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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: As an innovative and politically subversive writer of novels, tales, and stories, Shelley was a significant contributor to the history of women’s writing and the development of prose fiction.

Early Life

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born in London on August 30, 1797, to the celebrated feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical philosopher William Godwin. Ten days later, Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever, and for four years William raised his daughter and her half-sister Fanny (Wollstonecraft’s daughter with Gilbert Imlay) alone. From infancy, Mary was in the company not only of her philosopher father but also of his friends, among them the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the essayists Mary and Charles Lamb.

William apparently felt unfit to raise his daughters alone, and when he married Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801, he cited as one motivation his need for assistance with educating Mary and Fanny. Mary seems to have disliked her new stepmother, and whatever the truth of Clairmont’s feelings about her stepdaughter, Mary certainly believed that her stepmother—who tended to privilege her own daughter, Jane—resented the bond between William and his daughter. As Mary grew into adolescence, she turned to a study of her mother’s writings, often reading in the solitude of Wollstonecraft’s grave in Saint Pancras churchyard. She read and absorbed not only Wollstonecraft’s works but also William’s 1798 memoir of his late wife; thus, before she reached adulthood, Mary was immersed in her parents’ radical political beliefs and became aware that society frowned on those who espoused such views.

In 1812, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley introduced himself to William, whom he admired; before long, Percy was a regular visitor at the Godwin establishment. Percy’s frequent visits notwithstanding, Mary probably met him briefly only once or twice before 1814, when she returned from a lengthy visit to Scotland. Percy was a married man, but he and young Mary were drawn to each other. Within months of their first real meeting, and despite the disapproval of the Godwins, Mary and Percy eloped to France. With them was Jane Clairmont. The trio travelled through Europe for six weeks, after which they returned to England. The Godwins and the Shelleys were hostile to the irregular relationship that had developed between Mary and Percy, so the couple had to live on their own in a series of lodgings, often moving to evade their creditors.

Life’s Work

Mary and Percy were together for nearly eight years, but they were unable to marry until 1816, when Percy’s first wife, Harriet, committed suicide. That year was important to Mary Shelley for another reason: In June she began to write Frankenstein, which she completed the next year. The Shelleys’ unconventional lifestyle left them vulnerable to criticism and social ostracism, and eventually, in 1818, they left England once again to escape the hostility and settled in Italy. For Mary, the Italian years were eventful. She studied Italian and Spanish with her husband and learned Greek with the help of an aristocratic émigré. Percy also tutored Mary in Latin, and within two years she was collaborating with him on translations. Mary’s efforts were not limited to the acquisition of language skills. She completed two works of fiction—the novella Mathilda (1818), the historical novel Valperga: Or, The Life of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (written between 1818 and 1821), and possibly the short piece, “Valerius: The Reanimated Roman.” During those years, she also wrote two mythological dramas—Proserpine (1922) and Midas (1922)—in blank verse.

The Shelley marriage was not without problems. Although heir to a fortune, Percy only had an allowance while his father lived, and the young couple’s financial worries followed them to Italy. Two of their four children died (their first child lived only eleven days). In addition, Mary succumbed to bouts of depression, possibly...

(The entire section is 2,177 words.)