Hideous Love: The Story of the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Stephanie Hemphill. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.
The Good: I have always loved the story of Mary Shelley. To be honest, more than I love her creature, Frankenstein.
I’m not sure what was the name of the book I read about her; I don’t even remember whether it was fiction or non-fiction. I do remember how awful her stepmother was. And the romance of meeting and falling in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and running away with him even though she was only sixteen and he was married. And all the babies, and all the babies save one dying. The drama of it all!
Hideous Love, in verse form, tells that story. Of Mary wanting her father’s approval. Of Mary’s intense relationship with Shelley. Of their journey together, and their ultimate marriage once his first wife had died. Of the origins of Frankenstein.
I’m hardly an expert on Mary, Shelley, or their time, but I do know the generalities. Who Byron was, for example, and his relationship with Mary’s stepsister.
Hideous Love explains who the various people are, including Mary’s own family tree made up of various half and step siblings, as well as the various poets, philosophers, artists and others Mary encounter. It also explains how Mary’s father’s ideas about marriage and “free love” led Mary to think her father would be much more accepting of her relationship than he was.
My favorite part is in the initial love affair between Mary and Shelley. What is more difficult is the “after” part — Mary and Shelley getting older. Given the philosophy of “free love,” well, how free was their love? Hemphill addresses but does not answer some of those questions that really have no answer, namely, who else Shelley had a physical relationship with while he was with Mary.
Hideous Love brilliantly illustrates Mary’s emotional reality. Her hopes, her fears, what drives her, and how that changes and doesn’t change over time.
Here, some of my favorite bits:
“I am happier now
than ever I have been
than when I am reading
my favorite book.”
And then this, when talking about her stepsister and her fears about her stepsister and Shelley:
“Her design may have been
larger than that.
I notice when she bats
her lashes at Shelley
as though she holidays
with him alone.
I do not believe I have ever
wanted to throw
anyone out of a carriage more.”
Are Mary’s fears realistic? Or is it, having run away with a married man, that she doesn’t trust him? Is her stepsister really interested in Shelley? Or is her stepsister just lonely?
Shelley is always seen through Mary’s eyes. And here is more of a mystery — and again, a reason I want to read more about him — because I couldn’t quite get a handle on him. Oh, yes, Mary loves him. And he loves her. But at times I didn’t quite like Shelley. There was an arrogance about him, and a sense of entitlement almost, that made me love him less than Mary does. Was he really that careless about Mary’s feelings? Or, rather, that careless about others in general? But, then again — this is firmly Mary’s story. Not Shelley’s. So is this just how Mary began to see Shelley, when she was insecure? Or as she grew older and less enchanted?
Hideous Love is an emotional exploration rather than factual biography, so it doesn’t deeply delve into certain areas of Mary’s life and times. While there is enough shared for the reader new to Mary to understand what is going on, I think it’s best read by someone who already has some knowledge of Mary. Even for those who do know the basics, like myself, there were some parts I wanted to know more about. Hideous Love has some great back matter, with more information on Mary, her writings, and short information on the people in the book. For myself, I still wanted to know more about the lack of money, and borrowing, and how Mary and Shelley did and didn’t make ends meet. Libraries and schools who have Hideous Love should be prepared with more traditional biographies for readers who, like me, want more. And let me say — a book that wants you wanting more? That’s not a bad thing.