"Alas, that love should be a blight and shame
To those who seek all sympathies in one!"
—Shelley, "Laon and Cythna"
With the publication of the first volume of an expanded edition of her letters in 1980, and now this biography, Mary Shelley's reputation is being reconsidered. This renewed attention is not due to the perennial interest in her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, or to one of those periodic reworkings of her greatest book, Frankenstein. It is due to the popularity of women's studies as a full-fledged academic discipline. And so the unarticulated question for Emily Sunstein is, was Mary Shelley a feminist? For Sunstein, the answer is an implicit yes: Mary, she writes in her conclusion, was "indeed her mother's daughter, heir to Wollstonecraft's Romantic feminism and to a fuller measure of punishment for it." But by any standards of feminism, modern or 19th-century, Mary Shelley would flunk—and she was the first to say so.
When people think of Mary Shelley, it is usually as a child; the sixteen-year-old who fled with Shelley to France, the nineteen-year-old who began Frankenstein during a stormy summer on Lake Geneva in the company of her lover and Lord Byron. But when Shelley died in 1822, drowned sailing from Leghorn to Pisa, Mary was only 24, and was to live another 29 years. The daughter...