Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin; 30 August 1797- 1 February 1851) was a prolific English writer, and the offspring of distinguished parentage: her mother was feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was the radical philosopher William Godwin. Though most famous for her first novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), written when she was just eighteen, Shelley's work went on to span over twenty short stories, seven novels, two travel narratives, and numerous essays and letters. Despite her often controversial relationship and eventual marriage to fellow Romantic writer Percy Bysshe Shelley overshadowing much of her work, Shelley's writings are crucial to the Romantic Period in themselves. Her use of themes such as female identity, scientific enlightenment, and community over individualism; as well as the mixing of autobiographical elements into her stories create a body of work that often reads as extremely progressive for her time.
- 1 Early Life
- 2 Elopement and Early Writings
- 3 Return to England and Later Literary Career
===Mary's Birth and Wollstonecraft's Death
From the moment of Mary Shelley's birth, her reputation would be dominated by her connections to other prominent authors, beginning with her parents. Shelley was born in 1797 in Somers Town, London to two famed, yet unconventional authors, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Shelley's parents had recently married only five months before, which was delayed due to their shared distaste for the institution of marriage, but necessitated by Mary's pregnancy (Bennett 9). Tragically, less than two weeks after Shelley's birth, her mother died of puerperal fever, an event that would have a profound and everlasting effect on Shelley's life and work as an author. Throughout her life, Shelley would read and reread her mother and father's works in order to "confirm her sense that she was living in accordance with their beliefs" (Garrett 27).
Godwin and Early Education
In a letter written approximately two months after Shelley's birth, her father expresses his anxiety about raising both Mary and Wollstonecraft's first child, Fanny. Godwin writes:
"...The poor children! I am myself totally unfitted to educate them. The scepticism which perhaps sometimes leads me right in matters of speculation, is torment to me when I would attempt to direct the infant mind. I am the most unfit person for this office; she [Mary Wollstonecraft] was the best qualified in the world..." (Grylls 11).
Godwin immediately solicited help from various female friends and relatives to assist him in the children's upbringing. These women tended to the "practical side" of raising the two girls, while Godwin worked to cultivate his daughter's minds, particularly through extensive reading and writing. In an honest but ultimately regrettable attempt to honor his late wife, Godwin wrote Memoirs of the Author of The Rights of Woman in 1798. This biography included Wollstonecraft's affair with Gilbert Imlay and her suicide attempts, which shocked readers and turned public opinion against her, shifting her legacy from a powerful feminist writer to a scandalous, promiscuous woman for years to come (Garrett 10).
Due to a combination of Godwin's inability to raise Shelley without the help of several women, and an increasing debt, Godwin decided to search for a second wife. He was remarried in December 1801 to a next-door neighbor, Mary Jane Clairmont (Garrett 10). The marriage to Mary Jane also brought along two of her children, a son Charles, and the infamous Clara (Claire) Clairmont (Bennett 8).
Shelley continued to grow fond for her father, which she described as an "excessive and romantic attachment" (Bennett 9). However, in such a large and mixed family, Shelley's new stepmother often held all of her father's attention. In addition to this, Shelley's step-sister Claire noted: "that in our family if you cannot write an epic poem or a novel that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature not worth acknowledging" (Garrett 14).
In order to expand his daughter's education and improve her health, William Godwin sent fourteen-year-old Mary to live with his close friend, William Baxter, in Dundee, Scotland. Here, Here, Mary forms a close relationship with William's daughter, Isabella, who shares Mary's love for her mother's writings.
Meeting of Percy Shelley
Shortly after her return from Scotland in 1812, Mary meets her future husband and collaborator, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy Shelley is serving a two-fold purpose in the Godwin household: not only is he deeply interested in Godwin's politics, but he also regularly lends money to his financially strapped mentor.
Two years pass before Mary and Percy meet for a second time, and in these two years, Percy becomes estranged from his wife, Harriet Westbrook. Despite the fact that Percy and Harriet are expecting their second child, Percy cultivates an interest in the young Mary. She is what Percy describes as a "Child of love and light" - the offspring of two monumental intellectual figures. To Mary, Percy was proof of the power of her parents' ideals (Bennett 17). However, both the rapidity with which the relationship bloomed, and the fact that Percy refused to pay anymore of Godwin's debts made Godwin extremely resistant to the pairing. Godwin mercilessly attacked Percy in a letter shortly after he discovered the relationship, stating: "I could not believe that you would enter into my house under the name of benefactor, to leave behind an endless passion to corrode my soul" (Bennett 21). Despite his best attempts, Mary and Percy eloped to France in July 1814, along with Mary's step-sister Claire.
