Authors: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist

August 30, 1797

London, England

February 1, 1851

London, England


Authorship of Frankenstein was not the only claim to distinction possessed by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The daughter of a radical philosopher and an early feminist and the wife of an unconventional genius, she early came to know life as something of a roller coaster. Her writing of the masterpiece of fictional horror was only one of the important incidents in an existence heavily underscored with drama. {$I[AN]9810000012} {$I[A]Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft} {$I[tim]1797;Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft}

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

(Library of Congress)

The future novelist was born in London on August 30, 1797, the child of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Bereft of her mother almost immediately, she was raised in a complex family that included a stepmother, a stepbrother, a stepsister, a half brother, and a half sister. As Mary Godwin grew up, she increasingly idolized her dead mother, for whose loss she was inclined to blame herself. The depth of this feeling was one of the important factors in her girlhood, the other being the atmosphere of intellectual discussion and debate that enveloped her father and his many visitors.

One of these visitors, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a twenty-one-year-old youth whose accomplishments had made quite an impression upon William Godwin. The impression darkened when, a month before her seventeenth birthday, his daughter eloped with Shelley, despite the fact that he was already married. More than two years passed before the suicide of Harriet Shelley allowed Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin to legalize their union. All evidence available points to a happy marriage, though Mary, whose mind was clear and penetrating, experienced times of bafflement in dealing with the unpredictable Shelley. On the other hand, she sometimes succumbed to periods of melancholy, which the death of her first three children did much to deepen.

Frankenstein was written in the Shelleys’ first Italian days, during their initial companionship with George Gordon, Lord Byron. It is a remarkable achievement, especially for a woman of twenty, and it undoubtedly owes much of its sustained quality to the intellectual stimulation provided by the Shelley circle. The author’s only novel to attain lasting fame, it is an appealing combination of strangeness and reality, skillful in its plot structure and enlivened by sharp character contrasts. Published in 1818, Frankenstein was an immediate sensation. Its repeated dramatizations have given its title the familiarity of a household word.

Percy Shelley’s drowning on July 8, 1922, radically changed Mary Shelley’s life. She faced immediate penury because her husband’s annuity ceased with his death, and she could not inherit his estate until the death of her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, who also made it clear that he would not support his grandson, Percy Florence, unless Mary gave him up to guardians in England. Returning to England in August 1823, Mary Shelley was determined to support herself, her father, and her son by her literary output. During this prolific period in her life, she wrote six novels and revised her first novel, Frankenstein; authored two dramas; penned numerous short stories, poems, and semifictional essays; translated and adapted several foreign works; published travel works, biographies, articles, and reviews; and edited Percy Shelley’s poetical and prose works. Forbidden by Sir Timothy Shelley to write a biography of her late husband, she broke new critical ground in her editions by including pertinent biographical information about the composition of Shelley’s works, thus integrating his life and his works. Most of her works, especially her novels, did not receive the critical or popular acclaim of Frankenstein. Nevertheless, The Last Man is interesting for its expression of Mary Shelley’s liberal social and political views, and Lodore has the fascination of a veiled autobiography.

Though Mary Shelley, without compromising her own ideals, sought acceptance in the society of the day, she refused various offers of marriage. Among her suitors were Percy Shelley’s friend Edward John Trelawny, John Howard Payne, and, reportedly, Washington Irving. After the death of Sir Timothy Shelley in 1844, her financial situation became somewhat easier. One of the disappointments of her later years was the discovery that she lacked the strength to complete a long-planned biography of her husband. She died on February 1, 1851, at the age of fifty-three, and was buried at Bournemouth, Dorset, England.

Author Works Long Fiction: Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818 Valperga: Or, The Life of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, 1823 The Last Man, 1826 The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, 1830 Lodore, 1835 Falkner, 1837 Mathilda, 1959 Short Fiction: Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories, 1976 Drama: Proserpine, pb. 1922 Midas, pb. 1922 Nonfiction: History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, 1817 (with Percy Bysshe Shelley) Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia, 1838 (numbers 63, 71, 96) Rambles in Germany and Italy, 1844 The Letters of Mary Shelley, 1980 (2 volumes; Betty T. Bennett, editor) Bibliography Allen, Graham. Mary Shelley. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. This book challenges the notion that Shelley’s only well-written work was Frankenstein, and that Percy Bysshe Shelley ghostwrote her novels. Graham makes a convincing argument for Shelley as a great novelist in her own right. Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. Baldick analyzes the structure of modern myth as it has adapted and misread Shelley’s novel until the film version of 1931. Focuses on Frankenstein as itself a monster, which is assembled, speaks, and escapes like its protagonist. Includes footnotes, five illustrations, an appendix summarizing the novel’s plot, and an index. Bennett, Betty T., and Stuart Curran, eds. Mary Shelley in Her Times. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. An examination of Shelley in the full context of her life and times; delves into all her writings rather than concentrating on her best-known novel. Fisch, Audrey A., Anne K. Mellor, and Esther H. Schor, eds. The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. This is a valuable collection of critical essays that illuminate Shelley’s major and less well-known works. The essays by Corbett, Favret, Paley, and Schor are particularly recommended. Forry, Steven Earl. Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of “Frankenstein” from Mary Shelley to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Examines the influence of Shelley’s novel on the history of theater and cinema from 1832 to 1930. Provides the texts of seven dramatic adaptations of Frankenstein. Contains thirty-one illustrations, a list of ninety-six dramatizations from 1821 to 1986, an appendix with the music from Vampire’s Victim (1887), a bibliography, and an index. Garrett, Martin. Mary Shelley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. This text provides a general overview for young-adult readers new to Shelley's work, discusses Shelley's early, formative years, and includes a rich collection of illustrations, with excerpts from diaries and letters. Part of the British Library Writers' Lives series. Hoobler, Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler. The Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankenstein. New York: Little Brown, 2006. A chronicle of Mary Shelley’s short marriage to Percy Shelley and how the themes of Frankenstein corresponded to her life. Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. London: Methuen, 1988. Argues against trends of analysis which subordinate Shelley to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Extends feminist and psychoanalytic criticism of Frankenstein to include all of Shelley’s life and work, arguing that her stories are creations of the family she never enjoyed. Includes eight illustrative plates, a chronology, ample notes, a bibliography, and an index. Morrison, Lucy, and Staci Stone. A Mary Shelley Encyclopedia. Greenwood, 2003. A thorough, encyclopedic reference to Shelley's life and works. St. Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. A useful introduction to the radical tradition that shaped Shelley’s life and career. Although the book provides a great deal more information on William Godwin than on the other principals, his life and activities provide the context for his daughter’s development as a writer. Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. New York: Grove Press, 2001. A biography of the novelist that sheds much of the mythology that has hung around her since her time. Smith, Johanna M. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1996. This good introductory volume on Shelley opens with a chapter devoted to her biography, then divides her works into categories. More descriptive than analytical, this is an accessible overview of Shelley’s career. Includes selected bibliography. Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. London: Constable, 1988. A revision of Spark’s Child of Light (1951) which reassesses the view that Shelley craved respectability after her husband’s death. Spark skillfully narrates Shelley’s life and then analyzes her writings. Contains eight pages of illustrations, a selected bibliography, and an index. Sunstein, Emily. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Boston: Little, Brown. 1989. Sunstein’s book is the most complete biography of Shelley. The appendix provides detailed listings of works definitively identified as Shelley’s as well as works that might be attributed to her; chapter notes explicitly identify key primary sources of information about Shelley’s life and work.

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