The daughter of noted authors Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Shelley became widely known as a literary talent of her own right with the 1818 publication of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. The story of a scientist who attempts to bring life to a dead body, Frankenstein has become one of the most iconic and recognizable novels of the past two centuries. Though Shelley produced a variety of works throughout her career—including novels, short stories, and essays—the bulk of critical scholarship has focused on Frankenstein. Feminist critics have argued that the novel explores a range of themes, including the repression of women, childbirth and parental responsibility, and gender roles at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Such scholars claim that Frankenstein acts as a manifestation of Shelley's own feelings about motherhood and her role as a wife as well as an early attempt to articulate a feminist position. The most famous assessment of Shelley comes from the poet Leigh Hunt, who called Shelley "four-fam'd," referring to her parents, her husband—poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—and the monstrous creature she created.
Shelley was born August 30, 1797, to two of the foremost intellectuals of the eighteenth century. Wollstonecraft, an outspoken advocate for women's rights, died shortly after Shelley's birth, leaving Shelley in the care of her father. Godwin, a novelist and political philosopher, was by all accounts an undemonstrative and self-absorbed intellectual, but Shelley's attachment to him was powerful. This later became a major theme in her work, particularly in Mathilda (1959; believed to have been written c. 1819). In 1801 Godwin married a widow named Mary Jane Clairmont. Shelley's relationship with her stepmother was strained from the beginning for several reasons, such as Shelley's intense feelings for her father, her idolization of her dead mother, and Clairmont's preference for her own children over Shelley and her half sister. Shelley did not receive any formal education, but instead learned to read at home, having access to her father's extensive library. In 1812 tensions between Shelley and her stepmother prompted Godwin to send his daughter to stay with William Baxter and his family. On her return to London later that year, she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had become a disciple and financial supporter of her father. In 1814 the couple declared their love for each other and eloped to France. Although the couple married—following the suicide of Percy's first wife, Harriet— their initial relationship caused a long-term estrangement between Shelley and her father. The Shelleys had four children together, though only one survived to adulthood. Shelley lapsed into a deep depression after the deaths of her children, and her relationship with her husband became strained.
Despite their personal losses as well as considerable financial hardships, the Shelleys devoted a great deal of time and energy to the study of literature, language, music, and art, associating with some of the most noted writers of their day, including Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. During an evening with her husband, Byron, and Byron's companion John Polidori at Lake Leman, Switzerland, Shelley first conceived the idea for Frankenstein. After reading a selection of Gothic stories, the four challenged each other to create their own horrific tales. Shelley became inspired by a discussion between Byron and her husband regarding the notion of creating life with electricity and that night awoke mesmerized by a vision of a creature animated by such means. She began to write the monster's narrative, which Percy Shelley urged her to expand into a novel. In 1822 Percy drowned while the couple was living in Lenci, Italy. A year later, Shelley returned to England with her son. Her life after her husband's death was marked by melancholy and hardship as she tried to support herself and her child. Her husband's father offered her a...
(The entire section is 31,380 words.)