Mary Wollstonecraft was a passionately political woman; her essays A Vindication of the Rights of Man and its follow up, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, made her justly famous, particularly in intellectual circles. After a disastrous love affair (from which issued A Short Residence in Sweden Norway and Denmark and her natural daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft fell in love with William Godwin. Godwin was well known himself, particularly for Enquiry concerning Political Justice. Although neither believed in marriage, when Wollstonecraft found herself pregnant they decided to marry to make their child's life easier. And thus, a few months after her parents' marriage, Mary Godwin was born. Wollstonecraft died a few agonized days later, probably of peurperal fever.
Four years later, Godwin married Mary Jane Devereux/Vial/Clairmont (she went by a number of different names; she was actually an unwed mother masquerading as a widow), who had children of her own. And thus does Jane Clairmont, later called Claire Clairmont, enter the story. All the little girls and boys grew up in a household full of books and very short on money.
One day, the handsome Percy Shelley entered their lives. 20, a poet, given to extravagant exaggerations about his own actions and the persecution he suffered, Shelley seemed like a savior to Godwin (who expected to get a great deal of money from his aristocratic patron) and Godwin's daughters (who viewed their new friend rather more romantically). Shortly thereafter, Shelley fell in love with 16 year old Mary Godwin (many say for her parentage as well as for her beauty and wit) and, with Jane/Claire Clairmont's help, the girls ran off with him. Of course, Shelley was married at the time, to another teenage girl, and she was pregnant with his second child. But no matter!
Shelley, Mary and Jane/Claire swept across Europe, constantly impoverished but flush with excitement and the romance of it all. A tense triangle sprang up amongst them--Mary and Shelley were in love, but Jane/Claire felt left out, and Shelley liked that she was so sensitive and easily persuaded. Eventually, they ran out of money and returned to England, where they found themselves utterly ostracized. Not even Mary's family would see her, despite their own pasts. Mary's first child was born and died, shortly followed by the birth of another child. She, Shelley and Claire retreated from London for their health, and fell in for a short time with the notorious Lord Byron. Claire had a brief, lopsided affair with him that left her pregnant and Byron annoyed. Meanwhile, Mary had begun to write her greatest work, Frankenstein. This was also a period of tragedy: no sooner had they returned to England than Mary's half-sister Fanny committed suicide in a little anonymous room, and shortly thereafter Shelley's wife Harriet drowned herself. Less than two weeks later, Mary and Shelley were married.
They continued to live much as they had, although Mary's social ostracization was somewhat lessened. Mary bore two more children in short succession, and then lost her son William and daughter Clara while in Italy. She continued writing, studying, translating while simultaneously leading a vivacious social life and producing good copies of her friends' writing. Shelley became distracted by another woman (the duplicitous Jane Williams, oh how I hate her)
And then tragedy struck. Shelley and his friend were drowned at sea, leaving Mary a widow with an infant son and no money, in a foreign land. She returned to England, fought to get a small allowance from her father-in-law, and spent the rest of her life writing articles and books to supplement her income. Her remaining son, Percy, grew up to be a good-natured man with no poetry and little intellect. Mary died of a brain tumor at 53, having spent her life devoted to Shelley and then, to Shelley's legacy.
All of these tempestuous romances, tragic deaths, domestic quarrelings, petty gossiping, and timeless literature went on in a period of incredible tension and upheaval. Revolution after revolution swept Europe. England was a land of strict censorship laws, incredible disparities between rich and poor, strict codes of conduct--and amidst all this, Mary Shelley is just a smart, depressed woman with few allies, trying to live her life. She was intimidatingly well-read, and set herself to a rigorous education of languages and history. Like her mother, she suffered from bouts of depression; and like her mother, she devoted a great deal of time to uplifting women (but in specific cases, not as a general group). She spent her last days campaigning to get a widowed friend of hers a small allowance to live on.
Seymour does an incredible job of creating a seamless biography out of the countless letters, diaries, articles, and books written by and about her subjects. I never felt overwhelmed, although this book is stuffed full of names, quotes, historical contexts, literary criticism...For anyone interested in the Romantics, the history of early nineteenth century, the evolution of political thought, or Mary Shelley herself, I highly recommend this book.