Monday, November 19, 2018

CYBILS SENIOR HIGH NONFICTION REVIEWS: Mary Shelley: The Strange True Tale of Frankenstein's Creator/Victoria: Portrait of a Queen

On the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, comes a riveting biography of its author, Mary Shelley, whose life reads like a dark gothic novel, filled with scandal, death, drama, and one of the strangest love stories in literary history. 

The story of Frankenstein’s creator is a strange, romantic, and tragic one, as deeply compelling as the novel itself. Mary ran away to Lake Geneva with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was just sixteen. It was there, during a cold and wet summer, that she first imagined her story about a mad scientist who brought a corpse back to life. Success soon followed for Mary, but also great tragedy and misfortune.
     Catherine Reef brings this passionate woman, brilliant writer, and forgotten feminist into crisp focus, detailing a life that was remarkable both before and after the publication of her iconic masterpiece. Includes index.


While I've never read Frankenstein, I have of course heard of it.  And the fact that it is still around after 200 years says a lot about it's appeal.  I did find this book about the author absolutely fascinating.  Reef has done a fabulous job of creating a very readable informative book about Mary Shelley.  In fact, I found it rather compelling.

Mary Shelley was clearly a woman who knew her own mind, and experienced great emotion. Being surrounded by writers and thinkers from the time she was really small helps explain why she ended up being a writer and thinker herself.  It also explains why she was attracted to Percy Bysshe Shelley who had such a way with words himself.  Both were also passionate individuals who found a kindred spirit in the other.  The fact that Percy was already married to someone else didn't seem to bother either one of them.  But the scandal created when they ran off together never left them alone.  They were rejected by main society and so spent much of their time with others like themselves who found mainstream society restrictive and unwelcoming.  It was while spending time which such friends that Mary was first inspired to write Frankenstein.  The encouragement of her friends lead her to finish and edit the story before finding a publisher.

Mary continued to write and many of her writings were inspired by her own thoughts, and feelings, and experiences.  She experienced tragedy in her life with the loss of three of her four children at young ages, as well as becoming a widow after only ten years of marriage (she and Percy married after his first wife died).  She struggled to support herself on the little she could bring in from her writing as well as the money provided by her husband's family under strict conditions.  Despite the challenges in her life, she continued to write.

Mary's life really does read like one of her novels with a variety of dramatic ups and downs along the way.  Reef has done a wonderful job of bringing to life of an author who truly left her mark on the world.  The included drawings and poems add nicely to the atmosphere of the book.


Catherine Reef brings history vividly to life in this sumptuously illustrated account of a confident, strong-minded, and influential woman.

Victoria woke one morning at the age of eighteen to discover that her uncle had died and she was now queen. She went on to rule for sixty-three years, with an influence so far-reaching that the decades of her reign now bear her name—the Victorian period. Victoria is filled with the exciting comings and goings of royal life: intrigue and innuendo, scheming advisors, and assassination attempts, not to mention plenty of passion and discord. Includes bibliography, notes, British royal family tree, index.


I've developed a great appreciation for the biographies written by Catherine Reef.  Not only is the research amazingly complete, but the book designs are fabulous.  This book is truly beautifully designed in terms of book art, photographs and paintings chosen to highlight the text and the fonts used.  But beyond that is the text.  Reef really knows how to tell a story.  Her subject truly comes alive in this book as the reader follows her from an unhappy childhood into a sixty-year long life as queen.  The book looks at both Victoria's personal life and her public one sharing stories related to her family as well as stories related to her role as queen.  I appreciated being able to see Queen Victoria's strengths as well as her weaknesses.  This allowed me to see her as a human being and not just a celebrity loved by many.  She wouldn't have been the easiest person in the world to get along with, and yet she formed a few close friendships.  She loved her children and yet was very strict with them, alongside her husband.  I almost felt sorry for her oldest son, the crown prince, and his lack of freedom.  Reef has truly made her subject come alive, leaving me with a greater appreciation for Queen Victoria and the role she played in world history. 

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