Study Guide

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley Introduction

It's a rainy, gloomy day in Switzerland in the summer of 1816. A house full of young Romantic poets and their romantic partners lounge about bored, looking for something to do. Finally the most famous of the group, Lord Byron, suggests they each think of a ghost story. The nineteen-year-old wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley falls asleep trying to think of a good story. It comes to her in a dream. She wakes up and begins to write a story about what happens when man tries - and fails - to play God. The result is Frankenstein, the first modern horror novel.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is best known as the author of Frankenstein, but there's more to her life than her famous monster. Shelley was the daughter of two rebels, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the anarchist William Godwin. She ran off with the poet Percy Shelley when she was sixteen and he was married. Her life attracted attention, controversy and a good deal of criticism. Whatever the salacious details of her biography, Shelley was at heart a writer. Her novels and stories plumbed the Romantics' dual fascination and fear about the power of technology. Nearly 200 years later, when headlines about cloning and swine flu are scaring the bejeebers out of us, her ideas are no less valid.

getting-to-know-mary-shelley

Mary Shelley Trivia

Frankenstein has never been out of print since it debuted in 1818.

Frankenstein isn't the only classic monster to come out of the ghost story contest of 1816. Byron's doctor John William Polidori wrote "The Vampyre," a story that has inspired vampire depictions from Dracula to Twilight.

Mary Shelley once listened to Samuel Taylor Coleridge recite his poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in her family's living room. Young Mary hid behind the couch to listen because she was supposed to be in bed.

Shelley refused to eat sugar to protest the treatment of plantation slaves in the West Indies.

Poor Fanny Imlay Godwin. William Godwin raised the illegitimate daughter of his late wife Mary Wollstonecraft after her death, but never made any secret of his preference for his own daughter, Mary. Fanny committed suicide in 1816 at the age of 22.

Frankenstein has been made into hundreds of movies. In the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff, Universal Studios filmed two alternate endings, ultimately choosing to release the happy ending to the public. The movie was such a success that they made a sequel called The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935.

When Percy Bysshe Shelley was cremated, his heart would not burn, possibly because of a health condition. His friend Edward Trelawny removed it from the fire and gave it to Mary Shelley. Legend has it she kept the crumbled remains in her desk.

Mary Shelley Resources

Books

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
Why should you read Frankenstein? It's the first modern horror novel, inspiring generations of scary stories and science fiction. Also, it's just really good. This book made Mary Shelley famous enough that she didn't even need to publish her name on future books - just "The Author of Frankenstein."

Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826)
In this novel, a terrible plague is exterminating mankind. Shelley was the one of the first writers to imagine the mass-extinction-by-disease plot device that so many authors have explored since. This gripping book can also be read as a story about the death of Romanticism.

Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, eds., The Journals of Mary Shelley (1995)
Mary Shelley lived a dramatic life, and she was not sorry about any of it. When she returned to England after her husband's death in Italy, many of her well-intentioned friends tried to sanitize the scandalous details of her life to protect her reputation. She would have none of it. In these journals, the woman who lived with fearless honesty opens up her private world.

Miranda Seymour, Mary Shelley (2001)
Seymour's clear, concise biography of Mary Shelley looks at her drama-filled life and tries to answer the question: How did a nineteen-year-old manage to write one of the greatest books in English literature? We may never know the whole answer, but Seymour's biography is fun reading.

Lyndall Gordon, Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (2005)
Gordon's acclaimed biography brings Shelley's pioneering feminist mom to life. You couldn't make up a better character than Mary Wollstonecraft - a passionate, world-traveling iconoclast who hobnobbed with some of the 19th century's most intriguing figures. Though she died when Mary Shelley was only ten days old, Mary Wollstonecraft's legacy was a powerful influence in her daughter's life.

Laurie Sheck, A Monster's Notes (2009)
This unusual novel imagines Frankenstein's monster alive and living in New York City. The monster is a voracious reader who reflects on the tangled, unconventional lives of the people who created him. Sheck is a poet, and her experimental novel can be enjoyed whether you're a fan of Shelley or not.

Music

Frankenstein, The Musical
Yes, Frankenstein has been made into a musical. Like Shelley's original novel, this musical portrays the monster as a sympathetic figure whose desire for love is thwarted by his grotesque appearance. Listen to the soundtrack to find out what a monster sounds like when he sings.

Young Frankenstein, The Musical
This score brings to life the hilarious 1974 parody of Frankenstein movie remakes. Though it's hard to imagine anyone replacing Gene Wilder, it won the 2008 Tony for Best Musical. Puttin' on the Ritz!

Allan Jaffe, The Mary Shelley Opera
Composer Allan Jaffe created this opera based on the life of Mary Shelley. The first act looks at her life from the time she meets Shelley to the writing of Frankenstein. The second covers the dramatic, tragic twists in her personal life following the death of Shelley.

Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams was an English composer of the early twentieth century. He was inspired by the English Romantic poets, including Percy Bysshe Shelley. He wrote a symphony movement inspired by Shelley's poem "Prometheus Unbound."

