Mary Shelley (2017) Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, written by Emma Jensen and Haifaa A-Mansour starring Elle Fanning, Bel Powley, Douglass Booth, and Tom Sturridge is at best a mediocre, and incomplete representation of the lives of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. It falls short in a multitude of ways. Firstly, it fails to include it in Mary’s half-sister Fanny Imlay, who was a major part of her life and lived with her and her father. Nor does it fairly present Mary’s relationship with her father, which bordered in idolatry, or the fact that she had published a book through her father’s press before she wrote Frankenstein, a novella entitled Matilda. One would think upon seeing this film that she only wrote in a journal and never anything of any merit. This is untrue.
Secondly, preeminent figures such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey often went to Godwin’s home and was so enamored with young Mary and struck by her resemblance to her mother, that they would have her stand under the portrait of her, that hung over the fireplace. The home she grew up in was culturally rich due to her father, who gave his children, Fanny, Mary, Claire and later William, a solid education exposing them to a plethora of writers such as Spencer, Shakespeare, Ovid, Homer, and Virgil through the use of his own library and the small room above the bookshop where they were tutored. Reading and writing was not something which Mary had to hide. Yet, in the film, she is seen constantly doing so. While it is true that her stepmother was cruel and read Mary’s letters, she did not try to thwart Mary’s creative efforts. This would have been anathema to everything that Godwin stood for. He was if nothing else, extremely proud of his daughters, and did everything in his power to ensure they had a first-rate education.
Thirdly, when Mary eloped with Shelley, they did not live in England but went to Calais (in France) taking Claire with them because she was the only one of the three that spoke French. The three of them wandered around Europe during July, and August returning to London in September of that year. Yet, the film makes it out that they lived in England, which is untrue. Nor does the film portray the real kinship that Mary and Shelly had, and how he supported her not only by teaching her to read and write Greek but by scoping out the areas in Revolutionary Europe whenever they traveled as the roads were full of thieves who would rob coaches and assault women. If one were to believe this film the only thing that held them together was the passion they had for one another.
To add further insult to who he was, it portrays him as little more than a drunken, philandering poet who was into free-love. It does not talk about his activism in Ireland, his adamant opposition to slavery, (to the point of refusing to have sugar in his home because he knew the cane was picked by slaves.) his generous giving of food and blankets to the poor, or his zealousness opposition to the sedition laws in England and his stalwart support of the ideals of equity. Further, it wrongly makes him out to be unsupportive of Mary when Frankenstein was published, when in fact, he was so proud of her that he wrote an introduction into the second edition stating emphatically he did not write it, and that the only thing he did was edit it for grammar and spelling. Shelley, unlike Godwin, (Marys’ father) lived the ideals that he preached about. While Godwin wrote Political Justice, he was a hypocrite, constantly begging for handouts, shunning Mary for running off with Shelley, and worse writing letters that were so cruel to Mary that Shelley refused to show them to her as a way to protect her. Yet, if one’s only knowledge of who Shelley was, was by gained from watching this film, one would come away thinking these people were superficial, idealistic dunderheads. Nothing could be further from the truth. One would hope that people would read further such marvelous biographies as James Bieri’s Percy Bysshe Shelley, Romance, and Reality by Emily Sunstein, or Byron Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy. Moreover, there are Mary’s own letters, published through Oxford University Press, which give you a better idea as to who she, Shelley, and Byron were for you get to hear the author speak for herself regarding her daily life, the struggles she faced and how those things affected her.
This film barely scratches the surface and what it does more than anything, is merely touch upon one aspect of their lives, rather than taking into account who they were, the environment and times they were living in, and the totality of what they gave through their work to humanity at large.