Dopplegängers: Mary Shelley and Muriel Spark

Mary Shelley died on February 1, 1851. On February 1, 1918, Muriel Spark was born. The two writers shared the same initials. Their last names, under which they wrote, were assumed from husbands. Both wound up single mothers of an only son and both suffered chronic financial worries. These coincidences, for someone with Muriel Spark’s mystical temperament, are definitive. Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley published in 1951 was Muriel Spark’s first book (revised and retitled Mary Shelley: A Biography in 1987). It is an extraordinary portrayal of the world-renowned but much neglected early 19th century novelist, daughter of pioneering intellectuals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and wife of the Romantic poet Percy B. Shelley. Child of Light would not be part of the Spark oeuvre, however, if there weren’t at least one slightly sinister subtext of equal fascination: within the biography’s pages Spark is busily and efficiently creating, Frankenstein-like, an identity for herself as a novelist.

In her 1987 introduction, Spark reveals that at the time she was writing Child of Light she envisioned for herself a career as critic and poet having no plans whatsoever to become a novelist, though “now I do practically nothing else but write novels.” Child of Light is delightfully strange, intense, reverberant, brief, superior, searching, and a harbinger of Spark’s future novels. While recounting Mary Shelley’s tempestuous saga, Spark ponders the pleasures and pitfalls of her predecessor’s literary life, scrutinizing her mentor’s finely crafted tools of the trade. As a magnificent portrait of a woman and artist in the 19th century emerges, we watch rise out of Mary Shelley’s ashes the creator of Fleur Talbot who joyfully, but not without irony, declares in Loitering with Intent: “How wonderful to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century.”

Click here to read the rest of my December column at Bookslut

Also new at Filmfatale: Winslet Wasted: Contagion/Carnage

And at Addison DeWitt Says: The Comedy of Errors at the National a Triumph–and the one error I didn’t make in what I chose to see on stage this autumn in London…(i.e. The Last of the Duchess, The Faith Machine, South Pacific)

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