by Hilary Rappaport
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary Shelley) was born on August 30, 1797 in London. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In it, she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, and that men and women should be treated as rational beings, proposing a social order founded on reason. Mary Godwin never knew her mother who died 11 days after giving birth to her. Mary Godwin’s father, William Godwin, was also a philosophical thinker, and wrote Enquiry Concerning Political Justice: And Its Influences on Morals and Happiness, a book which argued against the institutions of government and marriage.
Her father remarried in 1801 and Mary, who revered the memory of her mother, never got along with her stepmother, Mary Clairmont. Clairmont had two children of her own. She and William Godwin had a son, William, in 1803. Mary Godwin also had an older half-sister named Fanny, a child of her mother’s relationship with another man. In all, there were five children in the Godwin home, none with the same two parents.
Mary’s father and stepmother ran a publishing firm for children’s books and though Mary did not have a formal education, she was a voracious reader in a home filled with books. A constant stream of intellectuals visited her home including the writers Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as scientists, doctors, politicians, philosophers and actors. Because of tensions with her stepmother and illness, in 1812 Mary was sent to live in Scotland with William Baxter, an acquaintance of her father. There she became friends with his daughter Isabell, and later wrote that in Scotland she made up fantasy tales. Scotland features prominently in Frankenstein.
She returned home in 1814 at the age of 17 and began spending time with the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, for whom her father acted as a mentor. Shelley had left Oxford in disgrace after writing a pamphlet on the “necessity of atheism” and was married to a 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook.
Mary and Percy fell in love and against her father’s orders, ran off together in July 1814. Percy’s wife, Harriet gave birth to a son in November. Mary gave birth to a premature daughter the following February who died less than two weeks later. Mary wrote in her diary a week after the death: “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits.”
In January 1816, Mary gave birth to a son, William, and in May she traveled with Percy and her half-sister Claire to Geneva, Switzerland to spend time with Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron), a nobleman and major poet of the Romantic movement. Claire was pregnant with Lord Byron’s child. The group lived for the summer near Villa Diodati, the mansion where Byron was staying with his doctor and travelling companion, John Polidori. The weather in Switzerland in the summer of 1816 was terrible, with constant rain and violent storms. (This was caused by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. The eruption’s effects were global, causing starvation and disease, and Switzerland was one of the worst affected countries in Europe.)
With lightning storms in the mountains surrounding them, Byron and Claire, Polidori, and Percy and Mary entertained themselves by reading aloud ghost stories. On June 16, 1816, at what is now considered one of the most famous literary parties in history, Byron proposed, “We will each write a ghost story.”
In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley recollected the events of that evening writing she had “not seen these stories since then; but their incidents are as fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.”
Byron started a story but only printed a fragment at the end of one of his poems. Percy Shelley wrote nothing that remains and Mary later wrote that stories were not his style. Polidori took the fragment Byron had started and wrote the story, “Vampyre,” which influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. It has been said that on the same night in 1816 two of the world’s most famous literary monsters were born.
In the fall and winter after Byron’s challenge there was more tragedy in the Shelleys’ lives when Mary’s older half-sister Fanny and Percy’s wife, Harriet, each committed suicide. Despite all this, looking back at the time of her work on the novel, Mary wrote in 1831 that the book was “the offspring of happy days.” She finished writing in May of 1817 and Frankenstein was published anonymously in March of 1818.
Percy Shelley drowned in a storm while sailing in 1822. Only one son survived Mary Shelley. (She had had three children die young.) She revised Frankenstein for the 1831 edition. In her short life (she died at age 53), she published six additional novels, several travel narratives, many short stories and a few pieces of children’s literature.
Paul Hunter, (ed.) Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, A Norton Critical Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1996.
Kathryn Harkup, Making the Monster, The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bloomsbury Sigma, London, 2018.
Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Frankenstein, A Cultural History, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007.
Esther Schor (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, 2003