Helen Edmundson’s play focuses on two years in the Shelley/Godwin lives, 1814-1816.

It is a turning point in Mary Shelley’s life. She meets and falls in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and as a result becomes estranged from her father. It is also when she begins to write Frankenstein.

There are six characters, Mary, her step-sisters Fanny and Jane, her father and radical philosopher William Godwin, her step-mother, and Shelley.

The play opens with a re-enactment of the attempted suicide of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecroft. Her mother survived the attempt, and later died shortly after Mary’s birth. Her presence, or perhaps absence, overshadows much of the play, as Mary Shelley is increasingly drawn to her mother’s life and story:

‘Mother may not be here, but she still teaches us what it is to love.’

Love, falling in love, being loved, being rejected by the one you love, is a dominant theme throughout.

William Godwin clearly loved his first wife. His relationship with his second wife appears ambivalent at best, and unspoken comparisons to Wollstonecroft are almost audible. Mary finds love with Shelley, and her sister Jane is besotted with Byron, later becoming pregnant by him.

But love also brings much suffering. Fanny was Mary Wollstonecroft’s daughter from her relationship with a man she loved but ‘nothing would come of it except heartache and loss.’ His abandonment of Wollstonecroft prompted her attempted suicide. Fanny lost Shelley to her sister Mary, and later commits suicide, ‘putting an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare.’

Mrs Godwin, William’s second wife, embittered by life and men, warns her daughter Jane:

‘None of them are worth it.’

It is a complex and tragic story, overshadowed by the death of a child (Mary and Shelley’s daughter), by suicide, by drownings, by the hangman’s rope (‘a fellow creature and now he’s dead’). It is also about the suffering of debt, imprisonment and impending bankruptcy.

But love prevails despite tragedy. For Jane, despite her treatment by Byron, ‘there is no life but loving’, and Mary who enacts her mother’s dream life through her existence with Shelley, believes utterly in the power of love, although also admitting that loving is beautiful, but complicated. Yet it is also this very complicatedness of things that compels Mary, which she sees as her ‘curse’, her ‘inability to leave the world unfathomed.’

Mary Shelley, The Tricycle, Kilburn, to July 7.

Helen Edmundson. Mary Shelley. London: NHB, 2012.

Advertisements