Epeolatry Book Review: A Vindication of Monsters: Essays on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, ed. Claire Fitzpatrick
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Title: A Vindication of Monsters: Essays on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley
Author: Various, ed. Claire Fitzpatrick
Genre: Non-fiction, biographies and memoirs of women
Publisher: IFWG Publishing International
Release Date: 15th October, 2023
Synopsis: In 1797 an extraordinary visionary died, leaving behind a grieving husband, a two-year-old daughter, and a newborn. The woman was Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughter Fanny Imlay, and her baby Mary Godwin, who, through many trials and tribulations, grew up to become the remarkable Mary Shelley, creator of one of the most important books in literature: Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. While many books have examined both women’s lives, their remarkable similarities, their passions, joys, and their grief, A Vindication of Monsters: Essays on Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, delves deeper into the stories behind both women, their connections to historical events, society, their philosophies, and their political contributions to their time. These essays and memoirs explore Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Shelley’s circle of friends, including her husband, the capricious poet Percy Shelley; the libertine Romantic Lord Byron; the first modern vampire author John Polidori; and other contemporary creatives who continue to be inspired by both women today.
Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley; two iconic English women who left their mark on (Western) history and specifically, women’s history. I first came across Wollstonecraft during my university studies (as a mature student) and actually read her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I was delighted to find that a woman’s voice could be heard in this manner, read and acknowledged at the time it was written, an era ripe for change as class consciousness and challenges to traditional authority found expression in Europe, often bloodily so. Turning to her daughter, I have, like so many, read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and was aware of its origins in that infamous competition between Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Mary as to who could write the best horror story. (On a personal note, I visited her grave three or four years back before we left Southampton – she is buried in nearby Bournemouth sharing a grave with other family members and Percy’s heart.) Drawn to these women more because of how they challenged the way society expected a woman to behave rather than their role in the genesis of Frankenstein, I was intrigued to see what a collection of essays, A Vindication of Monsters, Essays on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, had to say about them.
Divided into sections: Adaptation, Feminism, Society, and Memoir, the book also has a foreword by Sara Karloff, the daughter of Boris Karloff, and a detailed list of references at the back, as well as some biographical information for both Wollstonecraft and Shelley. These women, mother and daughter, deserve this book which I hope will bring their achievements to a wider audience.
Treating with Mary Wollstonecraft first, the essays specifically concerning her are fewer, though the section, Feminism, is undoubtedly the one she ‘owns’. Here, the monsters which Wollstonecraft battled were ‘educational neglect and social convention’, she ‘saw through convention to identify and describe how social norms biased against women were damaging to women and society,’ (Don’t Feed the Monsters, H.K Stubbs). By challenging these ‘monster’s, Wollstonecraft bequeathed her daughter a special gift, the knowledge that you did not have to conform, be what others expect you to be. It is a gift which Piper Mejia refers to in her essay, My Mother Hands me a Book. Mary Wollstonecraft is used as a reminder to her students ‘that their rights and privileges have been hundreds of years in the making.’ I would urge anyone with an interest in women’s rights to read these essays on Feminism, celebrate what has been achieved but also recognise how far we have still to go. Recent years have seen many gains made by women in terms of equality, safety, and bodily autonomy be they reversed or reduced. It is as if society is again asserting its ‘ownership’ over the female – what women should look like (the tyranny of youth and ideas of beauty), the control of the womb (with abortion rights being taken away in some parts of the world), what we should wear, or where we should walk in order to remain ‘safe’ (because there are monsters out there waiting to pounce). Freedoms, equality, respect and the idea of womanhood is being taken away from women once more and it is up to the Marys of today to speak up.
Mary Shelley, the daughter who was only 11 days old when her mother died, spent her life coping with the aftermath of the loss of her mother at such a young age. It was not the only loss, as only one of her children survived to adulthood, the other three succumbing at a very young age. And then of course there was the death of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her masterpiece, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, is clearly influenced by the effects – and the reputation – of her mother, those aforementioned losses, and the attitudes of society towards the ‘other’ which is perceives as ugly and deformed.
The book birthed a monster and the latter’s behaviour is something which is seen to be found in others, for example the serial killers referenced by Anthony Ferguson in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Revenge Killers. As Ferguson states, ‘one of her intentions was to show the folly and arrogance of men who think themselves better than God.’ And in the creature’s lamentation that, being abandoned and spurned, ‘misery made me a fiend,’ he is mirrored in the ‘self-pitying sentiments oft expressed by serial killers …’ which Ferguson then goes on to discuss.
The monster even finds its mirror in that modern horror, AI, and the elements of the Large Language Models, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, as it undermines all that we know to be true. I find it interesting that the man regarded as the ‘Godfather of AI’ stepped down from his position and regretted his role in AI’s creation. Remind you of Frankenstein at all?
And then Lee Murray offers us a different, personal, and utterly relatable discussion of Shelley’s post-apocalyptic book, The Last Man, in Mary Shelley: Pandemics, Isolation, And Writing. ‘I spread the whole earth out as a map before me. On no one spot on its surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.’ A sensation I think we were all familiar with at that time.
I have only touched on a few of the essays within this book, but there is a wealth of knowledge and informed study demonstrated across the whole collection. It feeds many interests (my own, as was probably evident, being feminism) and shows how Frankenstein, and the two women without whom it would never have appeared, is still relevant today. That the authors were able to hold Frankenstein up as a mirror to our more modern issues (AI, equality, serial killers, pandemics, etc.) made this an engaging and accessible work. I can imagine many readers nodding along in agreement with the ideas put forward, perhaps even seeing themselves and their own experiences reflected.
There are monsters in our midst and we must deal with them, and hopefully in a better manner than Frankenstein himself.
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Stephanie Ellis writes dark speculative prose and poetry and has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Her longer work includes the folk horror novels, The Five Turns of the Wheel, Reborn, and The Woodcutter, and the novellas, Bottled and Paused (all via Brigids Gate Press). Her dark poetry has been published in her collections Lilith Rising (co-authored with Shane Douglas Keene), Foundlings (co-authored with Cindy O’Quinn) and Metallurgy, as well as the HWA Poetry Showcase Volumes VI, VII, VIII, and IX and Black Spot Books Under Her Skin. She can be found supporting indie authors at HorrorTree.com via the weekly Indie Bookshelf Releases. She can be found at https://stephanieellis.org and on Blue Sky as stephellis.bsky.social.