Mary Shelley: Writer of Frankenstein

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

Mary Shelley, author of ''Frankenstein'', is a remarkable figure in literary history. She lived an unconventional life full of success and sorrow in the midst of other talented individuals. Before she turned 20, she created an enduring work that launched an entirely new genre of fiction.

Mary Shelley's Childhood

Mary Shelley was born in England in 1797 to William Godwin, a famous philosopher and political writer, and Mary Wollstonecraft, a famous feminist writer and activist. Mary Wollstonecraft died eleven days after Mary Shelley's birth. There is some question by historians as to whether Godwin and Wollstonecraft were legally married, as neither were particular believers in the institution and Wollstonecraft unashamedly had several relationships before meeting Godwin. She even had her first daughter, Fanny Imlay, out of wedlock and brought her into the Wollstonecraft Godwin family, where Fanny remained even after Wollstonecraft's death.

In 1801, William Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont, who brought her own two children into the family. The couple also had a son together later. The children in the Godwin household were educated at home and had an extensive and remarkable schooling which included introduction to, and interaction with, the rising literary and philosophical celebrities of England. Samuel Coleridge (who recited Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Mary in the family sitting room) and two of her father's close friends, Humphry Davy and William Nicholson (both early experimenters in galvanic electricity, or early batteries) were frequent guests at the house. Sociopolitical issues and philosophy were also frequent topics of conversation.

Mary Meets Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the summer of 1812, Mary is sent to stay with family in Scotland after it becomes clear she and her stepmother do not get along well. Despite having had a poem published already via the family's publishing press, Mary does not publish anything meaningful until much later in her teen years. In 1814, after a subsequent stay with family friends in Scotland, she returns home to England and meets Percy Bysshe Shelley, an admirer of her father's. Shelley is married to another woman at this time, with whom he already has one child and another on the way. Mary and Percy fall madly in love and run away together to continental Europe along with Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont.. Mary is sixteen. She becomes pregnant very quickly, and Godwin refuses to have anything to do with Mary or with his former student Percy for almost three years.

Their elopement doesn't last long, however, and within months they return to England and live apart, Percy hiding from his creditors, and Mary outcast, poor, and pregnant. She gives birth to a daughter two months early. The baby does not live more than a few weeks. By the next year, 1816, she has given birth to their second child, and her stepsister Claire has become the mistress of Lord Byron.

Mary Shelley's Years of Success and Sorrow

1816 becomes a very busy and important year for Mary. Not only does she give birth to her son William, she goes on holiday to Switzerland with Percy, her stepsister Claire, Lord Byron, and his physician John Polidori. The weather is terrible and, trapped in the house, a story-writing game is suggested. They challenge one another to write a horror story and, at age 19, Mary writes the first draft of what will become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The story is based on her knowledge not only of galvanic electricity, but also on contemporary rumors about corpse revival in medical schools, various urban legends, and basic human fears. Shelley draws on her education in sociopolitical and philosophical ideologies, learned literally at her father's knee, to create the story of Frankenstein, infusing horror and science fiction with moral and ideological questions about the nature of man and the meaning of existence. With Frankenstein, Shelley pioneers the genre of science fiction, using contemporary scientific theories and knowledge in fantastical ways to create the plot and story arc of the mad scientist and his creation.

Later in 1816, Mary's older half sister Fanny kills herself. Two months later, Percy Shelley's wife kills herself while pregnant with their third child. Percy and Mary marry before the month is over.

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