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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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

(The entire section is 1,262 words.)