Book cover.

Janet Harris delivers a comprehensive and sympathetic biography of 19th century author Mary Shelley. The biography details the "ups and downs" of Mary's life and the impact Frankenstein (1818) has on modern society.

Chapter 1: "I Saw the Hideous Phantasm"

Janet Harris begins her biography by stating, “It was a perfect night for ghost stories”. This sentence peaks reader’s interests and imagination while also foreshadowing that Mary Shelley will soon come up with the idea of one horror’s most iconic novel, Frankenstein. On Mary’s vacation to the Swiss Alps during the infamous summer of 1816, cold winds, heavy rain, and thunderstorms ensued. Meteorologists attributed the coldest summer on record due to atmospheric dust from the eruption of volcano Mount Taborga in Indonesia the previous year. Harris states that the outside storms matched Mary’s “inner storms” as she made many bold decisions in her life. The title of chapter 1 is a quote from Frankenstein, “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion” ( Mary was also experiencing hallucinations and convulsions during her stay in Villa Diodati. Chapter 1 gives an intimate background on Mary’s family, friends, and the vacation that Mary took leading to her creation of Frankenstein

Chapter 2: A Matchless Union

This chapter is an intricate chronicle of Mary's life from birth, marriage, child birth, and death. Harris is trying to portray that Mary was born a prodigy in writing as her parents were both respected literary figures (William Godwin & Mary Wollstonecraft) and it is said that as a child, her father brought in a phrenologist to examine the bumps on her skull and said Mary had "considerable memory, intelligence, and quick sensibility." (15-6). This information is expressing Harris' beliefs that it was Shelley's destiny to become one of the world's greatest and influential writers. The second half of the chapter chronicles how William Godwin became such an important philosophical leader and Mary Wollstonecraft’s importance in starting the feminist movement through her text, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. 

Chapter 3: The Portrait over the Mantel

Mary spent much time cherishing "the portrait over the mantel" as it was of her deceased mother. William is also lonely and gets remarried. In order to separate Mary from her stepmother, she gets sent to live with the Baxter family in Dundee, Scotland. It is here that she feels loved again and gets introduced to her future husband; a young poet by the name of Percy Shelley. In letters, William Godwin kept secret that she was indeed his favorite daughter. In this sympathetic chapter, Harris narrates the injustice and loneliness that Mary felt growing up without her mother’s physical presence and the love she regains when moving in with the Baxters. 

Chapter 4: The Runaways

The name of the chapter describes how Mary and Percy runaway together to get married. It was not an ideal honeymoon as many things went wrong, but it was still better than the "legal, financial, and family troubles" they left behind in England. The dramatic chapter continues with Mary and Percey's unexpected leave negatively affecting William Godwin's reputation, Percey getting his first wife Harriet pregnant, and being in major debt which is worse than poverty. The chapter displays the many adversities that Mary Shelley had to overcome in her pursuit of happiness. 

Chapter 5: Mary's Monster

Harris suggests that Mary's inspiration for Frankenstein came from reading Coleridge's poem, Land of Mist and Snow for her Artic scenery, Percey’s poem, "Prometheus Unbound", and the many scenic places that she and Percey have visited. Harris makes clear that Frankenstein is a horror novel at heart despite all the “philosophical, scientific, political, social ideas, and psychological aspect” (79). Harris includes numerous of her favorite passages from the beginning and ending of Frankenstein, but it comes off as unnecessary as readers of this autobiography should already be familiar with it. 

Chapter 6: Mary's World

In 1791, an Italian physiologist named Luigi Galvani experimented with the interaction between muscle fibers and electricity on frogs. This could give insight to Mary's "creature" as Harris states, "Electricity, the power that was to move and illuminate the twentieth century, was, already in Mary's day, in its dawn age" (102). Mary’s generation which included Charles Darwin was experiencing “social, political, scientific, and economic changes. Everything people had believed for centuries about religion, government, property, morals, knowledge, and education was being challenged” (101). This chapter documents how Frankenstein came to be set in a scientific age and the critical success of Mary's work Frankenstein as the Edinburgh Review stated, "There never was a wilder story imagined" (100). 