Elopement and Early Writings
Travels Throughout the Continent
Though acting completely against Godwin's wishes, Mary and Percy did retain a singular and important habit of his: the act of daily journal writing. At the beginning of their journey, the two worked together to detail the events; eventually, Mary becomes the sole recorder. In addition, the two also carried a box full of Mary Wollstonecraft's writings, which were read by both parties (Bennett 19).
Mary, Percy, and Claire's first destination was Uri, Switzerland, though the journey proved to be a greater financial strain than originally imagined. Percy, in moves characteristic of years to come, took out two separate loans while on the trip in order to continuously fund it (Garrett 24). The three traveled through Switzerland, France, Germany, and Holland, which provided the basis for a collaboration between the Shelleys: History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817), a collection of journal entries, letters, and Percy Shelley's poem "Mont Blanc".
Life in London
The three return to England in September 1814 to a storm of unwelcoming family members and rampant town gossip. Godwin refuses to allow Mary back into their home, and refuses to speak to her for the next two years. Percy's father, Sir Timothy Shelley, rejects them as well, leaving the couple essentially homeless and running out of money (Bennett 20). Moreover, Mary is pregnant with her first child, not yet married to Percy, and Percy's wife Harriett has just given birth to their second child. Some of the public shuns Mary, and she begins to experience the same hostility that Godwin inadvertently produced when he wrote his late wife's biography. Mary and Percy must also live apart for approximately two months, as Percy attempts to escape debt collectors, a situation mirrored in Mary's later novel, Lodore (1835).
Eventually, Mary and Percy move in with Claire, a situation that soon becomes difficult for Mary to handle. Claire and Percy developed an increasingly more intimate relationship that was rumored to be sexual. Mary often felt that Percy focused more of his time with her stepsister than he did with her.
In the first of many tragedies to strike Mary in her life, she gives birth to a daughter prematurely in February 1815. This daughter, Clara, dies only a few days later. Much to Mary's pleasure, Claire moves to live in Devon a few months later, sparking an excitement in Mary about the possibility of a restored relationship with Percy. The couple travels, moves house, and have a second child early the following year (Garrett 26).
During her time in Devon, Claire begins writing to Lord Byron, in which she seeks advice on acting and writing, and mentions her familial connections. The two meet and immediately develop a sexual relationship (Garrett 28). In an attempt to be closer to Lord Byron (as she is now pregnant with his child) Claire plans a trip to Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with Mary and Percy.
Summer of 1816 in Lake Geneva
For a more detailed description of Mary's time in Switzerland, please see Summer of 1816.
Mary and Percy arrive in Switzerland with their infant son, William, early in May 1816, though Lord Byron and his physician, Dr. John Polidori, don't arrive until just before the close of the month. Mary, Percy, William, and Claire move into a cottage near Cologny, while Lord Byron rents Villa Diodati for himself and his physician (Garrett 31). The two groups came together often for writing and talking, and, as the summer progressed: story reading and telling.
Due to the incessant rainy weather, the groups found themselves indoors more frequently than desired. Inspired by Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German ghost stories, the group decided that each would write their own story. Famously produced from this meeting was Mary's first novel, Frankenstein, and Dr. Polidori's novella, The Vampyre.
However, the writing of Frankenstein presented several difficulties to Mary. Chiefly: she was lacking inspiration while attempting to assert her authorial prowess against two looming literary figures (Bennett 31). Inspiration finally presented itself to Mary is the form of a lucid dream, possibly prompted by conversations that Mary overheard between Percy and Lord Byron. In them, the topic of reanimating a corpse through electricity was discussed. In a passage from one of her journals, Mary discusses the famous dream that provided the basis for Frankenstein, which contains elements of Galvanism and reanimation:
"I saw - with shut eyes, but acute mental vision - I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw te hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion...".
The next morning, Mary excitedly informs Percy that she had "thought of a story" (Bennett 34).
Further inspiration for the novel comes from various moments during Mary's time in Switzerland. In
July, Mary and Percy take a six-day Alpine tour, during which they experience the sublime power of Mer de Glace on Mont Blanc. The opening frame narrative of Frankenstein is situated in an icy abyss that mirrors the landscape of their travel in Switzerland (Garrett 41).
