What do you know about Mary Shelley? Mention Frankenstein to just about anyone and a nearly universal image of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation springs to mind, but mention Mary Shelley and what likely springs to mind is, well, Frankenstein. So associated is she with her masterpiece that people don’t realize that she wrote five other novels, several travelogues, as well as a number of articles, essays, and biographies. Though most were well regarded, none ever gained the popularity and status of her first novel. But anyone who has penned a literary classic, while not yet out of her teens, that has endured for over 200 years, and is considered to have created the science fiction genre, deserves to be celebrated. That is why August 30, has been set aside as National Frankenstein Day to commemorate Mary Shelley’s birthday and her life.
Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in 1797 in London, she was the daughter of well-known and well -educated parents. Her father William Godwin was a radical philosopher and political writer. Mary Wollstonecraft was an early feminist who wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) which argues for the benefits and value of women being formally educated. Even though her mother died less than two weeks after her birth, her ideas influenced her daughter’s view of the world and a woman’s place in it. A few years after her mother’s death, her father remarried, but from the beginning, Mary and her stepmother did not have a good relationship. It didn’t help that her stepmother sent her own daughter away to be educated but denied Mary the same opportunity, ironic considering her mother’s position on the importance of education for women. However, thanks to her father’s substantial library and the many distinguished literary guests that frequented their home, she grew up surrounded by good literature and lively discussions about it, and in this environment, Mary was able to develop her own talents for creative writing.
One of the notable guests that visited Mary’s home was the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who first met Mary when she was only 14 and he was a married man. Not quite two years later, with his marriage failing, he met Mary again and the attraction was immediate and mutual. Before the summer was over, they had run off to the Continent together along with Mary’s stepsister, where they traveled around Europe for two years before returning to England. They married shortly after this in December 1816, after the suicide of Shelley’s wife. By then, they had had two children, one of whom died due to its premature birth. While in Europe, Shelley encouraged Mary’s writing and they often found themselves in the company of other writers. On one such occasion, a group of their friends had gathered at Lord Byron’s villa in Switzerland where they passed the time on a rainy day reading ghost stories, after which Lord Byron challenged each of them to write their own ghost story. The rest is history, as nineteen year old Mary produced a short story which she later expanded to become, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. It was published anonymously on New Year’s Day 1818. Though many assumed that Percy Shelley, who wrote the introduction, was the author, Mary took ownership in the next printing in 1822. She said that the inspiration for her story came from the idea put forth by Erasmus Darwin and Luigi Galvani, known as Galvanism, which stated it might be possible to bring a dead animal to life with the use of electric current.
Prior to the publication of Frankenstein, Mary documented her early travels with Percy Shelley in her travelogue, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817). She, in fact, spent much of the rest of her life living and traveling in Europe, going on to publish five more novels: Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826) widely considered to be the first post-apocalyptic novel, Perkin Warbeck (1830), the autobiographical Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837). Another novel, Mathilda was published posthumously. She also wrote several more travelogues, and contributed many biographical sketches for a series called Cabinet Cyclopedia, as well as writing articles and essays, many on Italian culture. However, in spite of all of these subsequent writings, she is most remembered for her first, Frankenstein.
Mary’s unconventional life was never dull but it had its share of tragedy and struggles. By the time she was 24, she had already suffered the suicide of a stepsister, the deaths of three of her young children, a miscarriage, and the drowning death of husband Percy Shelly in a boating accident. After this, she struggled financially and for a while, was forced to write to support herself and her surviving son, rather than for personal enjoyment. Eventually, fortunes were reversed and life became easier and she continued to write and travel most of her life. She died of brain cancer at age 53. If you would like to know more about Mary Shelley, her life and writings, visit the links below and check out the Library’s offerings.
Mary Shelley Biography
Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction
Mary Shelley: Meet The Teenage Girl Who Invented Science Fiction
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Poetry Foundation)
National Frankenstein Day
The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
A Few of the Books, eBooks, and Videos available from the Library:
Frankenstein, PR5397.F7 1994 (book)
Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text in Three Volumes, PR5397.F7 1984b
Mary Shelley, by Graham Allen, PR5398.A53 2008 (book)
Mary Shelley: ‘Frankenstein’ by Essaka Joshua – (eBook)
Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction – (streaming video)
Mary Shelley in her Times, by Betty T. Bennett (eBook)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, by Harold Bloom (eBook)
Science, gender and history: the fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood, by Suparna Banerjee (eBook)
Unbound – Scenes from the Life of Mary Shelley – (streaming video)