She Made a Monster: How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lynn Fulton, illustrated by Felicita Sala, 48 pp, RL 4
She Made a Monster:
How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein
by Lynn Fulton,
illustrated by Felicita Sala
(Purchased with district funding for my school library)
When I was an impressionable college freshman, I saw the film Gothic, directed by Ken Russell and starring Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands and Natasha Richardson, playing the parts of Lord Byron (father of Ada Lovelace - inventor, with Charles Babbage, of a mechanical, general purpose computer and popular picture book biography subject these days), Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, soon to be Mary Shelley. The movie turns history into a horror movie, reimagining the opium-fueled events that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. As a young woman, I remember being surprised and delighted to learn that the neck-bolted creature wasn't just a horror-movie-monster creation, but a truly terrifying story written by a woman who held her own against some top male writers of her time. The following year, reading Frankenstein for humanities class, I was intrigued to learn about Mary's mother and her fight for women's rights and that Mary was only eighteen when she wrote Frankenstein! I never got around to reading a biography of Mary Shelley like I planned, but Lynn Fulton's superb picture book biography has inspired to revisit my interest of decades past.
If you know even a little about Mary Shelley's* life, then you know that distilling it to the pages of a picture book biography is challenging. That said, Fulton does a fine job distilling the important elements from her life and work that resonate will with young readers, who, no doubt, much like my young self, have no idea of the woman and history behind what is considered to be the book that created the genre of science fiction and the mad scientist sub-genre. To this, Sala adds her magnificent illustrations, conveying, with her cool, winter palette, the bleak, dark terror of Mary Shelley's monster and the creative place that it emerged from.
Fulton begins with the villa on Lake Geneva in Switzerland and the competition among friends to write the best ghost story of the group. Mary's writer's block and struggle to find her story are Fulton's driving theme initially. Overhearing Percy and Byron discussing the latest scientific experiments, specifically the use of electricity to make a dead frog kick it's legs, arrogantly proclaiming, "To give life to lifeless matter will be the ultimate triumph! Man will conquer nature and make her give up the secret!" Memories and ideas begins to grow inside Mary. Here, Fulton shares some of Mary's history with readers, from the fact that her mother died when she was an infant (and she learned her letters reading her tombstone) and the importance of Mary Wollstonecraft's writings about democracy, and the rights of women, "words that sparked courage and inspiration in many, but anger and outrage in many others." Here, Fulton's clever writing connects mother and daughter:
"Women the equals of men? What a monstrous thought!" people had said about her mother's ideas. And for Mary Wollstonecraft to write them was even more monstrous. Women were not supposed to have ideas of their own, let alone publish them.
Thinking about reanimated life, Mary wonders not if it could be done, but if it SHOULD be done. Yes, it would be terrifying to see this creature, but how much "more terrifying to be such a creature . . ." This moment of empathy informs Mary in the shaping of her story of a creature who is "lonely and longs to be part of a family, but because of his frightening appearance, he is hated and rejected by everyone, even his creator." This takes place over several pages and, as Fulton tells the story, Mary scares herself as her idea blossoms.
Like Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda and his Muse, also illustrated by Sala and written by Alexandria Giardino, She Made a Monster is an excellent look at the creative process, especially what inspires and influences writers. Fulton's Author's Note adds depth to Mary Shelley's novel and life (while also noting the minor changes she made in historical events to suit her book) and again, importantly, reminds readers of the inequities she faced as a woman, despite the popularity of her book, now a classic.
Interestingly, the picture book biography Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Barry, illustrated by Julía Sardà, came out in the same year as She Made a Monster - 2018. I plan to get my hands on a copy for review here, but if you can't wait, this is a great piece about both books and their similarities and differences.
*In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women in which she argued that women are not inferior to men, just undereducated and that both women and men should be treated as rational beings. A founding feminist philosopher, Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Mary, daughter of William Godwin, a journalist, philosopher and novelist who took it upon himself to write a memoir of his late wife and complete and publish her unfinished works. A tribute, Godwin's frank and open memoir of his wife's suicide attempts, intimate relationships with women and the fact that she had a child out of wedlock created a scandal that had the ultimate effect of destroying Wollstonecraft's reputation and diminishing the importance of her work for almost a century. Godwin remarried a woman with a daughter of her own, Jane (later Claire.) Jane's mother found value in educating her and sent her to boarding school, but did not offer Mary the same opportunity. Mary, who met Percy Bysshe Shelley, romantic poet and philosopher, through her father, eloped with him when she was sixteen. At the time, he was married and a father. Mary and Percy married two years later after his wife committed suicide - the same year Mary's half-sister and Wollstonecraft's other daughter, committed suicide. This was also the same year that Mary and Percy (and Mary's step-sister, who gave birth later to Byron's daughter, Allegra) spent the summer Byron's villa in Switzerland. Mary suffered the loss of three children and, eight years after eloping with him, her husband. A widow at age twnety-four, Mary returned with her one living child to England where, despite the popularity of Frankenstein, she struggled financially while continuing to write and working to preserver the promote her husband's poetry and preserve his place in literary history.