Study Guide

Mary Shelley Biography

  • Biography

    The life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was notable from the start. She was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on 30 August 1797 in London. Baby Mary was the first and only child of William Godwin, the anarchist political philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the famed author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. These two iconoclasts were total rebels - they'd married just five months before Mary's birth, while Wollstonecraft was pregnant - and their unconventional lives attracted admiration and controversy. Tragically, Mary Wollstonecraft died just ten days after giving birth to her daughter, due to complications from the delivery. Though she never really knew her mother, Shelley always felt a sense of duty toward her mother's powerful legacy.

    Mary Shelley credited her parents with her early literary inclinations. "It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing," Shelley wrote after the success of her novel Frankenstein. "As a child, I scribbled; and my favorite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to 'write stories.'" Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin lived up to the promise of her famous names.

    William Godwin remarried in 1801 when Mary was four years old. The marriage brought the total number of occupants in the Godwin household to six: Mary, William, Mary's new stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont, Clairmont's two children Charles and Claire, and Fanny Imlay Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter from a previous relationship. In 1803, the household welcomed a seventh member, William Godwin, Jr., William and Mary Jane's son.

    Mary Shelley grew up in a vibrant intellectual home. Famous writers and thinkers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt frequently stopped by to hang out with her father. (Mary once hid behind the couch when she was supposed to be asleep in order to listen to Coleridge recite his poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in her parents' living room.) Mary's father and stepmother started a children's printing press together. The press published Mary's first poem, "Mounseer Nongtongpaw," in 1807.

    Tensions between Mary and her stepmother increased as Mary entered her teens. To keep the peace in his household, William Godwin sent Mary to the Scotland home of his friends, the Baxters. Mary stayed with the Baxters twice for several months at a time between 1812 and 1814. Their daughter Isabel became Mary's first close friend.

  • Meets Percy

    In March 1814, after returning to England from her second visit to the Baxters, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin met Percy Bysshe Shelley, a fan of her father's who had become a frequent visitor to the Godwin home.

    Shelley, 22, was a poet and idealist who had been kicked out of Oxford for circulating radical pamphlets. He was wealthy, hailing from the well-to-do home of a member of Parliament who disapproved of his son's liberal ideas. He was also married to a woman named Harriet Westbrook, with whom he had one young child and another on the way. Despite the circumstances, Shelley and Mary Godwin fell in love. And when two willful young idealists fall in love - well, watch out.

    On 28 July 1814, sixteen-year-old Mary and 22-year-old Percy ran away together to continental Europe, with Mary's stepsister Claire in tow. While the young lovers frolicked through Europe, London gossiped like mad over the scandal. William Godwin was furious and refused to see his daughter (a somewhat hypocritical reaction, given that Godwin was an outspoken opponent of marriage who had married Mary's mother only after she was pregnant). Percy Shelley's wife Harriet was not too pleased, either.

    Mary, Percy and Claire Clairmont returned to London in September. Mary was pregnant. The unmarried couple was also penniless and virtually shunned by "respectable" society. Mary's dear friend Isabel Baxter was forced by her parents to cut off contact with her. William Godwin refused to see them. Shelley went into hiding for a few months to escape from his many creditors.

    The drama didn't end there. Both Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley were believers in free love. With each other's permission, Mary flirted with Shelley's best friend Thomas Hogg, and Shelley was possibly having an affair with Mary's stepsister Claire. Oh, and Harriet Shelley, the woman to whom Percy was still legally married, gave birth to their second child. Are you starting to see why London society couldn't stop talking about these people?

    On 22 February 1815, Mary gave birth to a premature baby girl who died after only a few weeks. In January 1816, she gave birth to the couple's second child, a son named William. By that time, Mary's stepsister Claire had become the mistress of Shelley's good friend and fellow poet Lord Byron (who of course was also married, and had a long history of both male and female lovers). In May 1816, the whole crazy party - Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and a pregnant Claire - took off to Switzerland to spend the summer holiday. Literature would never be the same.

  • Writing Frankenstein

    It was a rainy, gloomy day on Lake Geneva, and a bunch of Romantic poets were stuck in the house with nothing to do. To pass the time, Lord Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story. Nineteen-year-old Mary wracked her brain to think of a good one. "I busied myself to think of a story, - a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror -- one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart," Shelley wrote. The story came to her in a dream. It was a vision of a creature brought into the world by human hands, of life without birth. It would be a story of all that could go wrong when men try to play God. She awoke and began to write the world's first modern horror novel - Frankenstein.

