Mary Shelley, born August 30, 1797, was a prominent literary figure during the Romantic Era of English Literature, but not often considered. She was the only child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous feminist, and William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist.
From infancy, Mary was treated as a unique individual with remarkable parents. High expectations were placed on her potential and she was treated as if she were born beneath a lucky star. Godwin was convinced that babies are born with a potential waiting to be developed. From an early age she was surrounded by famous philosophers, writers, and other Romantic poets such as Samuel T. Coleridge, who was a frequent visitor.
A peculiar sort of Gothicism was part of Mary’s earliest existence. Every day she used to go for a walk with her father to the St. Pancras churchyard where her mother was buried. Godwin taught Mary to read and spell her name by having her trace her mother’s inscription on the stone.
At the age of sixteen, after her father had married again, Mary ran away to live with the twenty-one year old Percy Shelley, who was unhappily married and the heir to a wealthy, rich baronetcy. To Mary, Shelley personified the genius and dedication to human improvement that she had admired her entire life. Although she was cast out of society, even by her father, this inspirational liaison produced her masterpiece, Frankenstein.
After the suicide of Shelley's wife, he and Mary reluctantly married. Fierce public hostility toward the couple made them leave to Italy. Initially, they were happy in Italy, but their two young children died there. Mary never fully recovered from this second trauma, for their first child had died shortly after birth early in their relationship. Nevertheless, Shelley gave Mary enough freedom to live as she most desired: to enjoy intellectual and artistic growth, love, and freedom.
When Mary was only twenty-four Percy drowned, leaving her completely penniless with a two-year-old son. For her remaining twenty-nine years, she engaged in a struggle with the societal disapproval of her relationship with Shelley. Poverty forced her to live in England which she despised because of the morality and social system. She was shunned by conventional circles and worked as a professional writer to support her father and her son. Her circle, however, included literary and theatrical figures, artists, and politicians.
She eventually came to more traditional views of women’s dependence and differences, like her mother before her. This not a reflection of her courage and integrity but derived from socialization and the conventions placed on her by society.
Mary became an invalid at the age of forty-eight. She died in 1851 of a brain tumor with poetic timing. The Great Exhibition, which was a showcase of technological progress, was opened. This was the same scientific technology that she had warned against in her most famous book.
Shorter Abridged version of Frankenstein
200 years of Frankenstein
A poem to Mary by Percy Shelley
O Mary dear, that you were here
With your brown eyes bright and clear.
And your sweet voice, like a bird
Singing love to its lone mate
In the ivy bower disconsolate;
Voice the sweetest ever heard!
And your brow more...
Than the ... sky
Of this azure Italy.
Mary dear, come to me soon,
I am not well whilst thou art far;
As sunset to the sphered moon,
As twilight to the western star,
Thou, beloved, art to me.
O Mary dear, that you were here;
The Castle echo whispers 'Here!'—
“To Mary” (1818)
Mary Shelley started writing her novel when staying at Lake Geneva in Switzerland with Lord Byron and Shelley. Interestingly enough, she was only nineteen at the time. She wrote the novel while she was overwhelmed by a series of calamities in her life. The worst of these were the suicides of her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, and Shelly’s wife, Harriet.