How Mary Shelley found Creativity in Chaos

Dr Hannah Moss (University of Sheffield)

Twitter: @HannahMoss86

A sixteen year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin sits at her mother’s grave, secretly scribbling down the beginnings of a ghost story as she reads Eliza Parson’s The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793). So begins the 2017 film Mary Shelley. Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and written by Emma Jensen, this opening scene conveys the thrill and excitement held by Gothic novels of the 1790s, with Mary Shelley’s reading shown to have an almost instantaneous influence upon her own writing. It’s a suitably Gothic setting, foregrounding the idea of repetition through a female line of inheritance, and yet imitation is soon cast aside as an undesirable trait.

Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley (2017)

When Godwin later questions his daughter’s originality, and sends her to Scotland to free her imagination and find her own voice, she throws her old notebook of childhood scribblings onto the fire to be consumed by the flames. This symbolic act is designed to devalue the Radcliffian Gothic of old and herald in a new era by positioning Mary Shelley as the originator of a new style. However, to see her literary rebirth as a simple case of ‘out with the old and in with the new’ is to misunderstand Mary Shelley’s creative process, which very much saw the value in reading and responding to others.

The film received mixed reviews, with an approval rating of 39% on Rotten Tomatoes justified by the comment: ‘Mary Shelley smooths out its subject’s fascinating life and fails to communicate the spark of her classic work.’[1] With Romantic Studies re-evaluating the idea of the lone creative genius, as seen with Anna Mercer’s monograph The Collaborative Literary Relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (2019), it’s time to place Mary Shelley’s literary output in relation to ‘Gothic Women’, such as Ann Radcliffe. To do so is not to dim her ‘spark’, so to speak, but to cast the light further and learn more about the influences operating within Romantic era literary culture.

We only have to turn to the 1831 preface to Frankenstein to read what creativity in fact meant to Mary Shelley:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.[2]

Here, Mary Shelley describes her creative process in terms of imitation; the idea that ‘the materials must, in the first place, be afforded’ suggests that invention emerges by reusing what has been done before, but in a new way. Recalling her childhood habit of imitation, Shelley states: ‘Everything must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase, and that beginning must be linked to something that went before.’[3] The Gothic tradition provides that link as Shelley not only read and enjoyed Ann Radcliffe’s work, but specifically refers to The Italian (1797) in her novel The Last Man (1826).

In her diary entry for Sunday 27 November, 1814 Mary Shelley recorded that she had read Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, describing a whole day spent reading and talking as ‘a very happy day indeed.’[4] By the time Shelley returns to Radcliffe’s novel to make reference to it in The Last Man, Lionel Verney’s own reading experience is recalled with fondness when, wandering around the ruins of Rome, he remembers how his ‘boyish blood had thrilled’ whilst reading the novel.[5] However, as Angela Wright has observed in her important study, Mary Shelley (2018), ‘The pleasure and carefree nature of that reading is inscribed here as something that is definitively in the past.’[6] Far from casting aside the literary works of her predecessors, Mary Shelley demonstrates our inherent desire to communicate through the arts, particularly through allusion to artistic precedent.

In The Last Man, a group of travellers visiting Naples in 1818 enter the Sibyl’s cave, with one of them piecing together the mosaic-like fragments they find to become the nameless editor of Lionel’s words. In contrast to the silent editorship of Margaret Walton Saville in Frankenstein, The Last Man explicitly comments upon the active role of the ‘decipherer’ through an artistic analogy which argues the case for creativity emerging from the reuse of existing materials:

Sometimes I have thought, that, obscure and chaotic as they are, they owe their present form to me, their decipherer. As if we should give to another artist, the painted fragments which form the mosaic copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration in St Peter’s; he would put them together in a form, whose mode would be fashioned by his own peculiar mind and talent.[7]

Both The Italian and The Last Man also present artistic heroines who paint copies. I propose that these copies should not be overlooked as a passive female accomplishment, but rather seen as a means of ascribing value to women’s artistic output by acknowledging the space for creativity within established bounds. In The Last Man Perdita surrounds herself with ‘copies of the finest pictures of Raphael, Correggio, and Claude, painted by herself’.[8] Being taught to paint by Princess Evadne means that Perdita has access to the prestigious art collection housed at Windsor castle so that she can learn from the Old Masters as she hones her talent, and her copies of the finest paintings demonstrate her ability and show her taste as a connoisseur.

Portrait identified to be Shelley, attributed to Richard Rothwell circa 1844 (Bodleian Library collection)

Copying is also a political act of selection and interpretation that can reveal someone’s character: their anxieties, hopes and beliefs. Where Lionel sees the copies as a means of blocking out the political turmoil of the outside world, Perdita does not. The fact that her imagination is free to roam whilst she is not reveals the limitations she faces, and her final lament that a career would have given meaning to her life beyond being the wife of Raymond invites us to question the lack of opportunities available to women.

As we look ahead to the year of Gothic Women and mark 2023 bicentenary of Ann Radcliffe’s death, it’s time to reconsider what is too often overlooked as imitative practice and explore what the reuse of ideas can tell us about the nature of creativity and Romantic-era literary culture.

Hannah Moss is an Early Career Research Associate at The University of Sheffield. Her PhD thesis, entitled ‘Sister Artists: The Artist Heroine in British Women’s Writing, 1760-1830’, analyses the ways in which women writers, including Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley, respond to one another as they use the artist heroine as a means to intervene in the cultural debates surrounding women’s work. Hannah is co-editor of the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to Jane Austen and the Arts and a Special Issue of Women’s Writing on the topic of ‘Women Writers and the Creative Arts in Britain, 1660-1832’.

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  • [1] Rotten Tomatoes: Mary Shelley (2017) – Rotten Tomatoes [accessed 06/08/21].
  • [2] Mary Shelley, ‘1831 Preface to Frankenstein’, in Frankenstein: 1818 text, ed. by Marilyn Butler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 8.
  • [3] Ibid. In framing her thoughts as a ‘Sanchean phrase’, Shelley refers to the wise and witty proverbs spoken by Sancho Panza in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605). This act in itself, therefore, positions her work in relation to her literary predecessors.
  • [4] Mary Shelley, Diary entry for Sunday 27 November 1814, in The Journals of Mary Shelley, ed. by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, Vol. 1: 1814-1822 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 48.
  • [5] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, ed. by Morton D. Paley (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), p. 462. 
  • [6] Angela Wright, Mary Shelley (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2018), p. 104.
  • [7] Shelley, The Last Man, p. 6.
  • [8] Shelley, The Last Man, p. 51.

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