Mary and the Monster: The Life of Mary Godwin Shelley
This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Often considered to be the first science fiction novel, this book tells the story of mad scientist Victor Frankenstein and the creature that he creates and then rejects, with disastrous consequences. Rejection, loss, and the destruction of families were ever-present in Mary’s life as well as her work. At just nineteen when Mary began writing the celebrated work, it was often seen as surprising that someone as young as Mary Shelley could write Frankenstein. Yet, it becomes far less surprising when one examines those years of her life.
Mary was born in 1797 to William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, leaders of the first generation of Romantics; an artistic movement that flourished from approximately 1770 to 1850. The Romantics believed that truth and meaning could be found in spontaneous emotion and in nature. Despite an emphasis on individual genius and originality, the Romantics in Mary’s life had strong friendships with each other and formed a social and financial network of mutual support. Romanticism was a set of core values and a way of life in which chasing one’s inner truth was more important than any social obligation, including the obligations of marriage and parenthood.
Shelley’s father was a radical political writer. Godwin wrote the first major work in favor of anarchy as a political model. He also wrote the first thriller (Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams). Later in his life, he wrote a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft that proved to be so scandalous and controversial, that for decades Wollstonecraft’s abilities as an author were overshadowed by her complicated emotional life.
Shelley’s mother was an educator, author, and war correspondent whose most famous book was (and remains) A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Both Godwin and Wollstonecraft were opposed to legal marriage, because it required a woman to surrender almost all of her rights to her husband. However, when Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they married so that Mary would be seen as “legitimate.”
The Godwin’s happiness was short-lived. Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever ten days after Mary’s birth and when Mary was four, Godwin married a widow named Mary Jane Clairmont. Ultimately, five children came to live in that house, none of whom had the same two parents. Mary, however, was Godwin’s favorite and he showed her off to visitors often proclaiming her a genius just like her mother. He went on to teach her to read at her mother’s grave and educated her in hopes that she would be a writer. This led to disharmony at home however, as Mary did not get along with her stepmother who resented Mary’s status as the favorite child.
At sixteen, Mary met the poet and political philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. He became a regular visitor to the Godwin home, which was considered a hub of Romantic artists as well as scientists and political thinkers. Percy, who was twenty-two years old at the time, was married to a young woman named Harriet, with whom he had one child and was expecting another. Yet, these otherwise complicated obligations did not stop Percy from pursuing an additional relationship with Mary.
They met frequently at Mary’s mother’s gravestone, where they had sex for the first time (or so legend has it). In the ensuing whirlwind, just six months after their first meeting, Mary and Percy decided to run off to Europe together, taking Mary’s stepsister Claire with them. Mary ultimately saw their act as romantic, following the lessons taught to her by her radical and romantic parents, who believed that neither marriage nor money should shackle the heart.
Percy, Claire, and Mary came back to London only a few months after leaving the Godwin home. By this time, they were out of money, their reputations were thoroughly ruined, and Mary was pregnant.
Unfortunately, it seems that her father’s idealism had a limit, and he was furious with all of them. Mary was heartbroken and confused by his total rejection, which lasted for two years and in many ways their relationship never fully recovered even after their reconciliation.
As Mary’s pregnancy advanced, Percy, who thrived on attention and admiration, spent more time with Claire. Their relationship fed rumors (which persist to this day but remain unconfirmed) that Percy was sleeping with both sisters. Yet, despite these troubling dynamics, and throughout all the ups and downs of their relationship, Mary and Shelley were good collaborators, encouraging each other and editing each other’s work.
In February 1815, Mary gave birth to a girl named Clara, who was born prematurely and died about two weeks after the birth. Mary fell into a deep depression, a cycle of which would last years. She responded to grief by becoming withdrawn and outwardly stoic—a pattern that clashed with her demonstrative friends who often misinterpreted her as cold and uncaring.
Soon after Clara’s death, Mary became pregnant again. Her son William was born in January 1816. In the summer of that year, Mary and Percy went to Lake Geneva in Switzerland to visit Lord Byron, the Romantic poet. Despite some ongoing drama within the group, including but not limited to; a love triangle between a visiting physician, Mary, and Percy, an illegitimate pregnancy and torrid relationship between Claire and Byron, and relentless taunting by Byron towards everyone, they still managed to make plans to sightsee. The summer however, was unusually cold and rainy. Called “The Year Without a Summer,” the unseasonal weather was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies.
It was against this backdrop that the bored group decided to have a contest—that was of course, Byron’s idea. Everyone in the group was to write a ghost story. In the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary claims to have had difficulty thinking of a ghost story until she had a “waking dream” in which she saw a vision of a scientist reanimating a corpse and then fleeing.
It is notable that the members of the Lake Geneva party seemed especially susceptible to nightmares and visions that summer. It’s also notable that many women who wrote scandalous material during the Regency and Victorian periods framed themselves as mere conduits for outside inspiration in the form of dreams or visions. Either way, Mary claimed that this nightmare was the inspiration for Frankenstein.
