Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)
Stage Name: Shuffler Shelley
A little over 200 years ago, Mary Shelley created Dr. Victor Frankenstein who created a monster that would change 10th grade English class syllabi forever. Though Dr. Frankenstein learns that he must be held accountable for his decisions and experiments, and the monster learns that he’s deserving of happiness just like everyone else, Mary Shelley ultimately lived a troubled life fraught with sadness, heartbreak and unacceptance. However through her never ending journey through the valley of the shadow of death, she wrote things like:
Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.
Frankenstein, You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity (of being created by a scientist) comes once in a lifetime.
Kidding. That was Eminem circa 2002.
Mary’s words circa 1818 were more like: Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.
She was a dope writer! And she altered the literary landscape for women all over the world. So this week, we’re learning about an old English lass named Mary Shelley who wrote her famed novel Frankenstein (or, The Modern Prometheus) on a whim one fateful dark and stormy night. Buckle in. Nearly everyone in this story has one of two names. And her tunes will have you in a “Chamber of Reflection”:
Born to famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the “The Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” on August 30, 1797, young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin spent her formative years in London, England, devouring books and escaping into daydreams. Mama Mary passed away shortly after she gave birth to Lil’ Mary, so she spent her childhood with her father and her half-sister Fanny Imlay, who was Mama Mary’s lovechild with an American soldier, Gilbert Imlay.
When she was about four years old, her dad, William Godwin, who was also a writer and philosopher, re-married. In ~classic~ stepmother fashion, William’s new wife Mary Jane Clairmont did not much care for Mary. Mary Jane brought her two children into their home. Then she and William had a son named William Godwin, Jr. While the other kids got to be sent away to school, Step Mama Mary Jane felt no need to educate her new stepdaughter. To distract herself from her subpar home life, Mary would doodle and read and write stories, often sitting next to Mama Mary’s grave.
Since her father was a writer, the Godwin house often hosted notable writers of the day, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and scientists like Humphrey Davy. Mary’s first foray into publication came in 1808, when she was just 10 years old. Her poem, “Mounseer Nongtongpaw; or, The Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris,” was based on a song from 1796 written by Charles Dibdin, which mocks French and English stereotypes. Mary added her own contribution to the song in poetry form, and it was published in a youth literary series.
It was not until she was in her teenage years that Mary at last experienced a loving household. In 1812, Papa William sent Mary to Dundee, Scotland, to live with his friend William Baxter and his family. Mary took a liking to their tranquil household and his young daughter, Isabel. She returned the next summer to again spend time away from her wicked stepmother. Upon her return home in 1814, Mary started to spend time with one of her father’s favorite students, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy was married, but that didn’t stop them from reserving a “Room for 2” and striking up a love affair. Just months after meeting, when Mary was only 16, the two fled England with her step-sister, Jane (popularly known as Claire). Their actions didn’t please Papa William, and Mary and Percy were alienated from him for many years.
In their great escape, young lovebirds Mary and Percy traveled around Europe and experienced some ups and downs. In typical writer form, they struggled financially, but she also turned their elopement travels into a book, entitled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, which she published in 1817. Her Mother, similarly, published a book called Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in 1796. As they say, like mother, like daughter.
Percy and Mary suffered their loss of their first baby, a daughter who lived for only a couple of weeks. Some Mary Shelley scholars theorize that her idea of “Frankenstein” stemmed from her anxieties about motherhood and her inability to be a mother. So because of that she wrote about a scientist who creates life by using unnatural methods since the natural way failed her. She did eventually give birth to her and Percy’s son, William, who was named after her father, in January 1816. Around the same time that their daughter died, Fanny, Mary’s half-sister, committed suicide, as did Percy’s first wife, Harriet. The silver lining of all of this was that Percy and Mary could at long last get married, and they tied the knot in December 1816, after they had returned home from frolicking through Europe.
