Mary Shelley Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (1797 - 1851)
by Mary Shelley

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(Gothic Literature)


(Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) English novelist, editor, critic, short story and travel writer.

Shelley is best known for her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), which has transcended the Gothic and horror genres and is now recognized as a work of philosophical and psychological resonance. Critics agree that with the depiction of a seemingly godless universe where science and technology have gone awry, Shelley created a powerful metaphor for the modern age; indeed, the Frankenstein myth, which has been adapted to stage, film, and television, has pervaded modern culture. Shelley's achievement is considered remarkable, moreover, because she completed the book before her twentieth birthday. In addition to Frankenstein, Shelley's literary works include several novels that were moderately successful when published but are little-known today and an edition of poetry by her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which she issued with notes that are now regarded as indispensable. Her reputation rests, however, on what she once called her "hideous progeny," Frankenstein.


Shelley's personal life has sometimes overshadowed her literary work. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist. Her parents' wedding, which occurred when Wollstonecraft was five months pregnant with Mary, was the marriage of two of the day's most noted freethinkers. While they both objected to the institution of matrimony, they agreed to marry to ensure their child's legitimacy. Ten days after Mary's birth, Wollstonecraft died from complications, leaving Godwin, an undemonstrative and self-absorbed intellectual, to care for both Mary and Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft's daughter from an earlier liaison. Mary's home life improved little with the arrival four years later of a stepmother and her two children. The new Mrs. Godwin, whom contemporaries described as petty and disagreeable, favored her own offspring over the daughters of the celebrated Wollstonecraft, and Mary was often solitary and unhappy. She was not formally educated, but absorbed the intellectual atmosphere created by her father and such visitors as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She read a wide variety of books, notably those of her mother, whom she idolized. Young Mary's favorite retreat was Wollstonecraft's grave in the St. Pancras churchyard, where she went to read and write and eventually to meet her lover, Percy Shelley.

An admirer of Godwin, Percy Shelley visited the author's home and briefly met Mary when she was fourteen, but their attraction did not take hold until a subsequent meeting two years later. Shelley, twenty-two, was married, and his wife was expecting their second child, but he and Mary, like Godwin and Wollstonecraft, believed that ties of the heart superseded legal ones. In July 1814, one month before her seventeenth birthday, Mary eloped with Percy to the Continent, where, apart from two interludes in England, they spent the next few years traveling in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. These years were characterized by financial difficulty and personal tragedy . Percy's father, Sir Timothy Shelley, a wealthy baronet, cut off his son's substantial allowance after his elopement. In 1816, Mary's half-sister Fanny committed suicide; just weeks later, Percy's wife, Harriet, drowned herself. Mary and Percy were married in London, in part because they hoped to gain custody of his two children by Harriet, but custody was denied. Three of their own children died in infancy, and Mary fell into a deep depression that was barely dispelled by the birth in 1819 of Percy Florence, her only surviving child. The Shelleys' marriage suffered, too, in the wake of their children's deaths, and Percy formed romantic attachments to other women. Despite these trying circumstances, both Mary and Percy...

(The entire section is 32,590 words.)