Mary Shelley (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley), a writer, was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on August 30, 1797, in London, England. She was the daughter of philosopher and political writer William Godwin and famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft—the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Sadly for Shelley, she never really knew her mother who died shortly after her birth. Her father William Godwin was left to care for Shelley and her older half-sister Fanny Imlay. Imlay was Wollstonecraft’s daughter from an affair she had with a soldier.
The Mary Shelley we meet here is a woman we can engage with and understand. Her world, so rich in its settings and its cast of characters, seems drawn from a novel. She, at its centre, is flawed, brave, generous, and impetuous, a woman whose dark and brilliant imagination gave us a myth which seems ever more potent in our own era.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Biography and Profile
Mary Shelley was brought up by her father in a house filled with radical thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers of the day. Aged sixteen, she eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, embarking on a relationship that was lived on the move across Britain and Europe, as she coped with debt, infidelity and the deaths of three children, before early widowhood changed her life forever. Most astonishingly, it was while she was still a teenager that Mary composed her canonical novel Frankenstein, creating two of our most enduring archetypes today. The life story is well-known. But who was the woman who lived it?
She’s left plenty of evidence, and in this fascinating dialogue with the past, Fiona Sampson sifts through letters, diaries and records to find the real woman behind the story. She uncovers a complex, generous character – friend, intellectual, lover and mother – trying to fulfil her own passionate commitment to writing at a time when to be a woman writer was an extraordinary and costly anomaly. Published for the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, this is a major new work of biography by a prize-winning writer and poet.
The family dynamics soon changed with Godwin’s marriage to Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801. Clairmont brought her own two children into the union, and she and Godwin later had a son together. Shelley never got along with her stepmother. Her stepmother decided that her stepsister Jane (later Claire) should be sent away to school, but she saw no need to educate Shelley.
The Godwin household had a number of distinguished guests during Shelley’s childhood, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. While she didn’t have a formal education, she did make great use of her father’s extensive library. Shelley could often be found reading, sometimes by her mother’s grave. She also liked to daydream, escaping from her often challenging home life into her imagination.
Shelley also found a creative outlet in writing. According to The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, she once explained that “As a child, I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories.'” She published her first poem, “Mounseer Nongtongpaw,” in 1807, through her father’s company.
Love and Horror
During the summer of 1812, Shelley went to Scotland to stay with an acquaintance of her father William Baxter and his family. There she experienced a type of domestic tranquility she had never known. Shelley returned to the Baxters’ home the following year.
In 1814, Mary began a relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy Shelley was a devoted student of her father, but he soon focused his attentions on Mary. He was still married to his first wife when he and the teenaged Mary fled England together that same year. The couple was accompanied by Mary’s stepsister Jane. Mary’s actions alienated her from her father who did not speak to her for some time.
Mary and Percy Shelley traveled about Europe for a time. They struggled financially and faced the loss of their first child in 1815. Mary delivered a baby girl who only lived for a few days. The following summer, the Shelleys were in Switzerland with Jane Clairmont, Lord Byron and John Polidori. The group entertained themselves one rainy day by reading a book of ghost stories. Lord Byron suggested that they all should try their hand at writing their own horror story. It was at this time that Mary Shelley began work on what would become her most famous novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
Later that year, Mary suffered the loss of her half-sister Fanny who committed suicide. Another suicide, this time by Percy’s wife, occurred a short time later. Mary and Percy Shelley were finally able to wed in December 1816. She published a travelogue of their escape to Europe, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817), while continuing to work on her soon-to-famous monster tale. In 1818, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus debuted as a new novel from an anonymous author. Many thought that Percy Bysshe Shelley had written it since he penned its introduction. The book proved to be a huge success. That same year, the Shelleys moved to Italy.
While Mary seemed devoted to her husband, she did not have the easiest marriage. Their union was riddled with adultery and heartache, including the death of two more of their children. Born in 1819, their son, Percy Florence, was the only child to live to adulthood. Mary’s life was rocked by another tragedy in 1822 when her husband drowned. He had been out sailing with a friend in the Gulf of Spezia.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Later Years
Made a widow at age 24, Mary Shelley worked hard to support herself and her son. She wrote several more novels, including Valperga and the science fiction tale The Last Man (1826). She also devoted herself to promoting her husband’s poetry and preserving his place in literary history. For several years, Shelley faced some opposition from her late husband’s father who had always disapproved his son’s bohemian lifestyle.
Mary Shelley died of brain cancer on February 1, 1851, at age 53, in London, England. She was buried at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, laid to rest with the cremated remains of her late husband’s heart. After her death, her son Percy and daughter-in-law Jane had Mary Shelley’s parents exhumed from St. Pancras Cemetery in London (which had fallen into neglect over time) and had them reinterred beside Mary at the family’s tomb in St. Peter’s in Bournemouth.
It was roughly a century after her passing that one of her novels, Mathilde, was finally released in the 1950s. Her lasting legacy, however, remains the classic tale of Frankenstein. This struggle between a monster and its creator has been an enduring part of popular culture. In 1994, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a film adaptation of Shelley’s novel. The film also starred Robert De Niro, Tom Hulce and Helena Bonham Carter. Her work has also inspired some spoofs, such as Young Frankenstein starring Gene Wilder. Shelley’s monster lives on in such modern thrillers as I, Frankenstein (2013) as well.
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