In the spirit of International Women’s Day 2018, we take a look at the life and legacy of one of the most influential female authors of our time: Mary Shelley.
Credited with the birth of modern science fiction, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is one of England’s most celebrated historical writers. Born Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin in 1797, she was the second daughter of writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the first of journalist William Godwin.
Mary’s mother died not long after her birth. She and her half-sister Fanny Imlay were brought up by Mary’s father. Although Mary did not have a chance to get to know her mother, she cherished her memory. She grew up reading her books and memoirs. Her mother was one of her earliest influences.
Mary grew up with a doting father, but a quick-tempered stepmother with whom she did not get along. It didn’t help the experience of her childhood that her father’s publishing business struggled to turn a profit. Donations from followers of Godwin’s philosophical and political writings were often all that kept the family clothed and fed.
Despite this, Godwin was dedicated to ensuring that his children were properly educated. He tutored them in a wide variety of subjects, offering them free reign in his library and often took them on educational outings. Mary read many of her father’s books. She had a governess and a daily tutor, giving her more of an education than many girls of her time. She even attended boarding school for six months at the age of fourteen.
By the age of fifteen, Mary’s father described her as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible”.
It was at this age that Mary was sent to stay with her father’s friend William Baxter. There, she received more education and bonded with Baxter’s four daughters. Her time there was her introduction to the world of radical politics. After staying with the Baxters’ for a summer, she returned the next year for a full ten months.
She later wrote:
“It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley came into Mary’s life around this time.
He was a fan of Mary’s father’s political writing and had agreed to bail him out of debt. However, his political views had ostracised him from his family, who supported traditional models of the landed aristocracy. Shelley’s dedication to political justice endeared him to Godwin, but made it difficult for him to access his family’s money.
Despite promising Godwin money for months, it eventually became apparent that he wouldn’t be able to access any money until he inherited it. This left Godwin feeling betrayed by a man he had thought was his friend.
By this point, Mary and Shelley had taken a shine to each other. Although the 22-year-old Shelley was already married, he was effectively estranged from his wife.
The 16-year-old Mary met him in secret at her mother’s grave. On June 26th 1814, they declared their love for each other and Mary lost her virginity to him.
Mary’s father found out about Shelley’s relationship with his daughter around the same time he learned that Shelley would not be helping him with his financial troubles. Godwin resolutely disapproved of their relationship.
Mary and Shelley eloped to France on July 28th 1814, taking Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont with them. They left Shelley’s pregnant wife behind.
Mary, her stepsister and her lover travelled through France, visiting Calais and Paris and eventually making their way to Switzerland. They spent their time reading and writing.
They returned to England when they ran out of money in September. Penniless and pregnant, Mary was rejected by her father when she attempted to return home.
Instead, the three of them found their own lodgings. They continued to read and write almost every moment of the day, and entertained friends. Shelley would often disappear to avoid creditors.
Mary’s daughter was born two months premature, in February 1815. She died less than two weeks later.
Mary was not happy during this time. While she believed theoretically in free love, she could not resist feeling jealous that Shelley was also sleeping with her stepsister. It didn’t help that Shelley’s estranged wife had given birth to a healthy baby boy not a few months before Mary’s sickly daughter.
However, their situation did not change. Although Mary was distraught at the death of her daughter, by summer she had conceived a second child.
Shelley’s grandfather, Sir Bysshe Shelley, died around the same time. The inheritance Shelley received finally gave the couple some financial security. They moved to a rented cottage in Bishopsgate. Mary gave birth to their son, William, in January 1816.
The Modern Prometheus
In the summer of 1816, Mary, Shelley and their son visited the poet Lord Byron with Claire Clairmont, who was expecting Byron’s child. They spent the summer writing, discussing their writing and occasionally boating when the “incessant rain” would permit.
They told each other German ghost stories and Byron challenged them all to come up with their own. Mary struggled to think of one until an evening when their talks turned to the nature of life. Struck by the idea that “perhaps a corpse would be reanimated”, Mary was unable to sleep as the story finally came to her.
