Janine Kitson

Just a Queen and Summer of Monsters: The Scandalous Story of Mary Shelley are enjoyable and empowering novels for women of all ages and will be a great resource for students studying English. Both are based on the lives of famous women — Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Mary Shelley (1797-1851).

Elizabeth I and Mary Shelley shared many things: both had “scandalous” mothers who died young, Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, beheaded by order of her father, Henry VIII, and Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, losing her life in childbirth. Both Elizabeth and Mary had weak fathers who abandoned them to cruel and lonely childhoods. Both fathers destroyed the mothers’ reputations: Henry VIII accused Anne Boleyn of adultery; William Godwin diminished Mary Wollstonecraft’s achievements as a philosopher and feminist by publishing a scandalous biography of her.

Both young women were exceptionally intelligent and insightful about the sexual politics of their time that effectively repressed women. Elizabeth astutely avoided scandal, knowing how dangerous it was to her authority as a queen. Mary Godwin chose a scandalous life running off with married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Despite challenges, her relationship with Percy provided her with the experience and insight to write her ground-breaking novel, Frankenstein.

Both women have a strong commitment to improving society. Elizabeth hated war and endeavoured to create a stable and peaceful society. Mary Shelley was wary of the devastating impact that the Industrial Revolution had on people’s humanity.

Both lived at a time when having a child was a life-threatening experience for most women.

The two novels look at how scandal shapes women. Mary succumbed to love and scandal but learned and grew from it. Elizabeth determinedly avoided it, knowing too well that scandal for a woman can so easily destroy a woman.

Just a Queen
By Jane Caro
University of Queensland Press, 2015

This is not about “just” a queen. Elizabeth is an extraordinarily talented and astute queen who reveals her inner thoughts as she navigates the precariously dangerous male world of power in which women — if they make mistakes, like Mary Queen of Scots or Anne Boleyn — can literally lose their lives.

Elizabeth’s reign begins in the shadow of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism that threatens to divide the nation with civil war. Elizabeth is a woman in power but she is all too cognisant that men are fickle in their loyalties to women. The story revolves around the pressure Elizabeth receives from her advisers to execute her cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Standing in the shadow of her mother’s death she is stubbornly refuses to act.

Elizabeth must also face constant pressure to marry and produce an heir — but she is far too clever for that, knowing that a husband would undermine her authority and lead to political instability.

Just a Queen is a wonderful insight into a woman who applied intelligence to her life. Author and public education advocate Jane Caro dedicates the book to every woman and girl who has ever stood up for herself. A great read.

Ideas for the classroom

Small group/pair discussion:

  1. What do you know about Queen Elizabeth I?
  2. What is your assessment of how Elizabeth handles the extremists and religious fanatics of her time?
  3. The book is dedicated to every woman and young girl who has ever stood up for herself. How does Elizabeth stand up for herself?

Suggestions for learning activities:

  1. Read Jane Caro’s earlier novel about Elizabeth I, Just a Girl.
  2. Write Elizabeth’s final letter to Mary before she is executed.
  3. Act out Elizabeth’s Advisory Council calling on her to marry and produce an heir.

Summer of Monsters: The Scandalous Story of Mary Shelley
By Tony Thompson, Black Dog Books, 2014

This novel focuses on the scandalous events in Mary Godwin’s life that lead her to write her ground breaking novel Frankenstein that challenges science and the Industrial Revolution.

Mary falls in love with the famous Romanic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and runs off with this married man to live a transient life in Europe. During one summer they holiday with England’s greatest poet, Lord Byron, who challenges his guests to write a ghost story.

This leads Mary to “write the novel that would make her more famous than either of her parents, a book that would last as long as anything written by Percy or Byron. Mary had begun to write Frankenstein.

Two great books for women of all ages to read!

Both books are available from Federation Library.

Ideas for the classroom

Small group/pair discussion:

1. Why the title — Summer of Monsters, The Scandalous Story of Mary Shelley?
2. What experiences shape Mary to write the story of Frankenstein?
3. How does meeting Jeremiah Brandreth, a Luddite, shape Mary’s thinking?

Suggestions for learning activities:

1. Research Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and why she was so important for women.
2. Act out Joseph Grimaldi’s performance of the pantomime Harlequin and Asmodeus.
Write a column for a gossip magazine describing the “scandal” of Lord Byron walking on the beach with Mary.