Mary Shelley Biography

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.


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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 many literati and artists. These included, among others, Leigh and Marianne Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and John Polidori. The letters and diaries of the Shelleys from this period offer a view of life speeded up and intensified, life at the nerve’s edge.

While the Shelleys were touring Switzerland and Italy, they sent frantic communications to their friends, asking for financial help. Mary issued frequent requests for purchases of clothing and household items such as thread. There were also legal matters to be taken care of concerning publishing, Percy Shelley’s estate, and the custody of his children from his previous marriage.

The leaves of the letters and diaries are filled with urgent fears for the safety of the Shelley children and the difficulties of what was in effect an exile necessitated by the Shelleys’ unorthodox lifestyle. In 1818, Clara Shelley died, barely a year old, and in 1819, William Shelley died at the age of three. Five months later, a son, Percy Florence, was born, the only child of the Shelleys who would grow to maturity.

In 1822, Mary Shelley’s flamboyant life reached its point of desolation. Percy Shelley, while sailing with his close friend Edward Williams in his boat Ariel, drowned in the Gulf of Spezia. Mary’s letters and diaries of the time clearly reveal her anguish, her exhaustion, and her despair. Her speeding merry-go-round suddenly and violently stopped.

Literary historians find themselves in debate over this point in Mary Shelley’s life. Her letters and diaries record unambiguous desolation, and yet many scholars have found indications that Percy Shelley was about to leave her for Jane Williams, the wife of the friend with whom he drowned. There is also some suspicion that Mary’s stepsister had recently given birth to...

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a baby by Percy Shelley, a rumor that Mary Shelley denied. Because of Percy Shelley’s mercurial nature, such speculations are at least conceivable. Against them stands Mary’s diary, a purely private diary, which suggests that she would have no reason to whitewash her marriage among its confidential pages.

Mary’s tragedy did not prompt warmth and help from her estranged father-in-law. He refused to support his grandson, Percy Florence, unless Mary gave the child to a guardian to be chosen by him. This she would not do, and she was rewarded for her persistence. Her son became heir to the Shelley estate when Harriet Shelley’s son died in 1826. After the death, Mary’s son became Lord Shelley. Just as important, however, was the warm relationship that he maintained with Mary until her death. Mary Shelley’s life ended in the tranquil sunshine of family affection. Her son married happily and had healthy children. Mary seems to have befriended her daughter-in-law, and, at the last, believed herself to be a truly fortunate woman.


Critical Essays