Chapter 7: "The Ups and Downs of This World"

Harris describes the ups and downs of Mary's world, "It was almost as though the Monster scattered destruction in his wake - not only among the mountains and polar wastes he roamed, but even in Chapuis, the cottage in the Alps where Mary began his story" (116). While writing Frankenstein, Mary was worrying about many family troubles such as her half-sister Fanny's depression leading to suicide, Claire's pained romance, and her father's deep debt. On the upside, Mary was legally able to marry Percy, she made a wider circle of friends, and she was once again expecting another child. 

Chapter 8: "We Are Born to Love"

Harris includes a quote from Percy identically relating it to his and Mary's relationship, "We are born into the world to love, and there is something within us, which, from the instant that we live, more or less thirsts after its own likeness" (136). Harris then spends the rest of the chapter contrasting how different Percy and Mary's upbringing were yet they grew up to be so similar. 

Chapter 9: The Heart Snatched from the Fire

Mary survives death in a miscarriage and has a premonition of Percy's death. Mary resolved that her purpose in life was to continue writing in order to support her son Percy Florence Shelley as he was the direct link to her deceased husband. Mary begins to receive profits from the stage production adaptations of Frankenstein and after the money won from a lawsuit, she is able to move out of her father’s house. Jane Williams became Mary’s best and only friend as both their husbands died while sailing through a storm. Jane ends up betraying her by spreading a rumor that Mary was secretly in love with her. The betrayal that Mary experienced was profound as it was unexpected and caused her to experience a nervous breakdown. Mary receives many marriage proposals from suitors, but denies them citing that her son was enough. Harris writes another sympathetic chapter showcasing that Mary is a caring and loyal friend, mother, and wife. 

Chapter 10: "An Unreal Phantasmagoria"

Phantasmagoria translates into hallucination. Mary Shelley as a young girl would never have imagined the literary success she would have achieved in adulthood, "Indeed, I have many, many blessings...If I could restore health, administer balm to the wounded heart, and banish care from those I love, I were in myself happy, while I am loved and Percy continues the blessing that he is" (182). Despite tremendous adversities in life, Mary spent her last years in “peace and solitude” with her son and daughter-in-law. This is Harris' curtains closing to her biography of Mary Shelley. 

Chapter 11: Frankenstein in the Twentieth Century, Chronology, & Frankenstein on Film.

Frankenstein long survives after Mary Shelley even till this day. Frankenstein garners even more popularity than his creator Mary Shelley. Harris goes on to write about Frankenstein's impact on novels, plays, movies, and television with numerous adaptation examples. Harris concludes with how we as a society should deal with the advancement of science and knowledge as they are, "neither a destructive force nor one for salvation. It is our ability to use them for love, for humanity, that is the promise of a better life" (198). 


Janet Harris writes a very enjoyable, enlightening, and easy read which appears to cater to a wider and younger audience. Harris uses many sympathetic tones of writing to get readers emotionally involved. The thoroughly researched intricate details of Mary’s life and the passion that Harris has in writing her biography are genuinely felt. There is a chronology of Mary and her family members followed by a listing of Frankenstein movie adaptations from 1910-74 entitled, “Frankenstein on Film”. 

Works Cited

"Frankestein's Monster." N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.

Harris, Janet. The Woman Who Created Frankenstein: A Portrait of Mary Shelley. New York: Harper & Row,      1979. Print. 

Further Readings

Florescu, Radu. In Search of Frankenstein. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1976. Print.

Jones, Frederick L., ed.The Letters of Mary W. Shelley. 2 vols. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma        Press, 1944. Print.

Small, Christopher. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh        Press, 1973. Print.