Other literary forms

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a prolific writer, forced into copiousness by economic necessity. Punished by Sir Timothy Shelley, father of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, for her violation of his moral codes with his son, Mary Shelley was denied access to the Shelley estate for a long time after her husband’s death. Her own father, William Godwin, was eternally in debt himself and spared her none of his troubles. Far from helping her, Godwin threw his own financial woes in her lap. It fell to Mary to support her son by writing, in addition to her novels, a plethora of short stories and some scholarly materials. The stories were mainly available to the public in a popular annual publication called the Keepsake, a book intended for gift giving. Her stories were firmly entrenched in the popular gothic tradition, bearing such titles as “A Tale of Passion,” “Ferdinand Eboli,” “The Evil Eye,” and “The Bride of Modern Italy.” Her scholarly work included contributions to The Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men in Lardner’s Cabinet Encyclopedia (1838). She attempted to write about the lives of both her father and her husband, although these efforts were never completed. She wrote magazine articles of literary criticism and reviews of operas, an art form that filled her with delight. She wrote two travel books, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland (1817) and Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844). Shelley edited two posthumous editions of her husband’s poetry (1824 and 1839), and she wrote several poetic dramas: Manfred, now lost, Proserpine (pb. 1922), and Midas (pb. 1922). She wrote a handful of poems, most of which were published in Keepsake.


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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s literary reputation rests solely on her first novel, Frankenstein. Her six other novels, which are of uneven quality, are very difficult indeed to find, even in the largest libraries. Nevertheless, Shelley lays claim to a dazzling array of accomplishments. First, she is credited with the creation of modern science fiction. All subsequent tales of the brilliant but doomed scientist, the sympathetic but horrible monster, both in high and mass culture, owe their lives to her. Even Hollywood’s dream factory owes her an imaginative and economic debt it can never repay.

Second, the English tradition is indebted to her for a reconsideration of the Romantic movement by one of its central participants. In her brilliant Frankenstein fantasy, Mary Shelley questions many of the basic tenets of the Romantic rebellion: the Romantic faith in humankind’s blissful relationship to nature, the belief that evil resides only in the dead hand of social tradition, and the Romantic delight in death as a lover and restorer.

Finally, Shelley created one of the great literary fictions of the dialogue with the self. The troubled relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster is one of the foundations of the literary tradition of “the double,” doubtless the mother of all the doubles in Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and even in Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad.

Discussion Topics

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Does Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s literary work reflect her mother’s preoccupations?

Why is Shelley’s Frankenstein the only gothic romance that has found a considerable reading audience in recent decades?

What makes Frankenstein different from typical gothic romances of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?

Has Frankenstein’s influence on modern horror writers been unfortunate?

Does Frankenstein raise questions similar to issues now raised by stem cell research?


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Allen, Graham. Mary Shelley. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. This book challenges the notion that Shelley’s only well-written work was Frankenstein , and...

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that Percy Bysshe Shelley ghostwrote her novels. Graham makes a convincing argument for Shelley as a great novelist in her own right.

Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. Baldick analyzes the structure of modern myth as it has adapted and misread Shelley’s novel until the film version of 1931. Focuses on Frankenstein as itself a monster, which is assembled, speaks, and escapes like its protagonist. Includes footnotes, five illustrations, an appendix summarizing the novel’s plot, and an index.

Bennett, Betty T., and Stuart Curran, eds. Mary Shelley in Her Times. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. An examination of Shelley in the full context of her life and times; delves into all her writings rather than concentrating on her best-known novel.

Fisch, Audrey A., Anne K. Mellor, and Esther H. Schor, eds. The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. This is a valuable collection of critical essays that illuminate Shelley’s major and less well-known works. The essays by Corbett, Favret, Paley, and Schor are particularly recommended.

Forry, Steven Earl. Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of “Frankenstein” from Mary Shelley to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Examines the influence of Shelley’s novel on the history of theater and cinema from 1832 to 1930. Provides the texts of seven dramatic adaptations of Frankenstein. Contains thirty-one illustrations, a list of ninety-six dramatizations from 1821 to 1986, an appendix with the music from Vampire’s Victim (1887), a bibliography, and an index.

Garrett, Martin. Mary Shelley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. This text provides a general overview for young-adult readers new to Shelley's work, discusses Shelley's early, formative years, and includes a rich collection of illustrations, with excerpts from diaries and letters. Part of the British Library Writers' Lives series.

Hoobler, Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler. The Monsters: Mary Shelley & the Curse of Frankenstein. New York: Little Brown, 2006. A chronicle of Mary Shelley’s short marriage to Percy Shelley and how the themes of Frankenstein corresponded to her life.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. London: Methuen, 1988. Argues against trends of analysis which subordinate Shelley to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Extends feminist and psychoanalytic criticism of Frankenstein to include all of Shelley’s life and work, arguing that her stories are creations of the family she never enjoyed. Includes eight illustrative plates, a chronology, ample notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Morrison, Lucy, and Staci Stone. A Mary Shelley Encyclopedia. Greenwood, 2003. A thorough, encyclopedic reference to Shelley's life and works.

St. Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. A useful introduction to the radical tradition that shaped Shelley’s life and career. Although the book provides a great deal more information on William Godwin than on the other principals, his life and activities provide the context for his daughter’s development as a writer.

Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. New York: Grove Press, 2001. A biography of the novelist that sheds much of the mythology that has hung around her since her time.

Smith, Johanna M. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1996. This good introductory volume on Shelley opens with a chapter devoted to her biography, then divides her works into categories. More descriptive than analytical, this is an accessible overview of Shelley’s career. Includes selected bibliography.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. London: Constable, 1988. A revision of Spark’s Child of Light (1951) which reassesses the view that Shelley craved respectability after her husband’s death. Spark skillfully narrates Shelley’s life and then analyzes her writings. Contains eight pages of illustrations, a selected bibliography, and an index.

Sunstein, Emily. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Boston: Little, Brown. 1989. Sunstein’s book is the most complete biography of Shelley. The appendix provides detailed listings of works definitively identified as Shelley’s as well as works that might be attributed to her; chapter notes explicitly identify key primary sources of information about Shelley’s life and work.


Critical Essays