During their European escapade, though, Mary and Percy were ostracized by their friends and family. They spent some time in Switzerland with Mary’s step-sister Jane (aka Claire), Lord Byron, a poet known for writing “Don Juan,” and John Polidori, a writer who was super into vampires. Claire and Lord Byron were, for lack of a better term and because we are millennials, hooking up. So naturally Claire wanted to see more of him and convinced Mary and Percy to head there to Geneva. She was pregnant with his child and dreamed big with hopes that Lord Byron would commit to her with a life of love for their family. Byron, being a romantic, was so excited when Claire showed up that he wrote:
What could I do? – a foolish girl – in spite of all I could say or do – would come after me – or rather went before me – for I found her here… I could not exactly play the Stoic with a woman – who had scrambled eight hundred miles to unphilosophize me.
*swoon* We mean, ladies, who doesn’t love being called a “foolish girl” right? No. Byron was not impressed with the news. Claire gave birth to their daughter, Byron would never see Claire again and sadly their daughter died at the age of 5. Because of this brief deviation from Mary’s story, we decided to give Claire a bop in the playlist. Please shuffle to “Kiwi” by British singer and heart throb Harry Styles. #BetterthanByron
Back to Mary: So, they all hung out in Switzerland together for a summer. On a dark and stormy summer evening in 1816, the group entertained themselves by writing ghost stories and spooking each other. It was on this evening that Mary was first struck with the inspiration to write Frankenstein. Mary and Percy returned home to England in the fall of 1816. She penned Frankenstein some more while pregnant, again, with their daughter Clara who also sadly passed away. Frankenstein was anonymously published in January of 1818. Many readers at first believed it was written by a man. Some even thought that her husband, Percy, wrote it. Little did readers know that the first true work of the science-fiction genre was written by an English lass named Mary.
This “Writer in the Dark” on that ghost story night created a sensation of a novel. Naturally it had its haters. For example, John Cocker, who was a conservative member of Parliament, said that it was a, “tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity.” Well, John, you’re a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity because Frankenstein is a masterpiece that is on every “must read” list. And, today, it is still transformed into theatrical productions, cartoons, movies, spin-offs and more. (*exhale* Sorry, we got a little heated there. We’re just big Mary fans and hope you are too). In 1831, Frankenstein was re-published, and this time with Mary Shelley’s name on it.
After Frankenstein, Mary continued to write. The Shelleys moved to Italy for warmer weather. While there, baby Clara passed away in September 1818, and baby William died less than a year later in June 1819. Mary fell into a severe depression in her “Blue World.” She began to write Mathilda during her dark days. It’s a fictional story about a father’s incestuous love for his daughter. She baked some of her tragedies in the narrative so much so that readers wondered if it was auto-biographical. This novel wasn’t published during her life for fear that a woman writing about such a scandalous topic would not be accepted. It was published in the 1950s and is considered one of her best works.
Mary and Percy spent four years in Italy and moved from city to city: Rome, Florence, Venice. Name an Italian city, and they probably resided there. She gave birth to their son, Percy Florence Shelley, who lived to be 70 years old. The life of Papa Percy, though, came to a tragic end when he drowned in 1822 while sailing in the Gulf of Spezia. Mary was a mother, accomplished author and, now, a widow.
Mary and son Percy moved back to London. In order to make a living with writing, she had to publish articles and short stories without her name on them. This was part of a deal made with her late husband’s father. Mary still continued to write and publish other novels, though, including Valperga (1823) and The Last Man (1826). In addition to her own writings, she also published many of Percy Shelley’s pieces. Eventually, her life reached its end just like those of the many children, loved ones and friends who all died before her. She died of brain cancer on February 1, 1851 in London at the age of 53.
Mary Shelley wasn’t shy to the shuffles of life, and though she sometimes shied away from the fight having been overcome with depression, she prevailed into a “Paperback Writer.” Sure she was slightly appreciated during her time, but over the many years, Mary Shelly has become a prominent author for readers and writers everywhere, and even for those teens dragging their feet through their summer reading lists. We can all find truth, insight and empathy in Mary Shelley’s works, and better yet, we can do so with our newfound knowledge about her published prose, her poise through choppy waters, and her playlist which shuffles up nothing but the hits.