Sunday, October 7, 2018

Catherine Reef's "Mary Shelley"

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life, Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse, Victoria: Portrait of a Queen, and other highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

Reef applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest young adult biography, Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein's Creator, and reported the following:
A reader opening Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein’s Creator to page 99 will find Mary and Percy Shelley in Florence, Italy, in December 1819. The weather is unusually harsh, but then Italy seems determined to treat the Shelleys cruelly. Disease claimed their daughter, Clara, in Venice, and their son William in Rome. There is no way they can know that another devastating surprise awaits them off the coast of Livorno. So, ignorant of the future, they are cautiously optimistic. Mary has just given birth to another boy, Percy Florence, who thrives. She stays indoors to care for him while Percy, who can never be still, wraps himself in a cloak to take a visiting cousin and Mary’s ever-present stepsister, Claire Clairmont, sightseeing.

Page 99 is a narrow window, but a reader peering through it can spot recurring trends or themes in Mary Shelley’s life. One of these is isolation. Mary and Percy “see no company and live quite to themselves,” notes the cousin, Sophia Stacey. They began their relationship by running away to France when Mary was sixteen and Percy was a married man of twenty-one. Polite society shunned them and continued to do so even after circumstances allowed the couple to wed. In Italy they have some open-minded friends, but just a few.

A second theme that page 99 touches on is tragedy. Other children whom Mary knows and loves will die as well, and so, famously and at a young age, will Percy Bysshe Shelley. Drownings, suicides, and premature deaths from disease are all part of Mary Shelley’s story—there are too many of them, really, to list here.

Also, a theme that will feature prominently in the second half of the narrative makes its debut on page 99. It is the hope Mary invests in her infant son, Percy Florence, who will sustain her through the misfortunes to come. “Poor Mary begins (for the first time) to look a little consoled,” Percy Shelley writes to a friend, in a letter quoted at the top of the page. Being a single parent to her only surviving child will force Mary to be strong and carry on. Needing to support him will ensure that she keeps on writing.

Writing: it gets a lot of attention in this biography of a novelist married to a poet, but there’s little mention of it on page 99. Sophia Stacey does remark that Percy Shelley “is always reading, and at night has a little table with pen and ink, she [Mary] the same.” The curious can find out what Mary Shelley wrote after the publication of Frankenstein if they turn the page and go on reading.
Visit Catherine Reef's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Catherine Reef & Nandi.

--Marshal Zeringue