Move to Bath and Marlow
By the end of the summer, Mary, Percy, and Claire left Switzerland and established themselves in the town of Bath. Here, they were able to escape further gossip and disapproval from Godwin over Claire's pregnancy. Percy spent much of the end of 1816 away from Mary, which allowed for a great amount of free time with which she continued her work on Frankenstein. Though Percy's abscence also meant that he and Claire couldn't continue their troubling relationship, it did mean that Mary had to spend more time with her step-sister. One of Mary's primary desires in her and Percy's search for a new home was "a garden and absentia Clariae" (Garrett 45).
In the midst of this, Fanny Godwin, Mary's half-sister, committed suicide in October. Just two months later, Harriet Shelley, too, killed herself, but this was not as tragic of a circumstance - her death allowed Mary and Percy to finally wed and to put an end to the gossip and rejection from Godwin. They married less than two weeks after hearing of Harriet's suicide (Garrett 46).
After their marriage, the Shelleys stayed with Percy's new friend, editor Leigh Hunt, in Hampstead. The following months were filled with frequent literary discussion and the opening of both old and new social circles: the newly married couple met poet John Keats, and reestablished contact with Godwin. In March of 1817, the couple moved to Marlow and leased Albion House, where Claire and her infant daughter Allegra Byron joined them weeks later (Garrett 47).
The time in Marlow was a productive one: Mary finished Frankenstein, though it was rejected twice before finally being published by Lackington company on January 1st, 1818. Percy assisted Mary in minor editing, and she helped him revise The Revolt of Islam (1818). She also began writing the second half of Six Weeks' Tour, and gave birth to her third child, a daughter named Clara (Garrett 48).
Once again, the Shelleys planned to travel away from England, and this time, chose Italy as their new home. Here, they could escape Percy's debt, coax Byron into action over his daughter Allegra, and improve Percy's health with a better climate.
Tragedy in Italy
Shortly after Mary's 21st birthday and her arrival in Italy, the positivity that had been defining her life during the previous months began to deteriorate. The incredibly hot climate and the rapidity with which the family travelled was too much for young Clara, and she dies in September 1818 (Garrett 52). Percy was also unable to convince Byron that Allegra ought to live with Clara, rendering the trip virtually futile. In February 1819, Percy registered the birth of Elena Adelaide Shelley, which may have lifted Mary's spirits, had the child been hers. The mystery around the true mother of young Elena still remains, which produced a flurry of gossip in Naples at the time, as well as the threat of blackmail by their servants who claimed to know the truth. Maternal speculation largely focused on Claire, but, as Percy stated: "Claire had no child [and so the rest must be false" (Garrett 54).
death of her infant Clara and the scandal surrounding Elena, Mary spent the rema
ining time in Italy among the ancient beauty, occasionally writing, drawing, and spending time with her child, William. It was not long before another tragedy struck the Shelleys: in May 1819, William fell ill with malaria, and died less than a week later. In a letter to Leigh Hunt's wife, Mary states "May you my dear Marianne never know what it is to lose two only & lovely children in one year... & then at last to be left childless & forever miserable" (Bennett 46). In the following months, Mary attempted to channel her grief into inspiration in the form of the novella, Matilda, This story, which follows the life of a young woman whose father falls in love with her, was declared "disgusting and detestable" by Mary's own father (Garrett 60). The novella remained unpublished until 1959, despite the theme of incest being, as Mary described, "like many other incorrect things a very poetical circumstance" (Garrett 59). One of the biggest reasons for the work remaining unpublished concerned Mary and Percy's newborn son, Percy Florence. The couple was worried that the potential new scandal of publishing the novella would result in Sir Timothy Shelley gaining custody of Percy Florence, as he had desired since the boy's birth (Bennett 52).
The next few years in Italy were more of a social time than a creative one. Once the Shelleys and Claire had settled into their new home in Pisa, Mary wrote the substantial, though unsuccessful historical novel, Valperga, published in 1823. At the same time, the Shelleys deve
loped a close relationship with Edward and Jane Williams, an unmarried couple who accepted Mary and Percy for their controversial past (Garrett 66). A figure from the past also returned - Lord Byron arrived in Pisa in early November, 1821. After the Shelleys helped to find him a new home, Percy, Edward, and Byron spent much of their time together, away from Mary and Jane (Garrett 70).
