Spark had not made such a clear distinction between her roles as biographer and novelist.A little of her subject's inconsistency might have added flesh and blood to the story she tells. Spark's novelistic imagination, and the woodwork of her narrative might have burst into flames.Spark obscures what would seem to be the most obvious thing about it.
We know her as the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).
MARY SHELLEY (1797-1851) is far from a historical obscurity.
Spark has revised her book in the light of the Mary Shelley scholarship in the interval, and brought it out as ''Mary Shelley: A Biography.'' The result is not what we might have expected, considering the drama of Mary Shelley's life and imagination.
So it is understandable that in 1951, the centenary year of Mary Shelley's death and a time when Muriel Spark was preoccupied with 19th-century writers, she chose to write ''Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Shelley.'' And that 36 years and 17 novels later - there never having been an American edition of this biography, except a small pirated one - Ms.
Nevertheless, Mary hated her because she saw in her stepmother everything her mother had not been: a philistine, a devious and manipulative conservative.
She also blamed her stepmother for alienating her father from her, as William Godwin withdrew almost entirely into his study and left the running of the household to his second wife.Mary Jane had two children, Charles and Jane, who later called herself Claire.Her stepmother did not encourage Mary Godwin's intellectual curiosity and did not bring her up according to her mother's principles.Under the circumstances, a little candlelight flickering on the roof beams might have lent them more complexity as people. Spark has enabled herself to cover much ground in a little space - not only Mary Shelley's eventful life, but also much of her writing, down to a poem she wrote that may have inspired Edgar Allen Poe.And, most important of all, she leaves us with a clear impression of what longer works on the Shelleys often tend to obscure - how young these people were when the most important events in their lives occurred.Mary's parents adhered to revolutionary principles both in politics and in their private lives, but in spite of despising the institution of marriage they took the step after all to facilitate Mary's entrance into society.However, Mary Wollstonecraft died ten days after the birth of her daughter from puerperal fever.But surely one must take into account the number of deaths in Mary Shelley's life that must have been weighing on her at the time - her mother's, her child's, her half sister's - and the fantasy of resurrection with its attendant psychological complications. Spark intends to highlight is unintentionally shaded by her elliptical technique.She tries to justify such examples of contradictory behavior as William Godwin's disapproval of his son-in-law and his simultaneous demand that the poet provide him with money for support, or Mary's own quest for intellectual freedom and her increased craving, after her husband's death, ''more and more for bourgeois respectability.'' ''All people contain within them the elements of conflict,'' Ms. ''In some, however, the battle wages more vigorously, more unequally and longer than in others, and such people eventually reveal a salient inconsistency to the world; Mary Shelley was one of these.'' Yet while her reasoning is sound enough - no members of the Godwin-Wollstonecraft family were wont to admit their confusion of 18th-century reason with 19th-century emotion -her truncated account of her subjects' actual behavior makes them appear a bit like hypocrites in a comedy of manners.He also gave her access to his extensive library of English authors.He allowed her to sit quietly in a corner and listen to his political, philosophical, scientific or literary discussions with his friends, among them the literary lions William Wordsworth, Charles and Mary Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt.