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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (August 30, 1797 – February 1, 1851), born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was a British author whose work crossed several genres (essays, biographies, short stories, and dramas) and often contained autobiographical elements. She’s best known for the classic thriller, Frankenstein.
Mary came from an intellectual family of writers and thinkers. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was well known for her feminist writings, particularly A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Alas, she died ten days after giving birth to her namesake. Mary’s father was the political philosopher William Godwin.
Marriage to Percy Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley, the writer and poet, was a follower of her father’s. On July 28, 1814, seventeen-year-old Mary eloped to France with Shelley, though he was already married. Her father heartily disapproved. After traveling throughout Europe, the couple returned to England. Mary was pregnant, she and Percy were in debt and widely ostracized. Their baby, born prematurely, died. Percy Shelley’s wife committed suicide, after which he and Mary wed in 1816.
Frankenstein — her 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. While in Switzerland with Shelley and Lord Byron in 1816, it was proposed the members of the literary group each write a tale with the supernatural elements. Mary herself tells of how she came to write Frankenstein. Her first novel was published in 1818 when she was barely twenty-one, and 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 of good and evil lies at the root of the story.
Mary’s own story took even more tragic turns. She and Percy had five children in total, three of whom died before age three. In 1822, on an ocean voyage, Percy Shelley’s craft was lost at sea; his body was recovered days later. The loss was devastating.
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…”
Mary Shelley’s reputation is so bound with her first novel that it often goes unacknowledged that she was quite prolific. 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 rather dystopian novel about the spread of pestilence on humanity (the main character of this tale, Adrian, is thought to be based on Shelley); The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830); Lodore (1835); and Falkner (1837).
Nonfiction works include Journal of a Six Weeks Tour (which covers the flight to Europe by the couple in 1814), and Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840–1842–1843.
Mary returned to London in 1823, the year after her husband died. 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 writing. 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 insights on 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. Her other novels and writings have received renewed interest, especially since the 1970s.
More about Mary Shelley on this site
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