periods that hold us all the longer and all the more.
In the midst of waiting I read the story of your life, Mary Shelley. It is a life crammed to the seams with turmoil, homelessness, troubled relationships, heartbreaks and deaths that precisely mirrors the air your novel, Frankenstein, immediately engulfs us with. A Gothic horror that chilled me to the bone.
But difficulty of lives of writers is nothing new. It is almost a badge of honor, on their names, not on themselves—they often didn’t live to see it but only lived to see difficult living. If you care to know, you are much more appreciated now, than in your time. Interest in that harrowing story of yours is mounting. People couldn’t stop dreaming about, brooding over, and reproducing again and again the idea you conceived, the monster you created, in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. But I am afraid their passion is self-serving—they are more obsessed with the horror than the meaning of horror, more intrigued by the story than the cause of story. Through many remakes people build upon your world a far more daunting world, filled with anguish, so that they can touch fear and feel powerless for a brief, unreal moment and then go on with their mundanities. They could do that because they are not, in their mortal lives, actually in fear or lack of power, like you were, like sometimes I am. If they lived like that the attention would be very different.
But for all those attention they are not the least interested in you. Except some may know that you were the wife to the great poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and were in the same social circle with another prominent poet, Lord Byron. Few are interested in how you came to your most blossoming, carefree age, and wrote a story full of despair. You were 19 years old. Shouldn’t you be writing something hopeful?
I am interested in you.
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Let me try to know you.
Your talent of writing may come first from the family you were born into, in late 18th century, London. Your parents were both among the most renowned revolutionary writers and philosophers of the time. Your mother was particularly exceptional, notably the first feminist scholar ever. Her ideas, even put today, are avant-garde. How she despises traditional feminine values and advocated, and enacted, free love, must have influenced you. 11 days after she gave birth to you, she died of childbirth.
From when you were born you became responsible for a death. This theme of your life surrounded by, or even responsible for death, haunted you all your life.
At the age of 16 you met Percy Bysshe Shelley, the most important man in your life, the now well-known poet, famous for “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” He was married however, and this affair was met with your father’s stern dismay. You decided to elope, three of you, including your stepsister Claire, on a fine summer night.
I can only imagine such an elopement of three twenty-somethings being full of passion and yet severe dread. The major cause of dread was money. You were constantly chased around by creditors. The other the troubled relationship. Shelly often went out walking with Claire, leaving you at home, and at some point wanted his friend Hogg and you to become lovers. There would occasionally be other women who entered the picture. This sort of conduct was agreed in principle according to the free love you both believe in, but never in reality agreeable to deal with.
But an even worse misery was the birth of your first child who only lived for 11 days. The same length of time your mother lived after giving birth to you. Two births, two deaths, and you were the only survivor in both.
With that tragic loss, you buried yourself in sorrow and depression, tormented by countless nightmares, questions—could my child be brought back to life? Why is my own living always associated with others’ dying? Am I a monster?
—all the soul-wrenching questions present later in your Frankenstein.
And all this time Shelley kept taking walks with Claire. And Claire became a mistress to Byron.
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Then it was the year of 1816, the historically known “Year Without a Summer”. Severe drop of temperate caused food shortages, and brought about a total of 200,000 deaths in Europe.
In this dire weather a couple of young writers were confined in a house in Geneva, and devised a challenge that each would write a ghost story and the most scary one would win. No one could ever foresee that you, Mary, among them was the one that ended up producing something timeless, because, after all, both Shelley and the prestigious Byron were among them.
But surely when it comes to horror, who is to better evince it than someone who had fully experienced loss, death, betrayal? That was you, Mary. Those men can be as talented as they were but can never be as close to life as you were.
Since when you were 16, for a good five years you kept getting pregnant and losing your children. Four children were born, three tragically died shortly after. You began to know that death is inseparable to life, always lurking inside of life, ready to muffle heartbeats and stifle breaths.
You knew how it is to be neglected and abandoned, to be not loved right from the beginning, not accepted ironically from the creator. That’s how you came up with Frankenstein. You knew how it is to be a monster.
Your prodigious upbringing set great expectations of you. But with the elopement, estranged father, and years spent getting pregnant, getting ill, giving birth and losing child, your life seemed to be over, or eternally trapped in this circle, which is worse than over. No one could ever see or appreciate who you are.
You were not the one who created the monster, you were not Frankenstein, you were the monster. You were made a fiend by misery.
“Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
—Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
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I see that we both write from pain. Except I am much worse, both in that I am worse in writing and that my pain is much less significant. But can pains be compared? Can loss of different subjects be ranked? Can there be a hierarchy of grief?
I hear someone say: “Why would anyone write if they didn’t have to? It is so hard.” Did you feel that you have to?
I see you wrote about death, and then you immediately, timidly followed with: “… why should I describe a sorrow which all have felt, and must feel?” Are you insecure about what you feel too? That if everyone has the same feelings as you, writing about them would be obsolete and banal?
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I watched a couple of shows made about you. And now when I think of you the 19th century London materializes around me. I seem to also have lived the days of London without a single drop of sun, and nights of Geneva with pouring rain. The lovelorn and wretched enter my dreams.
In one movie I particularly liked, “Mary Shelley”, your husband questions why making the creature monster-like rather than angel-like, in your novel, when the latter could send “a message of hope and perfection”, and is met with these deafening words from you:
What would we know of hope and perfection?
Look around you.
Look at the mess we’ve made.
Look at me.
And I am with her when Claire supports you to have your novel published, not for fame, not for money, but “how many souls will sympathize with your creature’s torments?”
I watched a whole TV series about Byron, just to catch a glimpse of you. You were in there only briefly but said the most touching words. When coolheaded men describe death as riddles and defuse it with drinks and grandiose verses, you say,
It just hurts.
And the one who portrayed you in it happened to be an actress that’s been very endearing to me. Even though that must be an early and insignificant work of hers where she appeared two minutes in the whole drama that’s hours long.
There must be something fate-like in the way I found you.
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For a good month I think about you everyday, trying to make you into this writing. It is a luxury I almost cannot afford to give to anyone anymore. Is there anyone you think about absolutely everyday? Shelley? Even the 30 years you lived after his death?
A recent conversation of mine ends in: “Every day.” The best response you can think of. Does it even matter what the response was for? (Even if it is an answer to “how much do you hate me” it is still simply amazing. Don’t you agree?)