At a Glance
Mary Shelley is forever associated with her greatest creation: her novel Frankenstein, just as her fictional scientist found his name forever fused with the name of his greatest creation. And why not? Shelley wrote it at an amazingly young age (nineteen!), and it is one of the most influential novels of the last two centuries. However, two things are even more impressive than Shelley's age when she wrote it: that the creature she created has moved into our shared reference (like a modern myth), and that her work could speak to so many people and still be so deeply personal as the novel was to her. Frankenstein is rooted in Shelley's life, her family, her philosophies, and her loves.
Facts and Trivia
- Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an influential feminist. Her A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) helped found the modern feminist movement and provided much of its early philosophical foundation.
- Mary Wollstonecraft died due to complications from giving birth to her daughter Mary. As a result, though she eventually had a stepmother, Mary Shelley was essentially motherless and raised by an intellectual, much like Victor Frankenstein and his monster.
- Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was a noted political philosopher as well as a novelist. There are marked similarities between the plot and structure of Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams and Shelley’s Frankenstein.
- When she was sixteen, Mary married Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest Romantic poets of all time. (They eloped.) Percy Shelley was a freethinker and a radical. He helped Mary complete her education—and tried to make her part of a free love community in which several people would share partners.
- The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley as the result of a ghost story contest between Mary, her husband, the poet Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori. It came to her in a dream.
Authorship of Frankenstein was not the only claim to distinction possessed by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The daughter of a radical philosopher and an early feminist and the wife of an unconventional genius, she early came to know life as something of a roller coaster. Her writing of the masterpiece of fictional horror was only one of the important incidents in an existence heavily underscored with drama.
The future novelist was born in London on August 30, 1797, the child of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Bereft of her mother almost immediately, she was raised in a complex family which included a stepmother, a stepbrother, a stepsister, a half brother, and a half sister. As Mary Godwin grew up she increasingly idolized her dead mother, for whose loss she was inclined to blame herself. The depth of this feeling was one of the important factors in her girlhood, the other being the atmosphere of intellectual discussion and debate which enveloped her father and his many visitors.
One of these visitors, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a twenty-one-year-old youth whose accomplishments had made quite an impression upon William Godwin. The impression darkened when, a month before her seventeenth birthday, his daughter eloped with Shelley, despite the fact that he was already married. More than two years passed before the suicide of Harriet Shelley allowed Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin to legalize their union. All evidence available points to a happy marriage, though Mary, whose mind was clear and penetrating, experienced times of bafflement in dealing with the unpredictable Shelley. On the other hand, she sometimes succumbed to periods of melancholy, which the death of her first three children did much to deepen.
Frankenstein was written in the Shelleys’ first Italian days, during their initial companionship with George Gordon, Lord Byron. It is a remarkable achievement, especially for a woman of twenty, and it undoubtedly owes much of its sustained quality to the intellectual stimulation provided by the Shelley circle. The author’s only novel to attain lasting fame, it is an appealing...
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