Author of Frankenstein endured much grief by Richard Jones

A look at Mary Shelley (M)

MaryMary Shelley lived an extraordinary life not only because of her writing but also because of her love for the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She fell in love with the poet when she was just 16 and ran away with him on foot and on mules through France to Switzerland. Their time together was difficult not only because he was married with a little son at the time and exacerbated through his inability to conserve his finances as they sunk into poverty. Mary lost a child to pneumonia when she, Percy and her half-sister Claire Clairmont raced through the rain and fog to evade the clutches of creditors.

It’s an amazing tale and I haven’t yet mentioned why she’s remembered all these years later. That’s because Mary Shelley is the author of the masterpiece Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. That was written when she was 18 and 19 and published in 1818.

Mary Godwin (Elle Fanning), as she was born, was the daughter of struggling writer and bookshop owner William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and the pioneering feminist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother had died a very short time after giving birth to Mary.

Mr Godwin invites Shelley (Douglas Booth) to be a sort of understudy to him and the then 16-year-old Mary falls head over heels in love with the poet. Mary clashes frequently with her stepmother and it’s not long before Shelley, Mary and her younger half-sister Claire (Bel Powley) run away from the bookstore into separate lodgings.

It’s when the trio reach Lake Geneva to evade financial and familial strains in London that the real dramas unfold. Claire falls pregnant to the unfeeling and drunken Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) but fortunately for the two women Dr Polidori (Ben Hardy) is also in residence at the castle.

Byron challenges each one of them to write ghost stories to terrify each other. Mary, of course, pens Frankenstein. Dr. Polidori comes up with The Vampyre and both horror stories have lasted down the ages. Mary carried her manuscript back to London where it was published with the author named as “Anonymous”. But because Shelley had written the foreword everyone assumed he was the author. It wasn’t until Mr Godwin obtained the rights to the work that the second edition of Frankenstein was released with Mary’s name on the front cover.

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour is the first Saudi woman to direct a film. It was about Wadjda, a little girl who wanted to be the first female in her district to own and ride a bicycle which, strictly speaking, was outside the laws of the Koran. Because of the strict Muslim laws in force in Saudi Arabia of the time Al-Mansour had to do all her directing for that movie from inside a mini-bus.

Events in post-Napoleonic War years in London and early 2000s Saudi Arabia are a world – try a universe, apart – but the director has made a really atmospheric film. She lets her characters speak in full-blown historic sentences of the 1815-1816 era and the effect doesn’t come out too literary or too histrionic.

What are a bit histrionic are the love scenes in the graveyard where Mary Shelley’s famous mother Mary Wollstonecraft lies, escape with Percy and Claire from London creditors on a wet, foggy night and the crashing thunder and torrential rain which seem to go on forever outside Lord Byron’s castle near Lake Geneva.

But even though these are factually correct they’re interwoven with the whole Gothic spectacle which could have collapsed into a real pot-boiler involving smouldering looks and heaving bodices – but doesn’t.

Fanning, who was only 19 at the time of filming, rescues all the scenes she’s in simply because she’s so truthful and forthcoming.


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