Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, England. 1818
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born into a famous literary family, moved amongst a circle of poetic greats and married one of the foremost writers of the era and, in an age when women were generally marginalized, she cast them all into the shadows with her famous novel Frankenstein.
Shelley’s Gothic horror novel was one of the first best sellers by a woman author, is still widely read today and has been the basis for numerous film and stage adaptations. Blending Romantic era philosophical questions about natural perfection and beauty with horror and social criticism, the novel confronts the issues posed by the new Industrial Revolution and delves into the nature of man and the relentless progress of science and technology and spawns a new movement – the Gothic movement.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in 1797 in London, England, the second daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft the noted feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, (another book on the Great Books List) and William Godwin a philosopher and author of An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice. Mary’s mother died soon after her birth. Her father remarried and the young Mary would endure years of misery in the home of her cruel step mother and remote father.
As was common at the time, she was educated at home by tutors. She studied the work of her parents as well as learning Latin, French, and Italian. She was also introduced to the members of her parent’s circle; writers such as William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb.
At the age of sixteen Mary met Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley had become a regular visitor to the household as he discussed atheism and politics with William Godwin. Shelley was unhappily married to Harriet Westbrook and soon found himself falling in love with the young Mary who was his intellectual equal and shared some although not all of his enlightened views. In spite of her father’s strict warnings, Mary and Shelley soon consummated an affair and eloped (along with her half-sister Claire) to France in 1814.
Mary, Clair and Shelley returned to London when it was discovered Mary was pregnant. A daughter was born but died soon after birth. Another pregnancy resulted in the birth of a boy, William and the trio of Mary, Claire and Percy set off with child in tow to France Germany and eventually to Switzerland to stay with the poet Lord Byron.
The three spent the summer of 1816 with Byron at a lakeside house in Geneva sailing the lake and discussing politics and poetry. Claire and Byron almost immediately began an affair. A fireside game of telling ghost and horror stories became the genesis for Mary’s idea for a novel and she began work on A Modern Prometheus.
Back in London, the Shelley’s were confronted with the news that Harriet had drowned herself in the Serpentine River in Hyde Park. While this was a great shock it did free Mary and Percy to marry. In December 1816, the two were married and were reconciled with their families. Another daughter was born in 1817, but she too died shortly thereafter.
Mary Shelly had begun Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus while just 18 years of age. She continued to work on it for another year and it was accepted for publication in 1818. While reviews were mixed it was a modest success. The novel was published anonymously; many reviewers, including Sir Walter Scott, just assumed that Percy Shelley had written it. A second version was published under Mary’s name in 1823. A revised version published by a major publisher in 1831 saw a much wider audience and became a best seller.
The celebrated couple also inherited a large sum of money from Percy’s grandfather and the family set off for Italy. The two moved between Venice, Milan, Rome and Florence with Byron and Claire. While Percy cemented his fame as a poet, Mary dealt with tending to her family. Mary gave birth to two children one of whom died. Their three year old son also died during this period.
In 1822, Mary endured more tragedy. A miscarriage almost killed her and shortly after Percy was killed in a boating accident. Distraught, Mary returned to England with her surviving child and set herself the task or collecting and publishing her late husband’s poems.
Mary continued work on her own novels including Valperga, published in 1823, and wrote numerous short stories, essays and poems. She was also a regular contributor to journals and magazines such as London Magazine and the Westminster Review. Another novel, The Last Man was published in 1826 and was another success. Other works to follow include; Perkin Warbeck (1830), Ledore (1835), Falkner (1837), and Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844).
Mary Shelley finally began to succumb to illnesses that plagued her later life and her writing career ended. She died at her home in 1851 aged just 54.
Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus is a complex novel. While the plot line has now become cliché and widely spoofed, the novel still retains its power and imagery. It is worth noting that the story is actually quite different than the plots are familiar in film versions.
On the surface a simple horror story about a doctor, Victor Frankenstein, who seeks to create life and ends up creating a monster whom he first flees from and then is forced to track down and attempt to destroy, the novel is a meditation on philosophical questions like perfection and beauty, man’s attempts to subvert or control nature and the rise of technology and industrialism in the face of nature.
The genesis of the story is the stuff of legend itself. Byron, Percy and Mary Shelly, Claire and a visiting friend John Polidori, are sitting around an evening fire in the ‘Year Without a Summer,’ a year where summer didn’t appear due to the effects of a volcanic eruption; a summer of storms and violent weather. Byron suggests everyone tell a horror story. Mary weaves a tale that mixes feverish images from a nightmare she had the night before with discussions Byron and Shelly had been having about Galvinism and the reanimation of dead bodies and the story of Frankenstein is born.
Byron told a story he had heard while traveling the Balkans about an undead monster that stalked people by night. Polidori took that story and turned it into his novel The Vampyre, which was a best seller in 1819 and gave birth to the gothic novel vampire genre which found its apex in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In some ways, both Frankenstein and Dracula were born out of one stormy, feverish and drunken evening in Geneva.
While it the story was born from a nightmare, the novel is a very complex work rife with allusions to the work of Ovid, Coleridge, Milton and Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft and father William Godwin. The novel is also deeply personal with many references to loneliness and loss.