How Muriel Spark rescued Mary Shelley

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.

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