Mary Wollenstonecraft Godwin Shelley was the only daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollenstonecraft, a quite dynamic pair during their time. Mary Shelley is best known for her novel Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, which has transcended the Gothic and horror genres that now has been adapted to plays, movies, and sequels. Her life though scattered with tragedies and disgrace, was one of great passion and poetry, which I find quite fascinating, but not desirable. Shelley’s other literary works were mildly successful their time, but are little known today.
Her reputation rests, however, on what she once called her “Hideous Progeny,” Frankenstein. To understand her writing you must first know her background starting from her parent’s lives prior to her birth. Her mother, Mary Wollenstonecraft an early feminist, who, in1792, published A Vindication of the Rights of Man. This was an excellent book that showed Mary W. was way ahead of her time. Two years later she had an illegitimate child Fanny Imlay by the American industrialist Gilbert Imlay.
After her failed relationship with Imlay, Wollenstonecraft met the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin in 1796. Five months into her next pregnancy with Mary, she and William decided to marry to ensure their child’s legitimacy even though they were both opposed to the institution of matrimony. They were married on March 29, 1797 at St. Pancras church in London. Their daughter Mary Godwin (later Shelley) was born on August 30, 1779. Her mother died ten days later of infections and complications from her delivery, despite expert attention.
It was said by certain religious writers that “ It was not unfitting that Mary Wollenstonecraft should die in childbirth, a suitably primitive punishment for one who presumed to challenge the ordained place of women in society . ” Such a thing would be said probably because that same year (1798) Godwin published Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” which revealed Mary Wollenstoncraft’s extra martial affairs (including their own) and her suicide attempts.
Godwin was widely criticized for this publication, and Wollenstonecraft’s influence drastically diminished for years to come. Mary Shelley’s father remarried in 1801 to his neighbor, the widowed Mary Jane Claremont, who brought two children to the Godwin household, Charles and Claire Claremont. A fifth sibling was added in 1803 with the birth of William Godwin, Jr. Like other girls, Mary was educated at home, in spite of her own mother’s persuasive arguments for the institutionalized education of girls in The Rights of Woman.
So, she absorbed the intellectual atmosphere created by her father and many of England’s leading writers and thinkers, including the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, scientists like Humphry Davy, and her father’s dear friend William Nicholson. Importantly, Davy and Nicholson were the two foremost experimenters with galvanic electricity in the early nineteenth century who later had a noticeable impact on the writing of Frankenstein. Mary’s reading included popular gothic novels like William Beckford’s Vanthek (1786) as well as books by her own mother, whom she idolized.
At the age of ten Mary had her first experience with publication, when the Juvenile Library printed her witty poem, Mounseer Nongtonpaw: or, The Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris. By 1812 it was in a fourth edition. In 1812, when she was fourteen, Mary was exposed to yet another broadening influence. That year when, in order to distance Mary from the stepmother whom she resented and disliked, Mary’s father sent her on an extended vacation to the Baxter family in Dundee, Scotland.
She stayed there from June to November of 1812 and, again, from June 1813 to March of 1814, developing a strong friendship to the Baxter’s teenage daughter Isabel, who became her first close friend. Shortly after her return to the family home, she became reacquainted with her father’s youthful admirer, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she first met in the company of his wife Harriet in November of 1812. Now, he became a frequent visitor to the Godwin household, and the two of them (although not attracted to one another at first) fell in love.
At the time, Shelley was twenty-two and he and his wife were expecting their second child. But like Godwin and Wollenstonecraft, Percy and Mary felt ties of the heart outmoded legal ones. In July 1814, one month away from her seventeenth birthday, Mary and Percy along with Claire eloped to the continent. They continued on to Switzerland, Holland, and Germany. During this time, Mary kept a journal of their escapades, which she turned into a travel book, and published as History of a Six Weeks’ Tour in 1817, while her first novel was being prepared for the press.
Mary’s return to London in September of 1814 was not so carefree. Since Percy had his allowance cut off by his father after the elopement, the couple was penniless, and Shelley had to hide from creditors. Godwin, upset by his daughter’s irrational actions, would not even see Percy; and Mary, barely seventeen, was pregnant. To make matters worse her bosom friend Isabel was forced by her family to cut all ties with Mary. Years later, when she returned to England from Italy as Shelley’s widow, Mary was refused invitation from respectable people.
