Mother of Frankenstein
Author Mary Shelley
“Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”
That is the voice of the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; it is not the grunting monster portrayed in most films. Moreover, it may be the cri de coeur of Frankenstein’s nineteen-year-old author.
At the time she wrote Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was involved in scandal, and the object of gossip and ridicule. At sixteen she had eloped to the continent with the then married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her teen-aged half-sister, Jane Claire Clairmont, joined them. Claire may have also been intimate with Shelley, and she later became Lord Byron’s mistress, bearing him a daughter whom Byron had placed in an orphanage where the girl, Allegra, died at age five.
At seventeen, Mary gave premature birth to an unnamed daughter who died within days. The following year, Mary’s other stepsister, Fanny Imlay, killed herself, and she too may have had an affair with Shelley. That same year, Shelley’s pregnant wife, Harriet, committed suicide by jumping from a bridge over the Serpentine in Hyde Park.
Mary was the daughter of famous parents. Her mother, who died shortly after giving birth, author and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, is considered among the first modern feminists. Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, was a noted radical author and philosopher. Both of Mary Shelley’s parents advocated free love and questioned traditional marriage. Therefore, Mary was shocked, confused and deeply hurt when her father refused to speak to her for two years, until after the death of Shelley’s wife and Mary and Percy’s subsequent marriage. At the time she wrote Frankenstein, young Mary may have identified with her creature, despised and abandoned by its creator. And there is also evidence from her journals that she identified with pariahs she encountered in her reading, like Milton’s Satan and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.
Mary Shelley was an exceptional woman of the 19th century who went against the constraints of proper womanhood and lived a spontaneous life full of love and intellect among heartbreak and pitfalls. Through her education, intellectual influences, family and friends, and feelings about Rousseau, Mary Shelley developed into the unusual and thought provoking woman she was when she wroteFrankenstein in 1817. As Mary Shelley grew older, however, she abandoned her carefree attitude towards life and attempted to conform to the proper standards for a lady in the 1800s. From her youthful days of energy and adventure, to her lonely life after her husband died, Mary Shelley experienced many life altering events.
“As a child I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories.’ Still I had a dearer pleasure than this, which was the formation of castles in the air — the indulging in waking dreams — the following up trains of thought, which had for their subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents. My dreams were at once more fantastic and
agreeable than my writings.”
-Mary Shelley in an Introduction to Frankenstein, Third Edition (1831)
Mary Shelly’s mother gave birth to her after only having been in wedlock for five months. The only reason Wollstonecraft and William Godwin decided to marry, since as revolutionaries they were so opposed to the institution of marriage, was to give Mary social respectability understanding the famous name she would be carrying on .
Her father was an “irreligious philosopher for whom Harriet Lee, a woman he had courted, was too proper.”
He confessed to Mrs. Clairmont Godwin, his second wife, that there was nothing that had “so much reverence and religion in it as affection to parents .Mary had, as she put it, “an excessive and romantic attachment” to her father. Thus Mrs. Clairmont limited Mary’s access to her father. In fact Mary described that her father “was my god . . . & and I remember many childish instances of the excess of attachment I bore for him”
In her relations later in life, Mary Shelley certainly did not morally adhere to the ideas of the time. What was an intense sexual and emotional relationship between Mary and Percy Shelley occurred while he was still married to Harriet Shelley. Also, a part of their attraction to each other was because Shelley knew Mary would have a commitment to revolutionary principles like her parents were and Mary saw in Shelley her father’s revolutionary philosophical personality.
Mary’s sexual involvement with Percy while he was still a married man also serves as an example of Mary Shelley fostering her mother’s ideals of sexual freedom demonstrated by Wollstonecraft’s life and her writing.
Mary Wollestonecraft (Godwin) Shelley was born on August 30, 1797 in London, England to philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollestonecraft; both her parents were noted writers in the 1800s. Her father’s most famous book was Political Justice (1793), which is a critical look at society and the ethical treatment of the masses. Godwin’s other popular book Caleb Williams (1794) examines class distinctions and the misuse of power by the ruling aristocracy. Mary Wollestonecraft, her mother, was a leading feminist writer who espoused her views in her famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). They married in 1797 to protect the rights of the forthcoming child. When their daughter Mary was born, William and Mary had only been married for five months. Four weeks after giving birth, Mary Wollestonecraft died of complications. Thus, Mary Shelley never knew her mother. Her father remarried a woman by the name of Mrs. Clairmont when the young Mary was four years old.
Mary’s learned father, who had frequent guests in their home all through her formative years, guaranteed her education. A voracious reader, Mary borrowed books from her father’s extensive library. She enjoyed writing at a young age, and her passion was to write stories intended for a very limited audience. The influence of her famous father’s home cannot be understated with a constant stream of writers, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was at home that Mary developed into a person of letters, following in the family tradition of writers and thinkers.
Between June 1812 and March 1814, Mary lived with relatives in Scotland. It was upon her return visits to London when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who idolized her father, and their relationship began. Mary and Percy left England for France in June 1814 to begin a life together. Shelley was still married to his first wife, Harriet Westbrook. Within four years of being married, Percy met Mary, and a new marriage was proposed as soon as the first marriage was dissolved. In late 1814, Mary and Percy returned to England and lived in hiding to avoid his first wife and previous back debts. It was at this time that Percy petitioned Mary’s father William for relief of his debt.
