Meet the Author: Mary Shelley

While Mary Shelley may not be a household name, for those who have found themselves wandering within the world of classic literature, the story of how Mary came to write her literary masterpiece is almost as legendary as the novel. Perhaps it is because of her young age or the real-life Gothic setting that she found herself in whilst working on the tale. Or perhaps it is because of the other famous names that crop up in the telling of it all. Whatever the reason, Mary's own personal story has become one of great interest over the years. So, let's take a look at the woman who created and unleashed upon the world, Frankenstein.  

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) was born on August 30, 1797, to philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. While her father's focus remained largely in the political world, her mother was a remarkably progressive feminist, one of the first, in fact. Her most well-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was revolutionary. Within its pages she argued that women were not intellectually inferior to men, a horrible discrimination that was considered fact at the time. 
Mary Wollstonecraft

Women were considered to be incapable of possessing and processing knowledge on the same level as men. They were considered weak and it was accepted that if a woman were to be given the same education as a man, it would either destroy her or corrupt her to the point of madness. For Wollstonecraft to suggest that women were, in fact, perfectly capable and worthy of being educated on the same level as men, was shocking but also surprisingly well received by the public.

However, several years after her early death, her reputation, along with the reception of her work, would be destroyed and would remain destroyed for over a century after her husband published a memoir of her life in which he revealed that Wollstonecraft had multiple affairs during her life, including one that produced a child named Fanny Imlay. Because of her bad reputation, her work went largely unrecognized until the early 20th century when it became a staple for the women's suffrage movement.

Mary Wollstonecraft's work would become increasingly important in the life of her daughter by the same name, Mary, though she would not live to see it. Within a month of Mary's birth, her mother would pass away, leaving Mary to be raised by her father. Despite often being in tremendous debt, Mary's father gave her an excellent and advanced education, even writing in one of his letters to a friend that he hoped that she would one day become a philosopher. This education and liberal upbringing, of course, must have played no small part in what she would go on to do with her own writing.

Her life was first upset, however, when her father remarried. With his new wife, Godwin was able to establish his own publishing house and book shop. But it would be a continual fight to keep themselves in business. And, unable to form an amiable relationship with Mary, Godwin's new wife became a sort of evil stepmother figure to Mary.

By 1814, at the age of 16, Mary had fallen in love with one her father's acquaintances, the radical poet and philosopher, Percy Shelley. Percy was 21 at the time and married, but they began meeting secretly at her mother's grave for frequent rendezvous. He would soon declare love for her during one of these meetings and it is even gossiped that Mary lost her virginity to him at her mother's gravesite.

Percy was a remarkable talent in the writing world and was also set to inherit a substantial sum. But
Percy Shelley

Godwin could not approve of such a scandal for his daughter. Upon finding that her father disapproved of the match despite the fact that, in Mary's eye, Percy seemed to represent all of the philosophical ideals that she had been raised on, they ran away together taking with them Mary's stepsister and leaving behind Percy's now pregnant wife. This led to a deep estrangement from her father and it would be years before they reconciled. Percy was also cut off from his family's fortune because of the scandal and would only come by money again once his grandfather had died.

The traveling party went through France and into Switzerland, at times even going by foot, until they ran out of money and, with no other choice, returned to England. During their time away, however, Mary also became pregnant with her first child. She would go on to lose her first born from complications of it being born prematurely, an event that affected her deeply. The relationship between Mary and Percy proved to be a unique one given the time period, but not entirely unexpected given Mary's own mother's philosophies on marriage. Percy was known to have several lovers, including Mary's stepsister, and he even encouraged Mary to take up with several of his friends, though there is no evidence that she did. 

After the birth of Mary's second child in 1816, the family traveled together, once again with Mary's stepsister, to Geneva. They were to spend the summer with legendary poet Lord Byron, who by now had also had an affair with Mary's stepsister and she was carrying his child. It was during this summer that the weather was particularly bleak. In fact, 1816 is known as the Year Without Summer. Sunlight was minimal and rain frequent, causing the gathering of friends to spend much of their time indoors. 
Lord Byron

As the story goes, through their boredom, it was suggested that the guests each work on a ghost story to entertain each other. Embarrassed, Mary struggled to come up with anything for some time. Then, one night, while the group discussed the principles of life, the pondering came to her as to whether a corpse could be reanimated. She had harbored a longing all of her life to be able to meet the mother that had inspired her so and with the recent loss of a child, the idea of being able to bring people back to life interested her deeply. 

The thought stuck with her as they retired to bed and she became unable to sleep due to the horrifying visions that accompanied her imaginings.

The next day she began work on what would become Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Though she would not complete her work during her stay with Lord Byron, it was along the shores of Lake Geneva that the first words were put to paper. Mary was only 18 years old.    

It is interesting to note that Lord Byron's party also included John William Polidori, whose own ghost story was called The Vampyre and would eventually become the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Unfortunately for Polidori, his story found itself being published without his permission and attributed to Lord Byron. Eventually, Lord Byron would confirm that the work had been Polidori's and he received recognition for his writing, but he died in 1821 at the age of 25, having fallen into a severe depression. While many claim that he died by suicide, the official coroner's report cites natural causes. 

After having left Lord Byron and returning home, Mary continued work on Frankenstein. And after a few years and with her husband's encouragement, it would be published in 1818, when Mary was no more than 21 years of age. 
Original etching for the 1831 edition.

Sadly, the first edition of Frankenstein was not attributed to Mary Shelley and was instead published anonymously. It contained an introduction by Percy which led the public to assume that the novel had been his creation entirely. As the subject matter of the tale alone proved to be quite controversial, the idea that it had been written by a woman, was down right scandalous. But while the novel was hailed by a few as a work of genius, including Mary's father, it gained no immediate attention until several years later when it was turned into a stage production. In 1823, the first edition attributing the work to Mary was released and in 1831, she heavily revised the writing and the first popular edition of the novel became available. It is the 1831 edition that is most common today, but the original writing is still available and is increasing in popularity. 

The rest of Mary's life was marred by frequent tragedy. Even before the publication of Frankenstein, following their return home from Geneva, the year 1816 saw both Mary's half-sister, Fanny, and Percy's first wife who he was still married to, commit suicide within several months of each other. It was then that Mary and Percy finally married, an event that finally brought Mary back together with her father. But debt continued to plague Mary and Percy even after Frankenstein's publication. Out of a fear that they would lose custody of their children - Mary having given birth to her third child by this point - they left England once again for Italy. But Italy would prove even more tragic for Mary as both of her children would die there from illnesses less than a year apart. As with the loss of her first child, she fell into a deep depression that only lifted upon the birth of her fourth child, Percy Florence, who would be her only child to reach adulthood. 

The year 1822, saw Mary pregnant again, but she nearly died during a miscarriage and only survived because Percy placed her in an ice bath to slow her bleeding. A month later Percy also died in a boating accident, leaving Mary shattered. She insisted on remaining independent, however. After a brief stay with her father, she lived on a small income from Percy's family, that was only made available to her because of her son, who was set to inherit what would have been Percy's fortune. Mary would go on to write several more novels, including the tale of a man who eventually commits suicide after having years of incestuous thoughts about his own daughter, and also worked as an editor. She spent much of her time promoting Percy's work which continued to gain popularity. She died in 1851 from a suspected brain tumor. 

Despite Mary's own contributions to the literary world, Mary spent most of her life and many years following her death being largely recognized, not for her own work, but first and foremost as the wife of Percy Shelley and the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. It wasn't until the 1970's that Mary truly began to be credited for her literary prowess. But even still, there is an increasing trend of trying to attribute more credit for Frankenstein to Percy and label it as a collaboration between the couple. Most evidence suggests, however, that he did little more than help edit the work and that Frankenstein was Mary's own creation.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

In the end, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a remarkable woman that lived through many hardships and was able to perfectly capture her anguish with the written word. Countless readers have sympathized with the sorrow of her characters and her works have inspired generations. What began as a fun activity for a few bored friends, brought the world a new genre of writing and would create one of the most recognizable figures in literary and pop culture history. Mary Shelley is truly a literary icon and is sure to remain as such, far into the future.

A recent film was created about Mary Shelley's life featuring Elle Fanning. It is currently available on Hulu. While everything shown in the film is not historically accurate, it is about as good as can be hoped for by a Hollywood film and certainly captures the darkness within Mary's life that helped to inspire her Gothic creation.


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