Religion Around Mary Shelley

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Jennifer L. Airey
Religion Around
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , August
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jennifer L. Airey’s new and original study Religion Around Mary Shelley is the first to make Mary Shelley’s religious influences and commitments the primary subject. In line with Pennsylvania State University Press’s Religion Around series, this book “examine[s] the religious forces surrounding [a] cultural icon” in order to “give readers a more complex understanding and greater appreciation for [the] individual subject, their work, and their lasting influence,” according to the publisher’s website. Airey has produced a masterful volume that lives up to this stated goal. Undoubtedly, Mary Shelley was a cultural icon in her own time, and she has certainly enjoyed a prolonged and intensifying popularity into the 20th and 21st centuries, thanks largely to film and book adaptations of her most famous work, Frankenstein (Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818). Airey compellingly argues that all of Shelley’s fiction (not just Frankenstein) continues to resonate because she engages with religion in meaningful, albeit subtle, ways.

As the title of the book suggests, Airey examines the religious milieu around Mary Shelley. Necessarily, then, this book is part biography, surveying the (anti)religiosity of her inner circle—namely, her famous parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and her husband, the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Airey is well informed on previous Mary Shelley scholarship and knows the common pitfalls and shortcomings. Airey is aware, for example, that studies on Mary Shelley have too often focused on her relationship with her male counterparts. In this way, Mary Shelley’s early fiction—especially Frankenstein—takes precedence unfortunately, while her much more productive, later career (after Percy’s death in 1822) goes largely ignored.

To escape the shadow of Percy Shelley, Airey privileges Mary Shelley’s later works, such as The Last Man (1826), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (G, Routledge, 1830), Lodore (Richard Bentley, 1835), Falkner (Saunders and Otley, 1837), and Mathilda (written 1819-1820). Airey will sometimes read Shelley’s fiction alongside her letters and correspondence; however, she is careful not to perform what Graham Allen calls “biographism” (8), an approach which views Mary Shelley’s fiction as a window into her personal life. Such a reductionist reading undercuts the aesthetic, political, and philosophical value of her work.

The book’s first two chapters offer highly accessible surveys of religion around Romanticism and around Mary Shelley. The first chapter on Romanticism engages with other Romantic writers in order to get a sense of the predominant questions and issues at stake regarding religion. The conflict between reason and feeling following the Enlightenment and French Revolution that is present in much of William Blake’s poetry, for instance, looms large in Mary Shelley’s fiction.

Furthermore, this chapter does a fantastic job surveying the key tenets and doctrines of the proliferating denominations in Romantic-era England: the rise of Evangelicalism and Methodism, Anglican Evangelicalism and the Clapham Sect, Rational Dissent and Unitarianism, and the Catholic question. However, I do wish that Airey had included a section on non-Christian religions, especially considering how some scholars believe that the Creature’s self-immolation at the end of Frankenstein is modelled after the Hindu practice of Sati. In the second chapter, Airey not only gives the religious background on William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Percy Shelley, but also she covers the formative influence of scientific materialism and Milton’s Paradise Lost, among other textual sources. These first two chapters depict Mary Shelley as a writer preoccupied with 18th- and 19th-century religious milieu.

The book’s final three chapters are “Doubt,” “Despair,” and “Domesticity.” They organize Mary Shelley’s fiction into three distinct biographical stages: the “Doubt” she experiences as a young woman associated with religious radicals like Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Bryon; the “Despair” she endures after the death of one of her children and then the untimely death of Percy; and finally, the “Domesticity” she elicits in her later work as she tries to recuperate her reputation. This is an ironic organizational structure given Airey’s earlier statement about the pitfalls of “biographism.”

In “Doubt,” Airey covers Frankenstein, “Valerius: the Reanimated Roman,” and Mathilda, arguing that Mary Shelley thematizes God’s absence and shows a general distrust in organized religion. Along with close readings of these texts, Airey provides insightful historical background that demonstrates how Mary Shelley was engaged with complex theological questions. For example, Mary Shelley’s interest in Roman ruins in “Valerius” is situated alongside other poets, such as Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, who write about ruins as a representation of the fleetingness of religious systems.

“Despair” and “Domesticity” are Airey’s strongest chapters because they focus on Mary Shelley’s neglected works, which are some of her most daring and experimental. Airey’s analysis takes the reader to unexpected places. While analyzing the role of religion in Valperga—a novel loosely based on the Ghibelline-Guelph conflict in 14th-century Italy—Airey links the protagonist, Beatrice, to a tradition of female prophecy, and even suggests that Beatrice’s mother is modelled after Joanna Southcott, the most notorious female prophet in 19th-century England. The “Despair” that Shelley evinces in this novel and in The Last Man stems from a religious vacuum, wherein she can place no confidence in organized religion.

In the final chapter, “Domesticity,” Airey posits that Mary Shelley’s later conservatism still maintains a suspicion of organized religion and, consequently, valorizes “an ethic of domestic harmony and interpersonal care” (134) as the antidote to organized religion’s shortcomings. As religion becomes domesticated and feminized in the mid-19th century, her later works like Perkin Warbeck and Falkner reflect this shift and articulate how women can cultivate safe and meaningful spaces for religion and devotion in their homes.

Religion Around Mary Shelley is a valuable addition to Mary Shelley scholarship, and it can also stand on its own as superb scholarship in the field of Romanticism. Undergraduates writing honors theses, graduate students writing seminar papers, and scholars interested in the intersection of Romantic literature and religion will find this volume accessible and useful.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Bontempo is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
May 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer L. Airey is Associate Professor of English at the University of Tulsa.


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