CHARLESTON FESTIVAL: Poet Fiona Sampson searches for the girl who wrote Frankenstein

In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson
In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson

This year’s Charleston Festival (May 18-28) turns the spotlight on dynamic women, among them Mary Shelley.

On May 20, Fiona Sampson will talk about the writer who inspired her new biography.

Some 200 years after the teenage daughter of two radical thinkers wrote one of literature’s greatest novels, prize-winning writer and poet Fiona set out to discover who Mary Shelley was.

Her biography, In Search of Mary Shelley, reads like a detective story as Fiona unpicks the life of someone who defied all conventions. Mary eloped at 16 with the feckless poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, survived the deaths of three of her children, suffered financial ruin and scandal, and went on to become one of the great writers of her age. All at a time when to be a woman writer was an extraordinary anomaly.

In writing her book, Fiona sifted through letters, diaries and records to uncover the real Mary Shelley and discovered a complex, generous personality.

“I very much enjoyed getting to know her,” Fiona says. “In fact, I have not really left her. I identified with her quite strongly.”

Mary was loving and loyal, yet neither her peers nor her father, philosopher William Godwin, were kind to her.

“She was very lonely,” says Fiona. “And shocked that her father should reject her.”

In fact, William had received money from Mary Shelley to pay off his debts, giving rise to the gossip that he had sold his daughter (and stepdaughter) for £1,250.

Mary and Percy trailed across Europe, their lives alternating between passion and poverty. But it was not long before Mary realised what she had done by throwing in her lot with the unreliable Percy, who had abandoned his pregnant young wife Harriet, leaving her destitute. Harriet later drowned herself.

“Harriet’s suicide haunted her,” says Sampson.

Ironically, it was Percy’s death in a boating accident which freed Mary to become a great writer. Denied financial aid by Percy’s father – unless she was prepared to give up her son, which she refused to do – she decided to write for a living.

Although, as Fiona explains in her book, her literary career was already mapped out when as an unmarried teenage mother attending Lord Byron’s house party, she responded to his playful challenge “to write a ghost story.” Frankenstein was the result.

“Surely, this must be among the most influential creative writing exercises in literary history,” says Fiona.

Fiona Sampson will be at Charleston on May 20 (12.30pm) to discuss her book and Mary Shelley’s monster with chemist and writer Kathryn Harkup and cultural historian Christopher Frayling. They will explore the gruesome scientific background behind the novel and its influence on cutting edge research.

Tickets are £16 from charleston.org.uk/festival or 01323 815150.

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