In 1950 the thirty-two-year-old tyro poet Muriel Spark drew up a proposal for a “Critical Biography” of Mary Shelley. The project was never going to be easy to sell to publishers. Spark was virtually unknown outside the London poetry scene and, in any case, there was little interest in female novelists of the nineteenth century. Mary Shelley was remembered mostly for having run away with Percy Bysshe Shelley while he was still married to his first wife. Although Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s first novel, had subsequently become familiar through its many theatre and film adaptations, as a piece of literature it was considered a freakish fairy tale written by an eighteen-year-old who scarcely knew what she was doing. As for the novels Mary Shelley went on to write following Percy’s death in 1822, it was probably best to draw a veil.
Nonetheless, Muriel Spark’s determination to rescue Mary Shelley from cultural amnesia and condescension was sufficiently persuasive to win her a commission from a small publisher. The original publication of Child of Light: A reassessment of Mary Shelley was timed to coincide with the centenary of Shelly’s death in 1951, but Spark tinkered with her text over the following decades to take account of emerging scholarship, eventually republishing the biography in 1987 with a new preface. It is this updated edition, together with Spark’s original proposal and her abridgement of Shelley’s little-known dystopian novel The Last Man, which Carcanet has now reissued.
In her proposal of 1951, Spark crisply set out why she believed the time was right for a “reassessment” of Mary Shelley. The author of Frankenstein, she suggested, was the true founder of science fiction and had paved the way for contemporary masters of the genre including Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and, above all, H. G. Wells. Moreover, continued Spark, it was quite unfair to say, as so many did, that Mary Shelley had spent her long widowhood as a literary hack writing for money rather than as a creative artist. The Last Man, Perkin Warbeck, Falkner and Lodore may not be entirely successful as novels, but they are clearly the work of a committed novelist testing out the limits of the genre. Finally, Spark promised to make explicit the links between Shelley’s path-finding life as an independent professional woman and the feminist legacy of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.
As Michael Schmidt emphasizes in his excellent introduction, there were other, more numinous, reasons why Muriel Spark felt drawn to Mary Shelley. The women shared initials and both were known professionally by their husbands’ surnames. Both had struggled financially while bringing up sons as single mothers. Mary Shelley died on February 1, which was also the day on which Spark was born. Although not yet received into the Roman Catholic Church, Spark saw in these coincidences a hint that there was a higher power directing her towards Mary Shelley.
Less mystically minded readers will simply look at Spark and Shelley’s work to see the parallels. “My aim is to present the supernatural as a part of a natural history”, Spark was to say about her career as a novelist, which would begin six years later with the publication of The Comforters. She might just as well have been speaking of Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein is an explosive exploration of the physical and moral chaos that laps at the edges of late-Enlightenment scientific enquiry.
When it came to creating characters on the page, Spark seems also to have taken something from Mary Shelley. Shelley, reports Spark, “was more interested in the type than in the individual, and if she did not attempt to depict the latter, her study of types of humanity is varied and sound”. This, of course, reads as a serviceable account of Spark’s own practice, which tended to steer clear of describing her characters’ interior lives in favour of reading their surfaces. Miss Brodie and the rest come to life as they barge and trip through the world, revealing their often monstrous personalities through what they do and say. In this they share more than a passing resemblance to Frankenstein’s benighted Creature.
There were, at the same time, important distinctions between the women’s work. As Spark herself suggested, Shelley’s prose style was often verbose and platitudinous, the very opposite of her favoured concision. Spark was also aware that while both she and Shelley were engaged in exploring the rationalist-supernatural continuum, they started from different ends. By 1951 Spark was already on her journey towards Catholicism, and she appears to feel genuine regret that Mary Shelley, who had been exposed to the atheism of her father William Godwin, never knew the comfort of settled religious belief. Indeed, Spark suggests that it was Shelley’s lack of consoling faith that accounted for the burden of gloom and foreboding that she carried so painfully through life. Spark also adds, in one of those smarting, glancing sallies that would become so familiar in her fiction, that if only the abstemious Mary had been “tipsy” a bit more often, then she might have been both a better and a more likeable person.
The organization of Spark’s finished work makes clear how literally she intended it to be a “Critical Biography”. Part One of her book is “Biographical” and consists of a brisk account of Shelley’s life, while Part Two is “Critical” and engages in detail with her fiction. Such a split neatly dramatizes the fault line that runs through any attempt to write the life of a literary subject. For how does one integrate a discussion of an author’s work without slipping into the fallacy of reading the novels as quarry for information about the subject’s inner life? Spark’s solution may not be especially helpful in the way that it dramatizes the impossibility of producing a text that integrates a biographical plot with critical analysis. Still, in her refusal to collapse Mary Shelley’s work into her life, and in her determination to give full attention to overlooked work, Muriel Spark shows herself to be as fearless and original a biographer as she was a novelist.
Kathryn Hughes is Professor of Life Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her books include The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, 2005. She is writing a book about famous Victorian body parts.