Mary Shelley dedicated her first novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, to her father, William Godwin. Godwin, a respected writer himself, was the author of two well-known books, Political Justice (1793) and Caleb Williams (1794). Godwin’s work contained controversial philosophical ideas and critiques of society. His belief in the inherent decency of human beings influenced a number of the Romantic poets of the time. In 1797, he married Mary Wollstonecraft, a distinguished writer whose A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in 1792. They had been married less than a year when Wollstonecraft died after giving birth to their daughter, Mary, who was born on August 30, 1797.
After Godwin remarried, Mary was raised by her stepmother, Mrs. Clairmont, a widow with two children of her own. Although Godwin had hoped to provide a stable family for his daughter, Mary had a difficult childhood, due in part to her contentious relationship with Clairmont. When Mary was 15, she moved into the home of the Baxters, who were friends of her father. It was at the Baxter’s house, in May 1814, that she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, a notable young poet who was there visiting Godwin. Although Percy was already married, he and Mary fell in love. In June, they left England together to travel through Europe. On February 22, 1815, Mary gave birth to a premature child, who died three weeks later. Another child, William, was born in January 1816.
Five months later, Percy and Mary traveled to Switzerland where they rented a cottage for the summer. Their neighbors included their friend, Lord Byron, who had a home near Geneva. During a rainy spell, when the evenings were cold and damp, Mary, Percy, and Byron would gather in front of Byron’s fireplace and entertain each other by reading German ghost stories. Inspired by the tales, the three friends agreed to each write a story similar to ones they had been reading. Although Percy and Byron never completed theirs, Mary went on to write a story that would eventually become the novel Frankenstein. The eventful year concluded in tragedy after Shelley’s wife, Harriet, committed suicide, drowning herself on December 10, 1816. Percy and Mary were legally married three weeks later. Another son, Percy Florence, was born shortly after the wedding.
Mary’s novel, Frankenstein, was published in 1818 and its success brought Mary considerable recognition. Five months after it was published, a friend wrote from England that the book was “universally known and read.” But this success would soon be overshadowed by tragedies in the author’s life. Two of her three children became ill and died—Clara on September 24, 1818, and William on June 7, 1819. Then, three years later on July 8, 1822, Percy Shelley drowned with two companions when his boat was caught in a heavy squall on the Bay of Spezia in Italy.
In spite of the unhappiness in her life Mary Shelley continued to write. Her second novel, Valperga, was a success after it was published in 1823. (©2000-2004 eNotes) Other works include The Last Man (1826), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837). An account of her European travels in the 1840s was published in two volumes under the title Rambles in Germany (1844). She is also the author of two dramas, Proserpine, A Mythological Drama in Two Acts, and Midas, both written in the late 1820s, as well as a number of short stories and poems.
Shelley’s only surviving child, Percy Florence, became Lord Shelley in 1844. He married a few years later and Mary lived comfortably with his family until her death, at the age of 54, on February 1, 1851.
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