Study Guide

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201582-Shelley.jpgMary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Authorship of Frankenstein was not the only claim to distinction possessed by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The daughter of a radical philosopher and an early feminist and the wife of an unconventional genius, she early came to know life as something of a roller coaster. Her writing of the masterpiece of fictional horror was only one of the important incidents in an existence heavily underscored with drama.

The future novelist was born in London on August 30, 1797, the child of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Bereft of her mother almost immediately, she was raised in a complex family which included a stepmother, a stepbrother, a stepsister, a half brother, and a half sister. As Mary Godwin grew up she increasingly idolized her dead mother, for whose loss she was inclined to blame herself. The depth of this feeling was one of the important factors in her girlhood, the other being the atmosphere of intellectual discussion and debate which enveloped her father and his many visitors.

One of these visitors, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a twenty-one-year-old youth whose accomplishments had made quite an impression upon William Godwin. The impression darkened when, a month before her seventeenth birthday, his daughter eloped with Shelley, despite the fact that he was already married. More than two years passed before the suicide of Harriet Shelley allowed Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin to legalize their union. All evidence available points to a happy marriage, though Mary, whose mind was clear and penetrating, experienced times of bafflement in dealing with the unpredictable Shelley. On the other hand, she sometimes succumbed to periods of melancholy,...

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Mary Shelley Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Mary Shelley lived the life of a great Romantic heroine at the heart of the Romantic movement. She was the daughter of the brilliant feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the equally distinguished man of letters William Godwin. Born of two parents who vociferously opposed marriage, she was the occasion of their nuptials. Her mother died ten days after she was born, and her father had to marry for the second time in four years to provide a mother for his infant daughter. He chose a rather conventional widow, Mary Jane Clairmont, who had two children of her own, Jane and Charles.

In her childhood, Shelley suffered the torments of being reared by a somewhat unsympathetic stepmother; later, she led the daughter of this extremely middle-class woman into a life of notoriety. The separation traumas in her early years indelibly marked Shelley’s imagination: Almost all of herprotagonists are either orphaned or abandoned by their parents.

Shelley’s stormy early years led, in 1812 and until 1814, to her removal to sympathetic “foster parents,” the Baxters of Dundee. There, on May 5, 1814, when she was seventeen years old, she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was then married to his first wife, Harriet. By March 6, 1815, Mary had eloped with Shelley, given birth to a daughter by him, and suffered the death of the baby. By December 29, 1816, the couple had been to Switzerland and back, had another child, William, and had been married, Harriet having committed suicide. Mary Shelley was then nineteen years old.

By the next year, Mary’s stepsister, Jane Clairmont, who called herself Claire Clairmont, had had a baby daughter by Lord Byron, while Mary was working on Frankenstein, and Mary herself had given birth to another child, Clara.

The network of intimates among the Shelley circle rapidly increased to include...

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Mary Shelley Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201582-Shelley.jpgMary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in London, England, on August 30, 1797. Both of her parents were celebrated political radicals. Mary Wollstonecraft, her mother, authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) and was an early advocate of sexual equality. William Godwin, her father, was a utopian-anarchist best known for his An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). Despite their freethinking ways, Wollstonecraft and Godwin were wed five months prior to their daughter’s birth. Mary’s birth was difficult. Her mother became ill and died ten days later.

Concerned with Mary’s welfare, Godwin courted numerous women, intent upon finding for her a suitable mother. On December 21, 1801, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont. She had two children of her own, six-year-old Charles and four-year-old Jane (later called Claire). The marriage was flawed by money problems and lifelong friction between Mary and her stepmother. Mary came to idealize her natural mother, whose works she read avidly. Though not a literary person, the new Mrs. Godwin did possess business sense, encouraging Godwin to become a publisher. Godwin’s vocation and reputation as a man of letters granted Mary valuable exposure to such literary giants as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Despite being deprived of the formal education that her natural mother would have wished for her, Mary thus became deeply acquainted with the literary and philosophical issues of her day.

Mary’s intellectual development did not make her relationship with her stepmother any more cordial. Distance was required, and Mary did manage to get away from the household, most notably living in Dundee, Scotland, from 1812 to 1814, with the relatively conventional Baxter family. Mary’s imagination soared in the ruggedly beautiful Scottish countryside, and life with the Baxters proved to be a revelation.

Visiting her father in November, 1812, Mary had met Percy Bysshe Shelley for the first time. An as yet unknown poet, Percy Shelley was drawn to William Godwin by the latter’s radicalism. Indeed, Percy took some of Godwin’s ideas more seriously than Godwin himself. Not unrelated to this was Percy’s whirlwind courtship of Mary upon her permanent return from Scotland in May of 1814. Godwin was not pleased. Percy was already married, albeit unhappily, and, in Godwin’s eyes, Mary was prohibitively young. The two lovers remained unswayed by Godwin’s opinion and ran off on July 28.

The relationship was both deeply romantic and somewhat bizarre. The young couple went to Europe, ready to live on love, and sometimes having to do just that. Percy and Mary became true soul mates, sharing abundant enthusiasm for literature...

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Mary Shelley Biography

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Mary Shelley

Introduction

Just as her fictional scientist found his name forever fused with the name of his greatest creation, so Mary Shelley is forever associated with her greatest creation: her novel Frankenstein. And why not? Shelly wrote it at an amazingly young age (19!), and it is one of the most influential novels of the last two centuries. However, two things are even more impressive than Shelley's age when she wrote it: that the creature she created has moved into our shared reference (like a modern myth), and that her work could speak to so many people and still be so deeply personal as the novel was to her. Frankenstein is rooted in Shelley's life, her family, her philosophies, and her loves.

Essential Facts

  1. Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an influential feminist. Her A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) helped found the modern feminist movement and provided much of its early philosophical foundation.
  2. Mary Wollstonecraft died due to complications from giving birth to her daughter Mary. As a result, though she eventually had a stepmother, Mary Shelley was essentially motherless and raised by an intellectual...much like Victor Frankenstein and his monster.
  3. Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was a noted political philosopher as well as a novelist. There are marked similarities between the plot and structure of Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams and Shelley’s Frankenstein.
  4. When she was 16, Mary married Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest Romantic poets of all time. (They eloped.) Percy Shelley was a freethinker and a radical. He helped Mary complete her education...and tried to make her part of a free love community in which several people would share partners.
  5. The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley as the result of a ghost story contest between Mary, her husband, the poet Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori. It came to her in a dream.

Mary Shelley Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was the daughter of two illustrious parents, William Godwin, a pioneer of philosophical radicalism, and Mary...

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Mary Shelley Biography (Novels for Students)

Mary Shelley Published by Gale Cengage

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.