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Bookish Birthdays: Mary Shelley

30th Aug 2011

Mary_Shelley
Two hundred and fourteen years ago today, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, gave birth to a daughter she named for herself.

 

Eleven days later she was dead. Thus the tone was set for the life of the girl who would grow up to write one of the most important works of English literature; Frankenstein.

Not only was Mary Shelley the daughter of the author of a significant work in the modern Western feminist canon in Wollstonecraft, but her father, William Godwin, was also a prominent philosopher and advocate for women’s’ rights.

Consequently, Mary Shelley was raised in an environment of liberal intellectualism, and taught from an early age to debate passionately and intelligently.

Godwin’s political writings were a strong influence on the young radical poet Percy Shelley, to the extent that Shelley assisted Godwin financially and became a regular visitor at the family home.

The pair met secretly at her mother’s grave where, in an act of teen gothicness that could put Stephanie Meyer to shame, they also consummated their romance.In spite of his young wife Harriet and her pregnancy, Shelley developed a romantic attachment to Mary, who was only seventeen at the time.

The pair met secretly at her mother’s grave where, in an act of teen gothicness that could put Stephanie Meyer to shame, they also consummated their romance.

The couple journeyed to France in the company of Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who would later become the mistress of Mr Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know himself, Lord Byron. The trip was followed by pregnancy, poverty, separation and scandal, and Mary’s first child died shortly after birth, prompting a deep depression.

In 1816, the couple travelled with their new child, nicknamed Willmouse, and friends, to Geneva. Wet weather had the group spend much of the summer in Byron’s villa, discussing science and reading ghost stories. The waking dream these circumstances brought about in Mary inspired her to write what would later become her masterwork.

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus is now considered one of the key works of gothic fiction and often a founding work of science fiction, with its dark imaginings of the ramifications of human beings playing God.

The philosophies and ideologies of Frankenstein continue to be of interest to literary academics, many of whom are intrigued by the author’s apparent disdain for scientific advancement and her seemingly weak female characters, given her long-held personal philosophies.

Following Harriet’s tragic suicide, Mary and Percy married. Following the birth of their daughter and the publication of Frankenstein in 1818, the pair left for Italy, where both children died, prompting Mary to take solace in her writing.

There followed several years of creative passion and romantic intrigue, plus the birth of the couple’s only surviving child, Percy Florence. On the 8th of July, 1822, Percy Shelley drowned in a boating accident and Mary Shelley returned to England, writing and publishing to support her son.

Although she enjoyed the attention and friendship of many, she never fully recovered from the death of Percy and never remarried. Following her death from a suspected brain tumour at the age of 53, her son discovered the locks of her dead children’s hair and the remains of Percy’s heart wrapped in a page of his poetry. A fitting memento of the grandmother of gothic.

Comments

  • Jane Bradley says:

    “The pair met secretly at her mother’s grave where, in an act of teen gothicness that could put Stephanie Meyer to shame, they also consummated their romance.”

    Loving this feature (especially the gratuitous mention of dastardly literary heartthrob Lord Byron)! I studied Frankenstein at school, so I knew the story of Frankenstein being based on nightmares she had while staying at villa, but I never realised that her real life was so gothic and ghoulish too…