Mary Shelley: Franken­stein’s Mother

Mary Shelley Two hun­dred years ago, a young woman com­pleted one of the most ter­ri­fy­ing nov­els of all time. Mel Sher­wood dis­cov­ers the scan­dalous and tu­mul­tuous tale of Mary Shelley…

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

The scan­dalous life of the au­thor

Isaw – with shut eyes, but acute men­tal vi­sion – 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.”

This, in Mary Shelley’s own words, is how the idea of Franken­stein; or The Mod­ern

Prometheus first came to her, her imag­i­na­tion “pos­sessed” by the phan­tasm. Though his­to­ri­ans ques­tion whether or not she re­ally was struck, as if by light­ning, with this vi­sion, it cer­tainly would be apt if she had been. In the sum­mer of 1816, 18-year-old Mary penned her mag­num opus while trapped in a storm-rav­aged pocket of the Swiss Alps. As thun­der crack­led around her, she cre­ated one of the most original and en­dur­ing hor­ror sto­ries of all time. A ge­nius piece of writ­ing, Franken­stein pulled to­gether all the most prom­i­nent sci­en­tific ques­tions of Mary’s time, as well as over­ar­ch­ing philo­soph­i­cal themes that en­dure to­day. But more than that, she also wove in per­sonal woes that had haunted her – and would con­tinue to haunt her – her whole life long.

It was when Mary was just ten days old that she suf­fered her first, haunting, tragedy; on 10 Septem­ber 1797, her mother died of childbed, or puer­peral, fever. With her mother gone, Mary was left with her father and her half­sis­ter Fanny. Though born small and weak, the in­fant Mary soon de­vel­oped lungs that cried out es­pe­cially loud and strong. Even as a baby, Mary had a voice to be heard.

Theirs was an un­con­ven­tional fam­ily, which is en­tirely be­cause of Mary’s un­con­ven­tional, but un­de­ni­ably bril­liant, par­ents. Her mother was the pi­o­neer­ing fem­i­nist writer Mary Woll­stonecraft, while her father was the rad­i­cal writer and philoso­pher Wil­liam God­win. They were athe­ists, anar­chists and vo­cal ad­vo­cates for wide­spread so­cial change. Their love af­fair had been suit­ably pas­sion­ate for such rad­i­cals. Though Wil­liam sought to bring down the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage, the pair were mar­ried within a year, by which time Mary was with child. A few short months later she bore Mary ju­nior into this world and in do­ing so, lost her life. Wil­liam mourned the loss for many years but, even­tu­ally, he felt his daugh­ters needed a mother fig­ure and, in 1801, he re­mar­ried.

Mary-Jane Clair­mont, who had two young chil­dren, would tick many of the boxes on the list of re­quired qual­i­ties for the ar­che­typal role of the wicked step­mother. She had an ugly tem­per, was quick to raise her hand, seem­ingly cared lit­tle for her stepchil­dren, and banned any talk of the first Mrs God­win. Young Mary had al­ways blamed her­self for her mother’s death, feel­ing deeply that she had taken her maker’s life, but un­der her step­mother’s regime, her an­guish deep­ened. The child pored over her mother’s books, as well as her mother’s por­trait, des­per­ate to see her­self in the face look­ing out at her. She was ded­i­cated to her ed­u­ca­tion, which no doubt ben­e­fit­ted from the fact that she lived with her father. Though he had fallen from favour, Wil­liam still at­tracted great thinkers to the house. Philoso­phers, po­ets, crit­ics and sci­en­tists all came to visit Wil­liam, and Mary ab­sorbed ev­ery word of their de­bates that she could.

After an ill­ness in around 1812, Mary went to stay with the Bax­ter fam­ily in Dundee – an en­vi­ron­ment that her fam­ily thought would be bet­ter for her re­cov­ery than Lon­don. In Novem­ber, Mary re­turned home for a short spell, and she would not have been sur­prised to learn that one of her father’s many fa­nat­ics was vis­it­ing. But she would never have imag­ined how this vis­i­tor would change her life…


The guest was Percy Bysshe Shelley, a fiery young Ro­man­tic poet of 19, who saw him­self as a dis­ci­ple of Wil­liam God­win. He and his new wife, Har­riet, had be­come reg­u­lar visitors to the house, and Percy, who was heir to a great for­tune, had of­fered to pay Wil­liam to write new po­lit­i­cal works. While this first meet­ing was fleet­ing, as the 14-year-old Mary soon re­turned to Dundee, their sec­ond, in May 1814, was any­thing but. Now 16 years old, in­tel­lec­tual