In February 1815, Mary gave birth to a daughter, who was born prematurely and who subsequently died in March of the same year. The couple settled in Bishopgate, England and a second child, William, was born.
In the summer of 1816, a tour of continental Europe was proposed. At a stop in Switzerland, the couple and Mary’s stepsister, Claire, rented a house near another British writer, Lord Byron. The summer proved wet and unseasonable; Byron suggested the group take to writing ghost stories to pass the time. It was during this summer that the form for Frankenstein was to take shape.
She conceived of Frankenstein during one of the most famous house parties in literary history when staying at Lake Geneva in Switzerland with Byron and Shelley. Interestingly enough, she was only nineteen at the time. She wrote the novel while being 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.
Mary Shelley spent the greater part of the summer of 1816, when she was nineteen, at the Chapuis in Geneva, Switzerland. The entourage included her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, Byron’s physician. Lord Byron rented the Villa Diodoti on the shores of Lake Geneva, which John Milton, the author of Lost, had visited in the 1600’s. Rousseau and Voltaire had also resided on these shores. Mary considered the area to be sacred to enlightenment.
The weather went from being beautiful and radiant to melodramatically tempestuous. Torrential rains and incredible lightning storms plagued the area, similar to the summer that Mary was born. This incredible meteorological change was due to the eruption of the volcano, Tambora, in Indonesia. The weather, as well as the company and the Genevan district, contributed to the genesis of Frankenstein.
All contributing events that summer intensified on the night of June 16th. Mary and Percy could not return to Chapuis, due to an incredible storm, and spent the night at the Villa Diodati with Byron and Polidori. The group read aloud a collection of German ghost stories, The Fantasmagoriana. In one of the stories, a group of travelers relate to one another supernatural experiences that they had experienced. This inspired Byron to challenge the group to write a ghost story.
Shelley wrote an forgettable story, Byron wrote a story fragment, and Polidori began the “The Vampyre”, the first modern vampire tale. Many consider the main character, Lord Ruthven, to be based on Byron. For some time it was thought that Byron had actually written the story but over time it was realized that Dr. Polidori was the author. Unfortunately, Mary was uninspired and did not start writing anything.
The following evening the group continued their late night activities and at midnight Byron recited the poem, Christabel by Samuel T. Coleridge. Percy became overwrought during the reading and perceived Mary as the villainess of the poem. He ran out of the room and apparently created quite a scene. This incident undoubtedly
affected Mary, leading to feelings of guilt that contributed to the story ideas she later developed.
For the next couple of days Mary was unable to begin her story. The poets dropped theirs but Mary persisted in her creative endeavor. She felt that her ambitions and her value were at stake and attempted to turn the pressure and frustration into creative energy.
On June 22nd, Byron and Shelley were scheduled to take a boat trip around the lake. The night before their departure the group discussed a subject from de Stael’s De l’Allemagne: “whether the principle of life could be discovered and whether scientists could galvanize a corpse of manufactured humanoid”. When Mary went to bed, she had a “waking” nightmare:
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, then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life…His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away…hope that…this thing…would subside into dead matter…he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains…
The next morning Mary realized she had found her story and began writing the lines that open Chapter IV of Frankenstein – “It was on a dreary night in November”-
The story was first only a few pages, but with the encouragement of Percy, the tale took on a greater length. Mary’s story, the best of the group, was so frightening to Byron that he ran “shrieking in horror” from the room.
She completed the novel in May of 1817 and is was published January 1, 1818.
In November 1816, Fanny, Mary’s half-sister, committed suicide. A few weeks later, in December 1816, Shelley’s first wife Harriet also killed herself. Within two weeks, Percy and Mary were married in St. Mildred’s Church in London on December 30, 1816. Early the next year, the couple moved to Marlow, England and a third child, Clara Everina, was born. In 1818, the Shelley’s left England for Italy to escape mounting debt and to improve Percy’s health. It was during this time that both small children died; Clara died in September 1818, and William died the following June, in 1819. Mary was miserable and disconsolate at 21 and 22 years of age. She did recover somewhat later in November 1819 when her son Percy was born in Florence, Italy. He would become the only Shelley child to survive to adulthood. Mary did not remain idle as a writer during this time, as she began a new novel,Valperga.
Life was forever altered when her husband was drowned at sea in a boating accident off the coast of Livorno (sometimes called Leghorn), Italy. By now, her life was seemingly connected to tragedy, with the deaths of three children, her mother, and her husband, and the suicides of Percy’s former wife and Mary’s half-sister.
She spent the rest of her life writing original works and tending to the works of her late husband. She became the keeper of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s fame and was editor of his posthumous works. This was done to raise the necessary funds to support herself and her son. In 1824, Posthumous Poems was published, which was edited by Mary. She had begun negotiations with her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, who did not want his son’s works published or his family’s name published in the press again during his lifetime. The Last Man (1826) is Shelley’s best-known work after Frankenstein because it tackles the subject of mass catastrophe in society.
In 1841, her son graduated from Trinity College, and he asked his mother to accompany him on a tour of Italy and Europe. During her travels, she compiled notes about her travels. Her son married in 1848, and Mary lived with him and his wife until she died. On February 1, 1851 Mary died in London and was buried in Bournemouth, England.