Fiona Sampson spoke to us of her research for her new biography, In Search of Mary Shelley and how she felt comfortable writing a biography of Shelley as she was herself a biographer. She told of the sadness for Mary growing up in the house where her mother died and how her father taught her to write by tracing the letters of her name on the grave, meaning that writing and morbidity were linked from a young age. Despite the fact she came from a family who were very interested in memorializing themselves, no letters to or from Mary in her youth, or any of her juvenilia, survive.
Sampson highlighted what an error Mary made in believing Percy’s lies and running away with him, a mistake she would pay for dearly. Sampson believes that although Mary wanted to write, she wanted a nuclear family, not bohemia. There is also the suggestion that she was innocent of gender politics. When writing Frankenstein she still believed she could do the same as men – her great tragedy was realizing that she couldn’t.
The led nicely into the next event – Margaret Atwood in conversation. We started with the slightly unusual topic of subway adverts which she believes tells you much about the preoccupations of the age – from underwear suggesting you needed some kind of infrastructure in the 1930s and 40s to debt and helplines today.
She spoke of her first experiences of publishing and how crushing her first rejection was, made worse by a poetry book being accepted but not making it past the third editor. Her second novel was then lost by a publisher for two years. A difficult start to a glittering career.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before we got on to The Handmaid’s Tale which she wrote whilst living in West Berlin. She sees it as a warning – don’t walk into that hole, and yet the fact she didn’t put anything in it that hasn’t happened somewhere in the world (the same is true for the TV show) highlights the ongoing need for such warnings. Indeed, many believe the message is more relevant today than when it was written. The handmaid costumes have proved popular in protests. Atwood thinks this is an effective way to protest without having to say anything.
She also spoke of the inspiration for Alias Grace – a real life convict named Grace Marks who she first came to via Susanna Moodie’s writings on the subject. Atwood initially wrote a TV play working only from this, but when she came to write the novel she left no stone unturned, yet still can’t say whether or not Marks was innocent.
It was a fascinating evening with an author who clearly knows what she’s talking about and is incredibly insightful.