Originally, Mary thought that Frankenstein would be a short story. However, Percy encouraged her to expand it into a novel. From that 1816 summer until sometime in late 1817, she worked on writing and rewriting it, as well as finding a publisher. The first edition was published anonymously, with an introduction by Percy, on January 1, 1818.
Between 1816 and Frankenstein’s publication in 1818, Mary was also busy with various family issues while helping Percy with his work. In 1816, while Mary was writing and revising Frankenstein, she and Percy were rocked by two losses. Mary’s half-sister Fanny had been left behind when the three had fled the Godwin household. Fanny killed herself on October 9, 1816.
In December of that year, Percy’s first wife, Harriet, also committed suicide. After Harriet’s death, Percy and Mary married despite their belief that marriage was an oppressive condition. They hoped that the marriage would make them sufficiently respectable for Percy to get custody of the children he had had with Harriet. The effort was unsuccessful.
Mary gave birth to a third child named Clara Everina in 1817 and finished final edits on her novel while recovering from the birth. In between raising William and Clara, writing and finding a publisher for Frankenstein, and helping Percy with his custody case, she also co-wrote History of a Six Weeks’ Tour in an effort to raise money for the ever-expanding household.
During these and following years, Claire also lived with Mary and Percy. She had a girl, Alba, although Byron later changed the baby’s name to Allegra. Mary and Percy found themselves in the middle of miserable, complicated, and often contradictory series of arguments between Claire and Byron. In April 1818, Claire sent Allegra to Byron, who only agreed to support Allegra if Claire promised not to see the child again. He promptly placed Allegra in a convent school, where she died of typhus four years later.
And death continued to visit Mary again and again. Clara Everina succumbed to dysentery in September 1818 during a rushed trip to visit Allegra. Mary’s son, William, died of malaria in June 1819. Mary was not only grieving, but also pregnant. She gave birth to a son, Percy Florence, who proved to be her only child to survive into adulthood. Just three years later, Percy Shelley died in a boating accident in 1822.
In Romanticism, it was not only one’s right to seek one’s own happiness; it was one’s duty. While Romantics might feel responsible for their actions to a certain extent (for instance, Percy never stopped providing money for the care of his and Harriet’s children) they felt that no one should be hostage to another’s emotions (for instance, Percy did not feel obligated to stay with Harriet once he fell in love with Mary). In certain contexts, being self-centered and selfish was seen as a positive trait—one that was essential for anyone pursuing real truth and a pure artistic vision.
Although Mary had a solid grounding in the science and political thought of the day thanks to the hours she spent discussing such topics with her father’s visitors and with the group at Lake Geneva, she was also all too experienced with loss, abandonment, rejection, and irresponsibility—themes that shape Frankenstein. Mary saw in her own life and in the lives of others that vast damage can be done when people pursue inspiration without a corresponding respect for the feelings and the lives of others.
The story of Frankenstein is one of a man (Victor Frankenstein) who acts without thought for consequences and whose subsequent abandonment of his creation leaves a swath of collateral damage in its wake. Reading the novel with regard to Mary’s biography, one sees in the monster the broken families, the suicides, and the lost children that represented the dark side of the Romantic movement. The story of parents failing their offspring in practical and emotional ways played out in Mary’s life and the lives of her friends again and again.
The one constant of Mary’s life was that parents could not be counted upon to care for or protect their children adequately. Often this happened through no fault of the parent, as when Wollstonecraft died after Mary’s birth, or when Mary was unable to save her premature daughter. Other times the rejection was deliberate and blatant, as when Mary’s father cut off contact with her for following the very lessons that he had taught, or when Byron refused to take any responsibility for Allegra until it became obvious to him that this was the only way to silence Claire. Sometimes the abandonment was more complicated. Percy had hoped to stay in close contact with Harriet and their children, and after she died he tried to get custody of them. However, when he had to choose between his children and Mary, he chose Mary. Even then, his choice was not constant, for whenever she was having his babies and was very pregnant or tending a newborn, he was off with someone else.
Frankenstein is a messy, melodramatic book in which characters are constantly exclaiming and swooning and missing the obvious. It’s no more and no less dated than any other Romantic piece of writing. Despite that, it has lived on and part of the reason it endures is that this imaginary tale borne of a nightmare is also created from lived emotional experience.
Nineteen-year-old Mary had certainly not sewn a man together and brought him back to life, but she had dreamed of her dead baby being revived after the first Clara’s death. She knew why people failed to take responsibility for their actions, especially pertaining to wives and children, and she knew how angry and desperate and vulnerable those wives and children could be.
Because of the scandal that surrounded her, she knew what it was to be feared and hated by society. At nineteen, Mary was an expert on instability, abandonment, rejection, and loss. Those emotions are what keep Frankenstein not just interesting, but alive.