Electric Frankenstein
Electric Frankenstein is, according to their website, "the world's greatest high energy punk rock n' roll band." That sounds to us like music to create a monster by.

Images

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
The author in an 1840 portrait by Richard Rothwell.

Mature Mary Shelley
A portrait of the author painted after her death by Reginald Easton.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
An 1819 portrait of the poet painted after his marriage to Mary Shelley.

It's Alive!
A shot of the monster from the 1910 film adaptation of Frankenstein.

Draft of Frankenstein
A handwritten page from one of Shelley's original drafts.

Mary Wollstonecraft
A portrait of Shelley's mother by artist John Opie, circa 1797.

William Godwin
A portrait of Shelley's father

Movies & TV

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Kenneth Branaugh directed this film adaptation of the book, and even credits Shelley as a screenwriter. It is the latest in a line of hundreds of Frankenstein films made since 1910. Robert de Niro plays the monster, though he's still not as scary as he was in Taxi Driver.

Frankenstein (1931)
Mary Shelley may have created the monster, but this movie created the character "Frankenstein" as we know him today. Boris Karloff plays the monster, replete with the grayish skin, scarred face and bad haircut reproduced in countless Halloween costumes. The movie was so successful that the studio made a sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, four years later.

Young Frankenstein (1974)
Other Frankenstein movies have hewn closer to Shelley's plot, but none are as funny as this one. Gene Wilder plays the grandson of Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, trying - and failing - to distance himself from his grandpa's notorious past. The movie is a parody of previous Frankenstein films - it even uses the same laboratory set as the 1931 Karloff picture. The scene where the monster sings "Puttin' on the Ritz" destroys us every time.

Frankenstein Unbound (1990)
In this horror movie, a scientist working on a killer weapon is zapped back in time to 1817 Switzerland, where a real-life monster is terrorizing a village. Frankenstein, the movie speculates, is a fictionalized account of this real-life monster attack. Then the monster gets zapped into the future with the scientist. The plot also involves lasers.

Gothic (1986)
A freaky movie that imagines what it was like at the house in Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley thought up Frankenstein. If this film is to be believed, Shelley spent most of the time in a drug-like trance while Lord Byron pranced about acting creepy as hell. Very disturbing - but then again, we weren't there and can't say for sure that Shelley's parties weren't always like this.

Byron (2003)
Few lives were as drama-filled as that of George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, also known as Lord Byron. He became deeply entangled in the Shelleys' lives, trading poetic rivalries with Percy Bysshe Shelley and impregnating Mary's half-sister. This made for television biopic sums up the sexual escapades, literary triumphs and shady dealings of this curious creature.

Websites

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Chronology
Professor Andreas Teuber at Brandeis University has created this thorough, insightful biography of Mary Shelley. Teuber's essay makes a case for her importance, and the website offers one of the most comprehensive bibliographies of Shelley's work you'll find on the Internet.

Mary Shelley - University of Pennsylvania
This great site links to the text of some of Shelley's lesser-known writings, like her introductions to Percy Shelley's poems. It also has biographies on virtually every person that Shelley was ever in the same room with - seriously, there are like a few hundred people here.

Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature
This traveling exhibit by the National Library of Medicine looks at the creation of Frankenstein - both the scientific experiment undertaken in the book, and at the factors that led Shelley to write the story. It's a fascinating look at the scientific and social context of Shelley's famous book.

The Keats-Shelley House
The Keats-Shelley House is a house in Rome near a spot frequented by Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and other Romantic poets. Today the house is a museum dedicated to the work of the Romantics. Its website has biographies of the Romantics, including Mary Shelley.

Romantic Circles
This website from the University of Maryland has a great section on Mary Shelley. Don't stop there - visit the site's homepage for an introduction to Romantic literature. Many of the Romantic poets lived together, worked together and hooked up with each other. You can't study one without getting caught up in the others.

Romanticism
Lilia Melani at Brooklyn College has put together this straightforward guide to Romanticism. If all you have is three minutes, a read of this page is your best introduction to the movement.

Video & Audio

Frankenstein 1910
The first movie version of Shelley's book, in its entirety.

It's Alive!
The scene where the monster comes to life in the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
The 1994 movie by Kenneth Branaugh. This is Part I, but you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

Gothic
An imagining of the ghost story party that gave rise to Frankenstein.

Vindication 2005
A fictional re-enactment of the meeting of Shelley's parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.

Puttin' on the Ritz!
A scene from Young Frankenstein that never happens in Shelley's book. We just wish it did.

Primary Sources

Frankenstein
The straightforward text of the novel.

Digital Frankenstein
A hyperlinked version of the novel from the University of Maryland's Romantic Circles project.

The Last Man
Text of Shelley's 1826 novel.

History of a Six Weeks' Tour
Mary Shelley's account of her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Matilda
Text of Shelley's posthumously published novella.

Proserpine and Midas
An 1820 play by Mary Shelley.

Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
A collection of poems by Shelley's husband available online.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Shelley's mother's famous 1792 feminist tract.

Godwin's Collected Works
Online text of the political writings of Shelley's father, William Godwin.