Many would never forgive her, no matter how her career had soared, for so blatant a transgression of proper social decorum. Over the next two years Percy gained financial stability for them, and the couple developed a circle of friends. Mary had lost her first child, a girl, after three weeks, but became pregnant again. She gave birth to a son, named after her father, on January 29,1916. Looking back, Mary fondly remembered these years spent near Windsor, where she set the early chapters of her third novel, The Last Man (1826).
Her stepsister provided the catalyst to a new chapter in her life. Claire, who was in competition with Mary, in a wild but successful scheme set out to secure her own poet-lover. She struck gold with Lord George Byron, who while separated from his wife caused a scandal with Claire during the 1815-16 winter. By spring Byron had left for exile on the continent, and Claire found herself pregnant. Percy, Mary, William, and Claire joined Lord Byron and John Polidori, at Lake Geneva in Switzerland in May.
One evening after reading a series of German ghost stories, Lord Byron suggests that they write their own horror tale. This idea is what lead to the actual creation of Frankenstein. The group spent several days and nights together in the Villa Diodati at Coligny, where discussions sometime around the middle of June about “ the principle of life” inspire the “waking dream” that became the central scene in Frankenstein Upon her return to England in September of 1816, Mary quickly developed the novel she started during the summer.
But its progress was delayed by family catastrophe. First, the suicide of her half-sister Fanny in October; then on December tenth the discovery of the body of Percy’s wife Harriet, who, very pregnant from an affair, had drowned herself in the Serpentine River. On December thirtieth Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley were married in St. Mary’s church in London with Mary’s father and stepmother as witnesses. Although the couple hoped to gain custody of Percy’s two children, but Harriet’s family prevented this by bringing a successful custody suit against them.
Mary completed Frankenstein in May in 1817 and after being rejected by two publishers, was accepted by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mayor& Jones. In March Frankenstein was published anonymously. Two weeks later The Shelley menage moves to Italy. During the four years they spent in Italy Percy became established as one of the most prominent poets in the English language. This period likewise furthered the career of Mary Shelley as “The Author of Frankenstein,” the axiom, which she continued with her anonymous publication with a second novel, Valpegra: or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823).
Three of Mary and Percy’s children died in infancy, and Mary fell into a deep depression that was barely dispelled by the birth in 1819 of Percy Florence, her only surviving child. During this time, her marriage suffered greatly, nevertheless, Mary and Percy continued their rigorous studies and ambitious writing. The two also enjoyed a clique of stimulating friends, notably Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. On July 16, 1822, Percy sailing in the “Don Juan” to meet Leigh and Marianne Hunt got caught in a storm and drowned.
Suddenly Mary found herself without sufficient means to remain in Italy and after a year returned permanently to England with her son. After Percy’s death, melancholy and hardship marked Mary Shelley’s life as she struggled to support herself and her son. Sir Timothy Shelley (Percy’s father) offered some money, but demanded that she keep the Shelley name out of print. In addition to producing four novels after Percy’s death, Mary contributed a series of biographical and critical sketches to Chamber’s Cabinet Cyclopedia, as well as occasional short stories to the literary annuals of the day.
She likewise, supervised the publication of her husband’s Posthumous Poems, which appeared in 1824, his Poetical Works (1839), and his prose (1839 and 1840). Her financial situation improved when Sir Timothy increased Percy Florence’s allowance with his coming of age in 1840, which enabled mother and son to travel in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843. Percy Florence acceded to the baronetcy upon the death of Sir Timothy, in 1844.
Four years later he married an admirer of his mother’s, Jane St. John, who attempted to “purify” the history of the Godwins and the Shelleys by insisting that all references to illegitimacy and inappropriate in their lives be erased. Too ill in her last few years to complete her most cherished project, a bibliography of her husband, Mary died at home in Chester Square, London, on February 1, 1851 at the age of fifty-four. Since Mary Shelley’s death, critics have devoted nearly all their attention to Frankenstein. After Frankenstein, the novel The Last Man (1826) is Mary Shelley’s best known work.
Valpegra and The fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830) are historical novels that have received little attention from literary critics, while Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), thought by many to be autobiographical, “are often examined for clues to the lives of the Shelley’s and their circle,” according to William St. Clair. Critics have also admired Shelley’s non-fiction as well. Leigh Hunt once characterized Mary as “four-famed – – for her parents, her lord / And the poor lone impossible monster abhorr’d. ” Today, she has emerged from the shadow of her parents and husband as an artist in her own right.