Mary Shelley Biography

At a Glance

Mary Shelley is forever associated with her greatest creation: her novel Frankenstein, just as her fictional scientist found his name forever fused with the name of his greatest creation. And why not? Shelley wrote it at an amazingly young age (nineteen!), 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.

Facts and Trivia

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • When she was sixteen, 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.
  • 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.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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(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...

(The entire section is 771 words.)