Biography of Mary Shelley #
1797 - 1851
Mary Godwin was born on August 30, 1797 in London to Mary Wollstonecraft (an early feminist writer) and William Godwin (also a writer on social and political issues).
Mary’s mother died 11 days after giving birth to her, one of the many deaths that were to affect her life. Her father’s devastation at the death of his wife may have influenced the many deaths related in Frankenstein.
When her father remarried, she failed to bond with her step mother, instead forming a adulating attachment to her father though he remained emotionally cool and distant. He did inspire her intellectually “To be something great and good” and she developed as a writer from the early age of ten, writing Frankenstein when she was 19.
Sylvana Tomaselli—a respected Wollstonecraft scholar, writes authoritatively.
Both Mary Wollstonecraft, darling of twentieth-century feminists, and her visionary daughter Mary Shelley continue to influence us today.
Here are some of Wollstonecraft’s ideas for a social revolution published in her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
• All schools shall be coeducational, with no fees, plenty of outdoor exercise for pupils, and emphasis placed on both learning a foreign language and treating animals with kindness (in order to reduce in children any disposition toward violent behavior).
• There shall be equality of partners in cohabiting relationships and equal division of legacies among family heirs. No special favors granted to firstborn sons.
• Every woman shall aspire to earn her own living (“the true definition of independence”) rather than employing sexual guile and physical appearance to attract a wealthy lover or spouse.
Few, if any, mother–daughter pairs compare to the glowing diptych presented by Wollstonecraft and her second daughter, Mary Godwin, better known by her husband Percy’s surname as Mary Shelley.
Wollstonecraft, who died in the late summer of 1797 at the age of thirty–eight, just eleven days after giving birth to Mary, offered her dazzled and often enraged contemporaries a vision of liberated womanhood that would help to make her the darling of twentieth–century feminists.
Mary Wollstonecraft returned to London in 1787 to work as a commentator, editorial assistant, and freelance translator for Joseph Johnson, a bookseller and the publisher of the well–regarded Analytical Review. The first woman to earn a steady living by her pen—Johnson paid her a monthly retainer—she became one of the best–informed (as well as one of the most opinionated) journalists of her outspoken times. Her trenchant views on a remarkable range of subjects provide Tomaselli with rich pickings.
Excerpts from Feb.25, 2021 Miranda Seymour NYBR.
Mary Shelley’s home was visited frequently by other famous writers such as Hazlett, Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Percy Shelley. She and her step sisters hid behind the sofa one night to listen to Coleridge recite The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Her novel Frankenstein has many parallels to this poem.
Percy Shelley, married with two children, nevertheless fell madly in love with Mary and at 16 she eloped to Europe with him. We have to remember that this was during the time of the Napoleonic Wars (1813) and so travelling in Europe would not have been easy.
In 1816, the couple were living in Geneva with Lord Byron who one night issued a challenge for each of them writing a gothic (ghost) story.
Mary claims the inspiration for her story came from a vision she had during a dream. Her story was the only one completed and has become one of the most famous Gothic novels of all time.
Turmoil reigned supreme in her complicated blended family, when Mary’s stepsister, Claire, bore Byron’s illegitimate baby secretly in Bath; her half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide with an opium overdose in a Welsh hotel; and Percy Shelley’s legal but abandoned wife, Harriet Shelley, “being far advanced in pregnancy”, committed suicide by throwing herself into the Serpentine.
Tragedy continued to plague Mary’s life when her husband Percy Shelley died in a boating accident after only six years of marriage. As well Bryon died in Greece and of the four children she bore, only one survived. She died at the early age of 54.
The following is an excerpt from a: Book Review of the New York Times: (February 2013)
There seems little doubt that Mary Shelley was aware of this wonderfully tangled knot of science and philosophy. Born in 1797, she was the child of two well-known intellectuals, the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (who died shortly after her daughter’s birth) and the political philosopher William Godwin. And her intimate circle, including her poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was fascinated by such ideas. Shelley, in fact, experimented with galvanism himself; as a student at Oxford University, he crammed his rooms with electrical machines, air pumps, glass containers, the very stuff of an archetypal mad scientist. Friends described the young scholar cranking up the current to a point that his “long wild locks bristled and stood on end.”
Shelley and Mary Godwin had notoriously eloped in 1814, when he was still married and she was not quite 17. Believing they would have her father’s blessing, the couple were astounded to find out he had banished her from his house forever.
Accompanied by Godwin’s stepsister, Claire, they fled to Continental Europe and largely remained there, even after Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, committed suicide and they were able to wed and she was reunited with her father.
It was during this period of transience that they visited Lord Byron, (George Gordon) in Switzerland. It was the summer of 1816, cold and gray because of the fallout from a massive volcano eruption in Indonesia. The weather drove the group indoors, where Byron proposed a ghost story competition, and in response Mary Godwin — she married Shelley later that year — invented the story of Dr. Frankenstein.
The young author credited a troubling dream of a scientist and his man-made monster as inspiration for the tale. But it’s the other inspirations that give Montillo’s book its incisive moments, such as when she notes the similarities between Victor Frankenstein and Percy Shelley: “Mary even chose the name Victor as a homage to Percy, who had used that name in his youth because he felt it showed power and strength.”
Would Percy have felt honored by this tribute? Frankenstein is a coward of a scientist, repulsed by what he’s created, and his abandonment of the monster leads to a tragically murderous conclusion.
Of course, neither of the Shelleys is particularly admirable in Montillo’s telling. Her portrait of the creator of “Frankenstein” and her short-lived marriage (Percy Shelley died in a boating accident in 1822) is a study of self-absorbed neurotics. There’s more affection here — or perhaps, more interest — in the real-life Dr. Frankensteins, their ethically dubious choices and their attempts to explain the workings of mind and soul.
For it’s this impulse that gives Mary Shelley’s own book its enduring power. The moment Frankenstein’s yellow-eyed monster blinks to life is also the beginning of a renewed quest to understand what that life actually means, what makes human existence something more than the low hum of an electrical connection. As Montillo reminds us, Shelley’s story, written almost 200 years ago, raises questions worth exploring today because we’re still figuring out the answers.
Deborah Blum, author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook.”
For a further biographical material go to:
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous poem is:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear –
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'