Although Mary Godwin Shelley lived in the restrictive Victorian era where a women’s place was in the home, tending to husband and children, she paved an unconventional, decidedly non-Victorian path through life. She established a substantive literary career while contending with the obstacles of single parenthood and depression.
The origins of Mary Godwin Shelley’s most famous work, Frankenstein, are well known. Uncharacteristic and unrelenting summer rain confined Mary and her friends – including her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron – indoors. To escape the boredom, they dreamt up a competition: each would try to outdo the other in the creation of a new ghost story. Inspired by a nightmare, Mary conceived of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. In the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she writes about the genesis,
“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 the hideous phantom 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.”
After Mary shared the start of her story with the group, they encouraged her to develop it further, and less than two years later, Mary published Frankenstein anonymously. At the time, many female writers published anonymously, as many believe that female writers would not be accepted by the public. In 1823, the second edition revealed Mary as the author, and critics panned the work. A rumor caught fire and spread that Percy, not Mary, wrote the book; this falsehood persists today, though contemporary scholars admit it is untrue and unjust. Percy Shelley may have helped with the editorial process, but this romantic gothic tale, often cited as an early work of science fiction, is the work of Mary’s imagination and is a product of her life experiences.
Mary Godwin Shelley was extraordinarily well educated for a 19th century woman. The daughter of two well-known philosophers: radical William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died of puerperal infection ten days after Mary was born, Mary and her older half-sister Fanny were raised by her father in a house of books and lively conversation with intellectuals often visiting Godwin and his family in his home. Under her father’s tutelage, Mary cultivated a life-long love of learning. As an adult, she continued a strict habit of daily study in Greek, Latin, and Italian languages, literature, art and music.
Mary Godwin Shelley endured tremendous tragedy and tumult that further connects her to her lonely, monstrous creation, Frankenstein, who questions beauty and the inherent goodness of human nature. At the age of sixteen, Mary ran away with a married man, Percy Shelley. Their life together was fraught with financial and emotional insecurities. Percy Shelley’s first wife Harriet committed suicide a year after Percy and Mary eloped, and in that same year, Mary’s half-sister Fanny also committed suicide. Mary felt deep sorrow for the death of her sister and tremendous guilt for the death of Harriet. Between 1817 and 1823, Mary gave birth to five children, but only one survived to adulthood. Her first two babies died soon after birth. The death of her third child, William, affectionately called Wilmouse, at the age of three send Mary into a serious depression. Though Mary and Percy’s fourth child – Percy Florence Shelley — did live to adulthood, Mary suffered a near fatal miscarriage only a short time before Percy Shelley died in a sail boat accident. In her journals, Mary blames her youthful transgressions for the tragedies of her adulthood. “Poor Harriet,” she writes in an 1839 journal entry about Percy Shelley’s first wife, “to whose sad fate I attribute so many of my own heavy sorrows as the atonement claimed by fate for her death.”
Mary battled depression with her pen. She is the author of seven novels — Frankenstein, Mathilda, Valperga, The Last Man, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Lodore, and Falkner – though none of them brought her acclaim with the critics or the financial security that she desperately sought. After Percy Shelley’s death, twenty-six year old Mary dedicated herself to publishing her late husband’s posthumous works, which elevated his public persona. In life, he ran from debtors and other responsibilities often traveling with a gang of poets who were labeled the “league of incest,” but in death, Mary Shelley made him into a romantic and Christian hero.
In her thirties, Mary extensively researched and wrote more than fifty detailed biographies of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French men for Dionysius Lardner’s Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men. Her contribution to these biographies is significant, though Lardner did not always credit Mary as an author. Modern scholars now recognize her writing as “uncluttered, clear, and forceful” and “compelling.” The final book that Mary Shelley published in 1844, a travelogue titled Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843, chronicled her trip with her son Percy Florence and his university friends.
Mary Shelley died at the age of fifty-three years of age with her son and his wife at her side. Just as she altered the persona of her deceased husband, her daughter-in-law destroyed many journal entries and letters she deemed too bohemian for proper society, and refashioned Mary Shelley into the Victorian ideal of a selfless daughter, wife, and mother. It wasn’t until the middle 20th century that Mary Shelley’s unconventional life became more widely known, and scholars began reexamining her work, praising it as sophisticated, philosophical, artful, and important. Today, Frankenstein is widely read and studied by high-school and college literature students.
Written for Sheroes of History by Kristen LePine. Kristen is the co-founder of Historic Heroines. An accomplished writer, educator and mother, Kristen is often inspired by history and current events. She wrote about Nellie Bly and mental health care in CRACKED POTS, a play commissioned by Theatre J in Washington DC. Currently she is working on a historical novel set in ancient Sparta.
Visit her at www.kristenlepine.com
You can read Kristen’s review of Charlotte Gordon’s dual biography about Mary Godwin Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, Romantic Outlaws: the Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley here.
Find out more…
If you’ve never read it go and grab a copy of Frankenstein (which is free for many e-readers) and read Mary’s most famous work. If you prefer to listen to an audio book version you’ll find a free on here.
Watch this video where comdien Mark Steel gives a great introduction to Mary’s life: