Mary Shelley Reference
by Mary Shelley

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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 exacerbated by her husband’s infatuations with other women, including Jane Clairmont—now called Claire—whose presence in the Shelley home was problematic. Having given up her daughter by George Gordon, Lord Byron, Claire embroiled the Shelleys in her quarrels with Byron about custody of the child. During the Shelleys’ last year together, the marriage was in trouble, and the two were virtually estranged from one another. To compound their difficulties, in June, 1822, Mary suffered a miscarriage and nearly died, and her depression deepened.

Percy drowned in July, 1822, in a storm off the Italian coast, leaving Mary a penniless widow at twenty-four with a two-year-old son, Percy Florence. The poetry that she wrote in the months after her husband’s death reveals the depth of her grief and her feelings of guilt about their estrangement in the year before the accident. After remaining in Italy for one year after her husband’s death, Mary was forced to return to England by her financial difficulties and by the need to ensure her son’s future as the Shelley heir. She spent the remaining twenty-nine years of her life working as a professional writer to support herself, her son, and her aging father and stepmother.

When Mary, having buried her husband’s ashes in Rome, returned to England in 1823 to begin her professional writing career, she was already a published author. In addition to Mounseer Nongtongpaw (a satiric poem published in 1812 when she was fifteen) and Frankenstein (1818), she and Percy had published History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland (1817). Valperga (1823) was published shortly after her arrival in England.

During a forty-year writing career, Mary produced a considerable body of literary work in a number of different genres: six novels and one novella; nineteen pieces of short fiction; travel narratives; short nonfiction articles in a variety of periodicals and other publications; biographies of scientific and literary figures in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal; poetry; and drama. In addition, she edited and wrote introductions for two editions of Percy’s poems as well as a collection of his essays and letters. She also published translations of works originally written in German and Italian. In the context of literary history, Mary’s most important works are her novels and her nonfiction prose works.

Mary Shelley’s most significant contribution to the history of the English novel are Frankenstein (1818), The Last Man (1826), and possibly Valperga. Her three other novels—The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837)—were written much later, during the years when her literary efforts were focused on making money, and they are not as polished; nevertheless, these later novels are important elements of Shelley’s oeuvre and should not be discounted.

Frankenstein, Shelley’s best and most famous novel, was published when its author was only twenty-one. According to Shelley’s journal, the novel was inspir to support herself, her son, and her aging father and stepmother.

When Mary, having buried her husband’s ashes in Rome, returned to England in 1823 to begin her professional writing career, she was already a published author. In addition to Mounseer Nongtongpaw (a satiric poem published in 1812 when she was fifteen) and Frankenstein (1818), she and Percy had published History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland (1817). Valperga (1823) was published shortly after her arrival in England.

During a forty-year writing career, Mary produced a considerable body of literary work in a number of different genres: six novels and one novella; nineteen pieces of short fiction; travel narratives; short nonfiction articles in a variety of periodicals and other publications; biographies of scientific and literary figures in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal; poetry; and drama. In addition, she edited and wrote introductions for two editions of Percy’s poems as well as a collection of his essays and letters. She also published translations of works originally written in German and Italian. In the context of literary history, Mary’s most important works are her novels and her nonfiction prose works.

Mary Shelley’s most significant contribution to the history of the English novel are Frankenstein (1818), The Last Man (1826), and possibly Valperga. Her three other novels—The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837)—were written much later, during the years when her literary efforts were focused on making money, and they are not as polished; nevertheless, these later novels are important elements of Shelley’s oeuvre and should not be discounted.

Frankenstein, Shelley’s best and most famous novel, was published when its author was only twenty-one. According to Shelley’s journal, the novel was inspiand the two-volume Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France (1839), and some shorter pieces, including Memoirs of William Godwin in the 1831 edition of Godwin’s Caleb Williams.

While not strictly biography, Mary Shelley’s prefaces and notes to the editions of Percy Shelley’s work are key elements in the development of the Percy Shelley legend. Through her careful selection and arrangement of the works to be included in the editions, she constructs a distinctive version of Percy, one that privileges his talents and virtues and glosses over his radicalism. At the same time, Mary’s prefaces and notes comprise part of her literary criticism in that her commentary on Percy’s poetry incorporates her ideas on the nature and functions of poetry and on poetic genres. Like Mary’s annotations for the editions of her husband’s poetry, her book reviews and essays on literary subjects are significant for their influence on the substance and shape of literary taste in nineteenth century England.

Summary

Although known primarily as a novelist and founding mother of the science fiction genre, Mary Shelley’s literary contributions are much more extensive than her popular reputation suggests. As a book reviewer and author of short prose for various literary journals and periodicals, she was one of the first modern professional literary critics. In her role as an early arbiter of popular literary taste, she and her fellow critics were influential in creating a literary canon that privileged English literary works.

Throughout her life, Shelley was conscious of her heritage as the daughter not only of William Godwin but also, and more especially, of Mary Wollstonecraft; Percy Shelley encouraged her to prove herself worthy of her family history. From her study of her mother’s work, Mary Shelley absorbed ideas about independence and sexual freedom for women; from her father she received a progressive education embodying the ideals of the French Revolution. However, Mary Shelley was also very much a product of her culture and time, and her work reflects the tensions she must have felt as she attempted to negotiate a compromise between the ideals of her early education and the conventions of nineteenth century English society.

Bibliography

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.

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.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988. Mellor discusses Shelley’s major works. Among other things, the book provides a discussion of Frankenstein in the context of early nineteenth century science and illuminates Percy Shelley’s contributions to his wife’s novel.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Poovey places Shelley in the context of her contemporaries in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. Includes a particularly valuable discussion of Shelley’s revisions of Frankenstein for the 1831 edition of that novel.

Smith, Johanna. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1996. Smith provides an excellent and detailed overview of Shelley’s writings arranged by genre and focusing on the political and cultural milieu in which Shelley lived and wrote.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley: A Biography. New York: Dutton, 1987. Considered by many to be one of the best short biographies of Shelley, this crucial book reestablished Shelley as a serious writer whose work is worthy of critical attention.

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.

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.