from The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
by Mrs Julian Marshall (1889)
Mary Shelley (30 August 1797 - 1 February 1851) was an English writer who is most famous for her novel Frankenstein. She was the wife of the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in London on 30 August 1797, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Godwin was a radical political philosopher and author; his most famous work, Political Justice, was published in 1793. Wollstonecraft was an ardent feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. In this work, she spoke out vehemently against the position of women in society, most notably describing marriage as “legal prostitution”.
Given their radical views, it is perhaps surprising that Godwin and Wollstonecraft married. However, Godwin’s intent was to provide security for their unborn child, which Wollstonecraft had lacked when her older daughter, Fanny Imlay, had been born and her lover, Gilbert, had deserted them.
After Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; the scandalous book was not received well as the memoirs included details of Wollstonecraft’s affairs and her illegitimate child.
Mary’s mother died from complications shortly after her birth leaving her and her half-sister, Fanny, to be raised by Godwin. In 1801, he married Mrs. Claremont, who brought her own children, Charles and Jane - later known as Claire - into the Godwin family unit. Mary resented her step-mother whilst idealising her own mother. Her early years were spent in Scotland, near Dundee, and in London, where her family had a house in Skinner Street, Holborn. The Godwins were often plagued with a shortage of funds.
Godwin describes his daughter in a letter to an unknown correspondent: "She is singularly bold, somewhat imperious and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible. My own daughter is, I believe, very pretty.”
The house in Skinner Street was a stimulating intellectual environment. Godwin received many visitors including Lamb, Burr and Coleridge, who read his poem, The Ancient Mariner, in Mary’s hearing.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
|Percy Bysshe Shelley|
from Percy Bysshe Shelley, a monograph
by HS Salt (1888)
The poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his wife, Harriet, were regular visitors to Skinner Street. Shelley was a much younger man than most of Godwin’s other friends and he revered his work, Political Justice, giving it a fanatical interpretation.
Mary and Shelley fell in love and embarked upon a scandalous affair. Despite his views on marriage, Godwin did not support the relationship; he had fallen out with Shelley who had promised him money which he was not then able to give him due to his own financial situation.
Together with Mary’s step-sister, Claire Claremont, Shelley and Mary went abroad in July 1814, travelling throughout Europe. When they returned to England, Mary was pregnant with Shelley’s child, and Godwin refused to receive them. The couple were penniless and found themselves ostracised from society. When her baby daughter died shortly after her birth in February 1815, Mary became depressed and isolated from Shelley who was trying to avoid his creditors.
The birth of Frankenstein
However, Mary fell pregnant again and gave birth to a son, William, on 24 January 1816, which eased her depression. The couple’s monetary problems were pressing, and so in the summer, they decided to go abroad to Geneva in Switzerland in the company of Lord Byron, John Polidori and Claire Claremont. It was while this illustrious company were writing ghost stories together that Mary conceived the idea for her novel, Frankenstein.
|Front cover of Frankenstein |
On 30 December 1816, Shelley and Mary were married, following the death of Shelley’s first wife. Godwin now became reconciled to the match, but the relationship between them continued to be strained as he regularly demanded financial support from his son-in-law.
Travels in Italy
In 1818, plagued by debt, the couple and their young family – William and baby Clara, who had been born on 2 September 1817 – went abroad again. Over the next three years, the Shelleys travelled around Italy, to Venice, Naples, Rome and Florence, but it was a time of great sadness. First Clara and then William became ill and died. Mary was devastated. “Everything on earth has lost its interest to me,” she wrote to her friend, Miss Curran.
On 12 November 1819, Percy Florence was born, but Mary feared she would lose him just like her other children. The Shelleys were constantly short of money but gained enjoyment from reading and writing and the intellectual stimulus of their own company and that of their many visitors.
On 8 July 1822, tragedy struck: Shelley was drowned when his sailing boat sunk during a storm. Mary returned to England the following year and devoted herself to bringing up her son and continuing her writing. Sir Timothy Shelley provided her with a small income on the understanding that she would not publish any of Shelley’s work or a biography during his lifetime.
Mary never remarried; no one else was Shelley’s equal. "Mary Shelley shall be written on my tomb,” she wrote to her friend and suitor, Trelawney. Her son, Percy, studied at Harrow and Cambridge, but showed no signs of his parents’ genius. Mary struggled with continued social ostracism and friends who continually let her down. Jane St. John, who became Percy’s wife, was a great source of comfort to Mary in the last years of her life.
Illness and death
Mary grew increasingly unwell during the last years of her life and died on 1 February 1851 after a series of strokes. She was buried in St. Peter’s churchyard, Bournemouth, in Dorset.
|Mary Shelley's gravestone in St Peter's churchyard, Bournemouth|
The works of Mary Shelley
As well as Frankenstein, Mary wrote several other lesser known novels: Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826), Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837). She also wrote a volume of travel studies – Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844). She also edited and promoted the work of her husband, Percy Shelley.
Sources used include:
Marshall, Mrs. Julian, The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1889) in 2 volumes
Spark, Muriel, Mary Shelley (1988)
Photos © Andrew Knowles