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…
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 NEW ROMANTIC
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