“There is some­thing at work in my soul, which I do not un­der­stand” An ex­tract from Franken­stein

and bright, Mary in­stantly cap­ti­vated Percy. She dis­cussed all man­ner of sub­jects with con­fi­dence and pas­sion, in par­tic­u­lar mat­ters of sci­ence and rev­o­lu­tion. He would later say that he did not fall in love with her for her beauty, but for her orig­i­nal­ity. By June, the pair were see­ing each other ev­ery day and, though they had not yet made any men­tion of love, Percy had all but aban­doned Har­riet. One day, while on a se­cret walk to­gether to her mother’s grave, Mary boldly de­clared that she loved him. They took to each other’s arms and, in Mary’s own words, in­dulged in the “full ar­dour of love” be­side the grave.

Divorce was ex­cep­tion­ally dif­fi­cult at this time, so Mary and Percy con­cerned them­selves with how to be to­gether. Even­tu­ally, the lovers set­tled on run­ning away to the Con­ti­nent – Mary did not be­lieve her mar­riage-hat­ing father would be too con­cerned. On 28 July, Mary and her step­sis­ter Claire snuck out and met Percy, be­fore sail­ing the Chan­nel. It was a stormy night and, ter­ri­fied and sea­sick, Mary cow­ered in her lover’s arms. But Percy was thrilled. Like most

“Soli­tude was my only con­so­la­tion – deep, dark, death­like soli­tude” An ex­tract from Franken­stein

Ro­man­tics, he rev­elled in the sav­age dan­gers of na­ture. From France, they trav­elled to Switzer­land, where they were ex­pect­ing a wild and rugged land­scape, but it was not at all as they had hoped it would be; it was or­derly, and clean. Thor­oughly dis­ap­pointed, they de­cided to re­turn to Eng­land. Their jour­ney home took them through the Rhine, where they saw the ru­ins of a cas­tle called ‘Franken­stein’. The macabre tale that swirls around Franken­stein Cas­tle clearly struck a chord with Mary: leg­end has it that a mad al­chemist spent his days there con­duct­ing grue­some ex­per­i­ments to see if he could bring the dead back to life.

Upon their re­turn in Septem­ber, 17-year-old Mary was preg­nant. They set up res­i­dence in Lon­don, but Mary was of­ten alone, as Percy stayed away from the house to avoid the many cred­i­tors he was in­debted to – he had not yet come into his in­her­i­tance, and their trip had not been cheap (nor had he stopped promis­ing friends, like Wil­liam, money). To make mat­ters worse, they had been shunned by po­lite so­ci­ety for their flight to Europe, and Mary’s father turned out to be more rad­i­cal in thought than in deed – he dis­owned her.

Mary’s spir­its were low at this time, and they were about to take an­other hit. She gave birth to her baby pre­ma­turely in Fe­bru­ary 1815, and it lived only a few days. Later, she wrote in her

journal: “Dream that my lit­tle baby came back to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it be­fore the fire, and it lived.” That night­mare haunted her for the rest of her days.

Mary and Percy were soon ex­pect­ing again and a boy, Wil­liam, was born in Jan­uary 1816. In May, the lit­tle fam­ily, ac­com­pa­nied by Claire, went to stay in Geneva, set­ting up home amid the Alps on the shore of Lake Geneva. One of their near­est neigh­bours was Lord By­ron – a fel­low Ro­man­tic poet with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit and, for a short time, Claire’s lover. At first, the group of rad­i­cals spent their days to­gether sail­ing on the lake and en­joy­ing the beauty of na­ture around them. That is, un­til the weather turned.

Day after dreary day, the group en­ter­tained them­selves by recit­ing plays, po­ems and sto­ries. On one par­tic­u­larly tem­pes­tu­ous night, Lord By­ron found a vol­ume of ghost tales to read. His au­di­ence was ter­ri­fied, but for By­ron, it was not enough. “We will each write a ghost story,” he an­nounced. He prob­a­bly only ex­pected the men to take up the chal­lenge, but Mary had other ideas. She had long wanted to prove her cre­ative abil­i­ties, and to live up to the ex­pec­ta­tions that many peo­ple had of her as the prog­eny of two ge­nius writ­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to her own ac­count, days went by with­out a promis­ing idea un­til, one night, she was struck with her vi­sion of the “stu­dent of un­hal­lowed arts”. The next day, she put pen to pa­per, cre­at­ing a short story. She showed Percy what she had writ­ten – he was one of the many to be­lieve that his lover had lit­er­ary ge­nius in her veins – and he was thrilled. He en­cour­aged Mary to de­velop it into a full-length novel. While she was writ­ing, she was haunted by dreams of her dead child and of thoughts of her mother’s death, none of which would have been helped by the news that her half­sis­ter Fanny had com­mit­ted sui­cide in Oc­to­ber 1816 and, a few months later, that Percy’s wife Har­riet also took her own life. Un­der pres­sure from her father, Mary and Percy were mar­ried on 30 De­cem­ber 1816. Mary was preg­nant again.


