Mary Shelley

mary wollstonecraft shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (August 30, 1797 – February 1, 1851) born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, is renowned for her classic thriller, Frankenstein. Her work crossed several genres, including essays, biographies, short stories, and dramas.

Born in London, England, she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (early feminist best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and philosopher and political writer William Godwin.

She and her half-sister, Fanny Imlay (Wollstonecraft’s daughter from an affair she had with an American entrepreneur and adventurer) were raised mainly by her father; her mother, the early feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, died days after giving birth to her.

 

Early life

After Mary’s father was remarried to Mary Jane Clairmont in 1901, the family dynamic deteriorated. Clairmont brought her own two children into the household, and later had a son with Mary’s father, William Godwin. Mary never got along with her stepmother, who favored her own children over Mary and her step-sister, sending them away to school and generally neglecting them.

Mary early on gravitated to writing as a creative outlet. According to The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, she once explained that “As a child, I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories.'” She published her first poem, “Mounseer Nongtongpaw,” in 1807, through her father’s publishing company.

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Mary Shelley

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Marriage to Percy Shelley

In 1814, Mary began a relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. A devoted follower of her father’s, Percy Shelley soon turned his attention from his mentor to Mary. Still married to his first wife, he and the teenaged Mary fled to Europe together, and eventually returned to England, despite her father’s deep disapproval of the union.

Ostracized from the family and sinking into debt, Mary became pregnant in 1815. The baby a few days after its birth.

Later that year, Mary suffered the loss of her half-sister Fanny, who committed suicide. A short time after, Percy’s wife also committed suicide. Now able to wed, in December 1816 Mary and Percy married. Soon after, she published a travelogue of their escape to Europe, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817).

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

See also: How Mary Shelley Came to Write Frankenstein
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Frankenstein — Mary Shelley’s lasting legacy

In the midst of her tumultuous, tragic, and romantic youth, Mary created Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, one of the most memorable stories of all time.

In the summer of 1816, Mary and her husband Percy Shelley rented a villa not far from Lord Byron‘s on Lake Geneva. On the night of a thunderstorm. It was proposed that these literary friends each write a tale with supernatural elements, commonly referred to as a ghost story. Mary herself tells of how she came to write Frankenstein.

Victor Frankenstein’s reanimated creature is an archetype of societal rejection, and from the first, it has captured and haunted the imagination of the public. Mary Shelley’s first and most iconic novel was published in 1818 when she was barely twenty-one, is still widely read and studied.

Frankenstein has been referenced and reworked in numerous formats, though the Hollywood versions bare scant resemblance to the original. A novel filled with universal themes like creation, maternal instinct, and death, it’s a pioneer in the tradition of the Gothic novel. The struggle between good and evil lies at the root of the story.

 

Tragic turns

Mary’s own story took even more tragic turns. She and Percy had five children in total, three of whom devastatingly died before the age of three. In 1822, on an ocean voyage, Percy Shelley’s craft was lost at sea; his body was recovered days later. Though the couple had long been at odds, the initial romance of their relationship having quickly worn off, the loss was still devastating to Mary.

In an 1824 journal entry, she wrote: “At the age of twenty-six I am in the condition of an aged person — all my old friends are gone … & my heart fails when I think by how few ties I hold to the world…”

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Quotes from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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Other works by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s reputation is so bound up with her first novel that her prolific output is often unacknowledged. Following Frankenstein were the novels Valperga, or the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823), a historic tale.

The Last Man (1826), a dystopian novel about the spread of pestilence on humanity (the main character of this tale, Adrian, is thought to be based on Shelley). Her last novels were The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830); Lodore (1835); and Falkner (1837).

Nonfiction works include Journal of a Six Weeks Tour (which covers her flight to Europe with Percy Shelley in 1814) and Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840–1842–1843.  Maurice, a children’s story written in 1820, was never published until it was discovered in 1997.