Eventually, the Williamses moved in with Mary and Percy, but such constant contact and Percy's growing (though not adulterous) interest in Jane created a tense relationship between the Shellys. Mary's stress most likely resulted in a traumatic miscarriage in which Percy rescued her from near death, while Percy's stress transformed itself into nightmares and hallucinations (Garrett 73). Amid the strained atmosphere, Percy took a trip with Edward to meet Leigh Hunt in Livorno, Italy. On July 8th, 1822, as Percy, Edward, and a boat-by headed back to Pisa, a storm and general lack of strong sailing skills resulted in the death of all three. By July 19th, Mary's overwhelming anxiety and hope for her husband's return came to a close, as the bodies of the three men washed ashore. The bodies were cremated and buried, though neither Jane nor Mary attended the burial (Garrett 74).
After their deaths, Mary, Percy Florence, and Jane moved to Genoa with the Hunts, and attempted to reform their lives. Mary hoped to earn money through the publication of her collaborative work with Percy, as well as through the editing of his older works and the writing of a biography, much in the same way Godwin did after Mary Wollstonecraft's death (Bennett 64). Mary also planned on receiving some financial support from Sir Timothy, though he did everything he could to prevent this. After failing to disprove the legality of the Shelleys marriage, he sought custody of Percy Florence instead. Mary refused, and, through an immense amount of legal work, eventually began receiving £100 each year (Bennett 65).
Return to England and Later Literary Career
Mary's return to England was not a happy one. Though she arrived in time to see Frankenstein adopted onto the stage in Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823), by Richard Brinsley Peake, she still felt a sense of isolation despite the success of her novel (Garrett 79). "She realized almost at once that a woman who meant to write professionally and live independently would be constantly at odds with an already 'Victorianized' English society" (Bennett 67). Continuing her work on Percy's poems, Mary published his Posthumous Poems in 1824, in an attempt to rework his legacy, by presenting him as less politically radical and more beautifully poetic (Garrett 83).
Mary's next novel, the post-apocalyptic and often auto-biographical The Last Man (1826), earned more money than most of her other novels, but received the most negative reviews to date (Garrett 84). Critics either rebuffed or ignored Mary's political goals in the novel, or saw it as a rejection of the entirety of Percy Shelley's form of Romanticism (Bennett 73).
Between 1826 and 1840, Mary wrote extensively, publishing three novels - The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1937) (Garrett 94). Additionally, Mary lent her skills to Cyrus Redding in his Poetical Works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats (1829), as well as Thomas Moore and his Letter and Journals of Lord Byron (1830) (Garrett 95). Arguably her biggest later achievements were the 1839 publications of Percy's Poetical Works and Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments. In Poetical Works, Mary included several authorial notes which detailed the life of Percy while simultaneously giving life back to Mary's former emotions. She often felt "torn to pieces by Memory" - some of grief, others of celebration (Garrett 106).
Between 1837 and 1840, Percy Florence attended public school, as was his father's wish, at Trinity College, Cambridge. Mary earned a substantial sum from Poetical Works, and Sir Timothy continued to contribute to his grandson's welfare (Garrett 110). Mary often suffered bouts of illness, and in an attempt to relieve them, mother and son travelled throughout Germany and Italy (Garrett 111). In 1844, Sir Timothy died, allowing Percy Florence the baronetcy. Although the title and the estate did not supply as much money as the Shelleys had hoped, Percy's marriage to Jane St. John and her fortune of £15000 helped to alleviate their financial troubles (Garrett 114).
Though Mary had finally secured the financial independence she had desired since Percy's death, she did not have many years to enjoy it. Four years later, in 1848, Mary suffered a "major attack", and spent the next two years attempting to recover in Nice with her son and daughter-in-law (Garrett 116). After several seizures and a weeklong coma, Mary died on February 1st, 1851, to a supposed brain tumor (Bennett 120). Mary was buried at St. Peter's Church, Bournemouth, and the graves of her parents were exhumed and transported to fulfill her wish of being buried alongside them. Years later, Percy Florence buried the ashes of his father's heart in his mother's tomb.
Bennett, Betty T. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. Print.
Garrett, Martin. Mary Shelley. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
Grylls, R. Glynn. Mary Shelley; a Biography. London: Oxford UP, 1938. Print.