The fam­ily moved back to Eng­land and Mary fin­ished Franken­stein in May 1817, be­fore giv­ing birth to a baby girl in Septem­ber. Her de­but novel was pub­lished the fol­low­ing Jan­uary. While Mary wrote nu­mer­ous other books – in­clud­ing a travel nar­ra­tive en­ti­tled His­tory of a Six Weeks’ Tour based on her scan­dalous first ad­ven­ture to Europe; a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel called Mathilde; and a his­tor­i­cal novella called Valperga – Franken­stein was unar­guably her most in­fa­mous work.

A seam­less merg­ing of the Gothic and the Ro­man­tic, and with enough ground­break­ing ma­te­rial to be con­sid­ered by many as the

“Be­ware; for I am fear­less, and there­fore pow­er­ful” Ex­tract from Franken­stein

first-ever work of sci­ence fic­tion, Franken­stein was a truly rad­i­cal novel. In­spired by real sci­en­tific and philo­soph­i­cal think­ing of the time, it tells the story of the am­bi­tious sci­ence stu­dent, Vic­tor Franken­stein (who bears a strik­ing re­sem­blance to Percy). Con­sumed by a de­sire to discover the source of life, he sets about build­ing a crea­ture from body parts in or­der to at­tempt to an­i­mate it. But when he suc­ceeds, he is hor­ri­fied by his cre­ation and flees. Par­ent­less, the crea­ture is left to fend for it­self, but after be­ing de­serted by his maker and re­peat­edly forced out of so­ci­ety, he turns to evil, wreak­ing mur­der­ous re­venge on his maker and ev­ery­one he holds dear. A ter­ri­fy­ing thriller, this fan­tas­ti­cal tale asks chal­leng­ing and real ques­tions about hu­man­ity, and while po­lite so­ci­ety wasn’t ready for it at first (one re­viewer ques­tioned “whether the head or the heart of the au­thor be the most dis­eased”), it slowly be­came a cult hit.

How­ever, nei­ther re­views nor sales were likely to have been at the fore­front of Mary’s mind. In 1818, her baby girl died and, in June 1819, her young son Wil­liam also passed away. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Mary sank into de­pres­sion.

Though in Novem­ber 1819 she gave birth to a healthy son, Mary’s spir­its re­mained low for years. As well as griev­ing for so many lost fam­ily mem­bers, her long-held be­liefs in the ide­olo­gies of free love were be­ing sorely tested; her hus­band had al­ways had a wan­der­ing eye, but now he had fallen in love with Claire, her own sis­ter. To make mat­ters worse, she had the un­shake­able feel­ing that some­thing ter­ri­ble was going to hap­pen. She was right.

The sum­mer of 1822 brought two shat­ter­ing tragedies. In June, while the Shel­leys were liv­ing in Italy, Mary nearly died from a mis­car­riage. Then, in July, Percy drowned at sea. Mary would never re­cover from this loss, which came at the end of such a bru­tal string of tragedies.

With the death of her hus­band, so too do we see a shift in Mary’s rad­i­cal life. She lost her en­thu­si­asm for rev­o­lu­tion and so­cial change – she even be­came an ad­mirer of the com­par­a­tively main­stream politi­cian Ben­jamin Dis­raeli. She did, how­ever, con­tinue to write, prov­ing par­tic­u­larly adept at biogra­phies and his­to­ries, and she also edited a col­lec­tion of po­etry that her late hus­band had left un­fin­ished. But de­spite these qui­eter years, when she died in 1851, at the age of 54, she was best known as the scan­dalous au­thor of

Franken­stein, and to­day, her work is recog­nised as a mas­ter­piece of Gothic and Ro­man­tic lit­er­a­ture, and one of the original pieces of sci­ence fic­tion.

In later life, Mary was de­voted to her only sur­viv­ing son Percy Florence, who she sent to Har­row

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