 

Mathilda

One of Mary Shelley’s little known novels, Mathilda, was written just after the publication of Frankenstein in 1819– 1820, but was only published posthumously. Francis Booth observes: 

Mary’s novel Mathilda, understandably unpublished in her lifetime, is about a father’s incestuous but unfulfilled longings for his daughter. The novel purports to be a private story told to a friend, and was not only unpublished but unpublishable in her lifetime. One way to cope with abuse is, of course, to write about it, in this case – ostensibly at least – fictionally:

“What am I writing? – I must collect my thoughts. I do not know that any will peruse these pages except you, my friend, who will receive them at my death. I do not address them to you alone because it will give me pleasure to dwell upon our friendship in a way that would be needless if you alone read what I shall write. I shall relate my tale therefore as if I wrote for strangers. You have often asked me the cause of my solitary life; my tears; and above all of my impenetrable and unkind silence. In life I dared not; in death I unveil the mystery.”

The father admits to Mathilda that he has ‘polluted’ her. “I have betrayed your confidence; I have endeavoured to pollute your mind, and have made your innocent heart acquainted with the looks and language of unlawful and monstrous passion.” But he asks her forgiveness.

“I who draw down all this misery upon you; I who cast you forth and remorselessly have set the seal of distrust and agony on the heart and brow of my own child, who with devilish levity have endeavored to steal away her loveliness to place in its stead the foul deformity of sin; I, in the overflowing anguish of my heart, supplicate you to forgive me.”

In the end the father does the right thing and disappears forever.

 

Mary Shelley as biographer

According to Mary Shelley’s extensive biography on Wikipedia:

“Between 1832 and 1839, Mary Shelley wrote many biographies of notable Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French men and a few women for Dionysius Lardner’s Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men … Until the republication of these essays in 2002, their significance within her body of work was not appreciated.

In the view of literary scholar Greg Kucich, they reveal Mary Shelley’s “prodigious research across several centuries and in multiple languages”, her gift for biographical narrative, and her interest in the “emerging forms of feminist historiography.” … She records details of each writer’s life and character, quotes their writing in the original as well as in translation, and ends with a critical assessment of their achievement.

For Shelley, biographical writing was supposed to, in her words, “form as it were a school in which to study the philosophy of history” and to teach “lessons.” Most frequently and importantly, these lessons consisted of criticisms of male-dominated institutions such as primogeniture. Shelley emphasizes domesticity, romance, family, sympathy, and compassion in the lives of her subjects.

Unlike her novels, most of which had an original print run of several hundred copies, the Lives had a print run of about 4,000 for each volume: thus, according to Kucich, Mary Shelley’s ‘use of biography to forward the social agenda of women’s historiography became one of her most influential political interventions.'”

 

Later years

Mary returned to London in 1823, the year after Percy Shelley died. England at the time was a bleak place and she was forced to live in reduced circumstanced, doing hack writing to make ends meet. Fortunately, her reputation wasn’t damaged.

Brilliant and flawed, courageous and impetuous, she lived out her life with their one surviving son, Percy Florence Shelley. She and Percy Florence were quite close and devoted to one another.

She continued to eke out a living as a writer. After some time, Sir Timothy Shelley, her father-in-law, gave her an allowance on the condition that she refrain from writing a full biography of her husband. However, in 1838, she edited Shelley’s works and provided much valuable insight into his life and work. She also managed to put their son Percy through Harrow and Cambridge University.

Perhaps she lived by the words in her novel, The Last Man (1826):

“A truce to philosophy! — Life is before me, and I rush into possession. Hope, glory, love, and blameless ambition are my guides, and my soul knows no dread. What has been, though sweet, is gone; the present is good only because it is about to change … ”

Mary Shelley died from a brain tumor in London in 1850, at age 53. While Frankenstein never ceased being read, studied, filmed and staged, it was only gradually that her other works of fiction and nonfiction received renewed interest, especially since the 1970s.

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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More about Mary Shelley

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Major Works

Novels

  • Frankenstein (1818)
  • Mathilda (written 1820; published posthumously)
  • Valperga (1823)
  • The Last Man  (1826)
  • The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830)
  • Lodore (1835)
  • Falkner (1837)

Nonfiction

  • Journal of a Six Weeks Tour
  • Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844)

Biographies

More Information

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