The Life of Mary Shelley, Part 1
It’s no secret that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or that many give Shelley credit for starting the ball rolling on the Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction genres of literary fiction. Not so bad for a little lady with no formal education living at the peak of the romantic era. What many people don’t realize is that Shelley had one wild and fantastically strange life. It’s the kind of stuff soap operas are made from. Or, you know, reanimated corpses …
Shelley was only around the age of 21 when The Great Prometheus was published anonymously. Shelley’s Frankenstein was the first novel that explored the use of fictional technologies in a society that wasn’t prepared to play God. How does someone so young write a novel that captures, not only the essence of the changing times, but also a question humanity would continue to seek answers to over a hundred years later?
It Always Starts with the Parents
Well, it all started where things usually do: with her parents. Mary Shelley was born on August 30th, 1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. These two weren’t your average sort. Both of them were philosophers whose work went on to define entire movements. Feminism found its voice at Wollstonecraft’s pen, and punk rock would have never been the same without William Godwin.
The two cut quite the figure in social circles at the time, both being somewhat famous for their political and philosophical leanings. Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 in which she put forth the radical notion that women should be educated the same as men, and that an educated woman would be a perfectly reasonable member of society.
Neither Godwin or Wollstonecraft believed in marriage, and the couple married solely so that their daughter would be accepted into polite society. Wollstonecraft was five months pregnant when she walked down the aisle in 1797. Unfortunately, it was to be a short-lived union. Wollstonecraft died from complications ten days after giving birth to Mary. Godwin was left to raise Mary and her half-sister on his own. He remarried four years later, and that’s when things get a little Mommy Dearest …
Mary Escapes to Scotland
Mary was always at odds with her stepmother, and often expressed her dislike of the woman who seemed to be her mother’s complete opposite. Even Godwin’s friends tended to dislike Jane Clairmont, but their marriage was considered a success by most accounts. By 1812, tensions between them had reached a boiling point. Mary spent that summer, and much of 1813, living with William Baxter and his family in Scotland. She became good friends with his daughters at that time, and she found great comfort in living with the happy family by the sea. It would be a short-lived reprieve from the drama that often surrounded Mary’s life.
It Wouldn’t Be the Romantic Era without a Torrid Love Affair
But that’s not the only reason there was chatter passed around town about Mary Wollstonecraft. Once her famed essay had been published, Mary decided to take a quick trip to France to do some reporting on the revolution (you know, that whole Napoleon thing). While she was there, she fell madly in love with the kind of man you don’t fall madly in love with: Gilbert Imlay. An American businessman and author, Imlay was serving as a diplomatic representative for the United States at the time.
To make a long story short, several years and two suicide attempts later, Imlay was living in London with another woman and Mary was moving on as a single mother with a dented reputation. Their relationship ended by December 1795. Mary and her illegitimate daughter, Fanny Imlay, met up with William Godwin by the middle of 1796, and by 1797 she was having his child: the woman who would become Mary Shelley.
Anarchy + Feminism = Eventual Science Fiction
Godwin was a well-known philosopher and novelist who rubbed elbows with some of the smartest minds of the times. He was also an anarchist. In fact, he’s that guy that started the whole “anarchy” thing. He agreed with his soon-to-be wife that marriage was unnecessary; along with monopolies, monarchies, and property. All ideas that he expressed in his book Political Justice, published in 1793. William Godwin thought these things held society back, and he believed a truly reasonable individual could function perfectly well without them. Godwin believed in a free-functioning society filled with reasonable people, and Wollstonecraft believed that educated women were capable of numbering among those reasonable people. When ideas come together, great things often happen. Kind of like how Scifi and Fantasy come together to make Science Fantasy. These early ideas of anarchy and feminism came together for young Mary, becoming an intrinsic part of her later writings.
In March of 1814, Mary would meet another young thinker through her father’s sphere of influence: his student, Percy Shelley. This is the man who would change her life forever; and who would prove that she truly was her mother’s daughter. Their relationship would certainly test Godwin’s commitment to the idea of anarchy.
It’s also a story for another day. Let’s just say, the drama didn’t truly begin until Percy came on the scene. But, without these two nerding out together over ideas and literature, we wouldn't have the novel that started an entirely new genre of literary fiction.
So, we hope you’ll join us tomorrow to find out more about this fascinating couple. Scandalous affairs, famous poets, and tragedy abound in part 2 of our sordid saga: When Mary Met Percy.
Enter the Wicked Stepmother
Mary’s new stepmother, Jane Clairmont, arrived with her two children: Jane and Charles. Clairmont became almost immediately jealous of the relationship Mary had with her father. The two had always been very close, and Godwin was quite proud of how intelligent his young daughter was growing up to be. Mary was never far from his study, and her and Fanny used to hide under chairs late into the night, secretly listening to their father’s conversations with some of the greatest poets and thinkers of the age.
Clairmont could not stand the attention Mary received from her father, or from her status as the daughter of scandalous celebrities. Young Mary was often in the limelight thanks to the notorious reputations of her parents. It didn’t take long for Jane to begin hating the child, finding every way she could to undermine young Mary.
Jane Clairmont probably could have battled Joan Crawford with a wire hanger over who should play the role of “wicked stepmother” in a reproduction of Cinderella. She forced Mary to do all of the household chores and refused to allow her a formal education—despite sending her own daughter to expensive boarding schools. This flew in the face of everything Mary had learned about her mother.
Mary wouldn’t be held back, however. She learned from her father’s tutelage, his impressive library, and by sitting in on his conversations with some of the most brilliant minds of the time. Always a dreamer, she published her first poem at the age of 14. It was called Mounseer Nongtongpaw and was published in Godwin’s Juvenile Library by her parent’s publishing firm, M. J. Godwin.
Apparently, Difficult Childhoods Make for Good Literature
Mary Shelley’s early life paints a lonely picture of a young woman without motherly connections. Perhaps it is no accident that Frankenstein is always seeking a mother-like figure. It is also no accident that Shelley’s monster was completely misunderstood by an ignorant community. They are the people who made him a monster by calling him monster, and Dr. Frankenstein helped by failing to properly teach the community and his creation how to live comfortably together.
It is people’s lack of ability to make good decisions, and to understand the true nature of their actions, that cause the turmoil in the novel. In short, it is their lack of reason. Here, we can see a direct influence from the political leanings of Shelley’s parents. The very foundation for the themes in her novel bear a striking resemblance to her own childhood, and to the words of wisdom she learned from the books and visitors in her father’s study.