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
This story became her first and most famous novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.
She finished writing Frankenstein in the summer of 1817 and was published anonymously in January of the next year. Because it included a preface from Percy Shelley and was dedicated to William Godwin – famously Shelley’s political hero, as well as Mary’s father – it was generally assumed that Shelley wrote the book.
Mary later described that summer in Switzerland as the time she “first stepped out from childhood into life”.
When they returned to England as summer 1816 came to a close, Mary and Shelley helped Claire to keep her pregnancy a secret.
In December, Shelley’s estranged wife committed suicide. His attempts to take custody of his two children were obstructed by his ex-wife’s family. At the advice of his lawyers, Shelley and Mary were married on December 30th 1816. Mary’s father attended the wedding and they repaired their relationship.
Still, Shelley was ruled morally unfit to take custody of his two children.
In September, Mary gave birth to her daughter Clara. The little family were still struggling financially and Shelley’s debts were piling up. Between the threat of debtor’s prison and the fear that they may lose custody of their children, Shelley and Mary fled to Italy.
The travelled the country with a growing group of friends. They continued to read and write in all their free time, but their nomadic life of intellectual bliss was disrupted by the death of both their children between September 181 and June 1819. This threw Mary into a deep depression. In a letter to a friend, she wrote:
“May you my dear Marianne never know what it is to lose two only and lovely children in one year-to watch their dying moments-and then at last to be left childless and forever miserable.”
It did not go unnoticed by those around her. Percy Shelley described how it affected her in a poem:
“My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
Do thou return for mine.”
Mary devoted herself to her writing. The loss of her three children haunted her for the rest of her life. But she found a new sense of meaning with the birth of her fourth child, Percy Florence, who was born in November 1819.
While in Italy, Mary and her family experienced political freedom that could not have found in England. She wrote her novels Matilda and Valperga, as well as her plays Proserpine and Midas while she was there.
Despite her productivity, she was often ill and her depression never left her. She almost died after suffering a miscarriage in 1822. She lost so much blood that doctors claimed that she would not have lived had Shelley not insisted on keeping her in a bath of ice to staunch her bleeding.
The other women in Shelley’s life put a lot of strain on their relationship. Although Mary supported the non-exclusivity of their marriage, she wasn’t as interested in other romantic connections as her husband was.
That same summer, Percy Shelley went sailing with his friends along the Italian coast. A storm capsized their boat and their bodies were found washed up on the coast ten days later.
Until the day she died, Mary kept some of her husband’s ashes and a piece of his heart in a silk parcel.
Mary Shelley stayed in Genoa for a year after her husband’s death. Initially she resolved to support herself and her son with her writing, but she had little financial security. She moved back to her father’s house in England in 1823.
She managed to secure an allowance to help her support her son from Shelley’s father, Sir Timothy Shelley. But Sir Shelley was difficult to deal with. He insisted on dealing with Mary only through lawyers and never met with her or his grandson. He also told Mary that the allowance would be discontinued if she ever published a biography of her late husband.
In 1826, Shelley’s last living child, Charles, died.
Between the social circles of her father and her late husband, she managed to maintain a foothold in the literary world. She spent her time writing and editing Shelley’s leftover work. She helped old colleagues of her late husband put together memoirs for him. She spent a lot of her life after Shelley’s death going to great lengths to immortalise him and his works.
Between 1827 and 1840, Shelley wrote a number of novels and stories for ladies’ magazines. She used the money to support both her father and her son. In an attempt to live up to her mother’s legacy, she also supported women who had been ostracised by society.
After Percy Florence graduated from Cambridge, he and his mother travelled through Europe.
In 1844, Sir Timothy Shelley died, leaving the Shelley estate to Percy Florence, finally providing the family with financial independence.
Percy Florence married in 1848 and Mary lived with her son and daughter-in-law until she passed away.
At the age of 53, in February 1851, Mary died of what is suspected to be a brain tumour. She was buried in St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth.