Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley c. 1840 by Richard Rothwell

Mary Shelley c. 1840 by Richard Rothwell

Mary Wollenstonecraft Godwin Shelley, born August 30, 1797, was an author known primarily for her novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, although she also wrote other works and edited and promoted the work of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary was raised by her father, William Godwin, after the death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, when she was 11 days old. When she was four, her father married Mary Jane Clairmont, a neighbor. Mary had an older half-sister, Fanny Imlay, and a step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who would play a prominent role in her life.

Mary received an advanced, although informal, education for a girl in her time. At various times, she had a governess, a tutor, and spent a brief period in a boarding school at Ramsgate. But she also received tutoring from her father and had access to his library and many illustrious visitors.

William Godwin was a political philosopher and when Mary was a teenager she began a romantic relationship with one of his followers, Percy Shelley. At some time between 1814 and 1816, Mary returned from travel abroad, with Claire and Percy, pregnant with Percy’s child. Unmarried, they faced ostracism, a break with her family, and finally the death of her daughter who was born prematurely.

Percy Bysshe Shelley c. 1819 by Amelia Curran

Percy Bysshe Shelley c. 1819 by Amelia Curran

1816 was an eventful year for Mary. In January, she gave birth to a son, William, then in May she traveled to Geneva with Percy and Claire Clarmont to spend the summer with Lord Byron. It was here that she conceived of the idea and wrote Frankenstein. After they returned to England, Mary received two disturbing letters from her sister Fanny. Percy quickly went to look for her, but was too late. She was found on October 10th with a suicide note. On December 10, Percy’s wife, Harriet, was also found dead, another apparent suicide. In order to improve his chances to gain custody of his children, Percy and Mary were married on December 30,  ending the year on what one would hope would be a happy note.

Percy was denied custody of his children by Harriet, but the next year, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Clara. Claire also gave birth to a daughter by Lord Byron whom she named Alba. This in part prompted their next trip to the continent. Their first stop was Venice, where Alba, later called Allegra, was given to Lord Byron. They then began what would be a prolific time of writing, reading, and socializing. Although Italy provided a level of personal and political freedom they didn’t have in England, in the end, it would be a time of sadness.

Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran, 1819

Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran, 1819

The birth of Percy Florence Shelley, Mary’s fourth child, lifted the depression she had sunk into. In the year prior to his birth, both of her other children died of disease. They traveled and spent time with various friends, for a while in Naples, then settling in San Terenzo at the Bay of Lerici. Here Mary’s roving life would soon end. On July 8, 1822, Percy set out, after a visit to friends, on a return voyage by boat during rough weather. Days later, his body with that of his friend Edward Williams and boat-boy, Charles Vivian, washed ashore.

Mary’s life after Percy consisted primarily of writing, editing and promoting his work, and taking care of her son. Sir Timothy Shelley, Percy’s father, initially refused to support Percy Florence unless Mary gave him up to a guardian. She refused, but he did agree to give her a small allowance. He threatened to stop even this small gesture if she published a biography of Percy.

Still, she managed to make a living as a writer. From 1827 to 1840, she published the novels Perkin Warbeck, Lodore, and Falkner, as well as selling the copyright for a new edition of Frankenstein. She was also paid to edit the Poetical Works of Percy Shelley in which she managed to include biographical notes on his life in spite of Sir Timothy’s demands.

Her primary focus was always Percy Florence and Mary remained close him for the rest of her life even living with him and his wife. In 1844, Sir Timothy died leaving Percy Florence financially independent and Mary for the first time unworried about money. Prior to this however, beginning in 1839, Mary was plagued by headaches and bouts of paralysis. On February 1, 1851, she died of what was thought to be a brain tumor. She was 53 years old.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, since her death, Mary Shelley has been seen primarily as the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft and as the wife of Percy Shelley. At best she has been considered a one-novel writer. Fortunately that attitude has begun to change. Within the last 30 years all of her writings have finally been published and a full-length biography written. She was seen as a professional writer in her own right during her lifetime, and is finally being restored to that place in history.

Find out what else happened on August 30 in Women’s History.

Wikipedia, Mary Shelley, (as of Aug. 30, 2013, 05:29 GMT).

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