Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin is only a young teenager when Sir Bysshe Shelley first enters her home, where she lives with her father, her step-mom, and her sisters Jane and Fanny. Like almost everyone else, Bysshe is soon infatuated with Mary’s impressive but sorrowful heritage, her intellect, her determination and progressive values about women’s right to freedom and equality. Mary herself, as well as her sisters, falls in love with Bysshe, a handsome and troubled poet, and maybe more than the person himself, his ideas about and attempt to form a new world, where class and gender is secondary, and equality and free love shall prosper. This becomes the start of a remarkable journey, where the strive for a different world, and the consequences thereof, pushes Mary deeper and deeper into a spiral of psychological, emotional, artistic and physical monstrosity and loss, that eventually leads up to her writing the famous novel Frankenstein.
Honestly, I was a bit put off when I received this book in January’s Bookbox Club-box. Historical fiction really isn’t my cup of tea, and even though I’ve been interested in Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley ever since I studied literature, Monsters is a massive book, and it’s set in the early 1800’s, so that did get me a bit sceptical.
However, while historical fiction isn’t my favourite genre, two of my absolute favourite subjects quickly appeared to be in the center of this story: feminism and tragic love. That kept me reading, even though I initially found it a bit tricky, since the story is told by an all-knowing narrator, and shifts perspective between the (quite many) characters all the time. The language though was quite easy, fast paced and flowing, and not at all old and dusty (there’s my prejudice towards historical fiction again … ). And even though I struggled for the first couple of pages, I’m so happy that I kept reading. Because suddenly, I couldn’t stop.
This is a story about a remarkable person, author and destiny, but it is also so much more than that. It is a story about social and societal boundaries, about women’s rights, about sorrow, about love, and about the norms we’ve set for how certain emotions and situations are supposed to be felt and handled. It is not the first book written about free love and the will to change the world, but the fact that it is about a teenage girl with high expectations lying heavily on her shoulders, sets it apart. Because usually, these types of idealistic attempts about how to live are often expressed through someone like Bysshe. Someone (male and white) that can afford to try on different life styles without being particularly affected. For Mary though, the consequences of practicing free love soon becomes a question of life and death. That brings on a pragmatic aspect, that is so much-needed when discussing what boundaries societal norms set for our lives, and for our practicing of artistic creativity. And it makes us think about who’s really the monster.
Monsters is a well needed and fresh breeze, taking on a new perspective on subjects that’s been literary praised, but honestly has gotten a bit old and well too mansplained. Read this book. It’s gonna be one of the best you’ve read this year.
Dr. Bea approves
For further reading, I of course recommend Mary Shelley’s own Frankenstein. And if you’re into more fictional/factual biographies on writing women, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and the diaries of Virgina Woolf should be your next reads!