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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (August 30, 1797 – February 1, 1851) born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was born in London, England and is best known for her classic thriller, Frankenstein. Born to philosopher and political writer William Godwin and famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman), she and her half-sister, Fanny Imlay (Wollstonecraft’s daughter from an affair she had with a soldier) were raised mainly by her father after her mother passed away ten days after giving birth to Mary.
Mary Shelley’s work crossed several genres (essays, biographies, short stories, and dramas) and often contained autobiographical elements.
After Mary’s father remarried to Mary Jane Clairmont in 1901, the family dynamic changed. Clairmont brought her own two children into the household, and she later had a son with Mary’s father. Mary never got along with her stepmother, who favored her own children over Mary and her step-sister, sending them away to school and neglecting to educate the others.
Mary gravitated towards 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 company.
Marriage to Percy Shelley
In 1814, Mary began a relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. A devoted student of her father’s, Percy Shelley soon turned his attention from his mentor, William Godwin, to Mary. Still married to his first wife, he and the teenage Mary fled to travel 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 couple lost the baby a few days after her birth.
Later that year, Mary suffered the loss of her half-sister Fanny who committed suicide. A short time after, Percy’s wife 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) while continuing to work on her soon-to-be-famous Frankenstein.
In 1818, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus debuted as a new novel from an anonymous author. Many thought that Percy Bysshe Shelley had written it since he penned its introduction. Needless to say, the book was a huge success.
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 that the members of the literary group each write a tale with supernatural elements. Mary herself tells of how she came to write Frankenstein. This, her 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.
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 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. Her other novels and writings have received renewed interest, especially since the 1970s.
More about Mary Shelley on this site
- How Mary Shelley Came to Write Frankenstein (1818)
- Quotes from Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley
- It’s Alive: Frankenstein at 200 at The Morgan Library & Museum
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