Last reviewed: June 2018
August 30, 1797
February 1, 1851
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. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
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.