    Let's get a few things straight. First of all, in Shelley's book, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster he creates. Second, Shelley's monster does not have a greenish-gray blocky head, or that weird pin thing stuck in his neck. Those details came from the hundreds of movie versions that have been made of Frankenstein in the last century. Most important, the monster of Shelley's book does not rise from the laboratory table all raging and bloodthirsty. Shelley's monster is a tragic figure. He has been created, but has no mother. He has been brought into a world that doesn't want him. He wants to feel love and acceptance. It is only when he is rejected that he turns against the world that made him.

    Frankenstein was published anonymously on New Year's Day, 1818. It was a phenomenal success. Everyone assumed a man wrote it - how could a woman conceive of such a gruesome tale? Frankenstein was hit because it was a thrilling page-turner, yes. But it was also completely timely, a book that tapped the right fears at the right time. The Romantic era was approaching its close. Ahead lay the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The Romantics were fascinated by science and technology, but they also feared its consequences (much in the way we worry about cloning and nuclear weapons today). Frankenstein brought those fears into chilling relief.

  • Tragedy

    Almost as soon as Mary Godwin conceived of her hideous creature, her world began to fall apart.

    On 9 October 1816, Mary's troubled half-sister Fanny Imlay Godwin checked herself in to a hotel in Wales and committed suicide with an overdose of laudanum. Two months later, Percy Shelley's wife Harriet threw herself into a river and committed suicide as well. This latter tragedy allowed Percy and Mary to make their relationship legal. On 30 December 1816, Percy Shelley and a pregnant Mary Godwin married in London. Because of his outspoken beliefs in free love, Shelley was not granted legal custody of his children with Harriet Westbrook.

    In May 1817, Mary Shelley gave birth to the couple's third child, a daughter named Clara Everina. Shortly after the birth she published a book about her 1814 elopement with Shelley entitled History of a Six Weeks' Tour. It had the effect of reminding everyone of what a scandalous thing the Shelleys had done three years earlier. The Shelley family decided to quit England for a while and move to Italy. Mary Shelley arrived with her husband and children in March 1818 and stayed for several years. During this time, both the Shelleys' literary fame grew, though Mary was usually overshadowed by her better-known husband. Her novels and stories did not bear her name, only "The Author of Frankenstein."

    Italy proved to be the site of Shelley's greatest heartaches. In September, six months after they arrived, Clara Everina contracted dysentery and died. In June 1819, her three-year-old son William died of malaria. Now Mary and Shelley had no living children, though she was pregnant with their fourth. She became deeply depressed. Their son, Percy Florence, was born 12 November 1819. He was the only one of the couple's four children to outlive his parents. A fifth child miscarried later.

    On 8 July 1822, Percy Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia while sailing with a friend. The poet was a month shy of his thirtieth birthday. Mary Shelley was devastated. She had her husband's body cremated. Shelley was now a widow with a small child and no way to support herself. In 1823, following the publication of her novel Valperga, she sailed back to England.

  • Loneliness

    Life was no easier back in England. Many people refused to associate with Shelley because of her elopement with Percy a decade earlier. (People in 19th century England did not forget things easily.) Still grieving the loss of Percy, Shelley hoped to assuage her pain and earn a living by writing a biography of her late husband. Shelley's father Timothy blocked her efforts, however, by threatening to cut off support to her son Percy Florence if she dared publish the details of his son's life. Timothy Shelley had not forgiven his son for his radical, unconventional lifestyle, and did not want history to remember him as he was.

    Shelley got to work instead on another science fiction novel entitled The Last Man. Just as Frankenstein gave birth to centuries of rip-offs and remakes, The Last Man introduced the popular device of mankind fighting for its very existence, as war and plague threaten to wipe it out. She was also able to circumvent Timothy Shelley's prohibition on writing about his son by basing the fictional character of Adrian, Earl of Windsor on an idealized version of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

    Her novel was a success, but Shelley was horribly lonely. "The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me," she wrote in her journal. "At the age of twenty-six I am in the condition of an aged person--all my old friends are gone ... & my heart fails when I think by how few ties I hold to the world." Men were interested in Shelley, but she refused to marry again. Her emotional energy went toward taking care of her son, Percy Florence, and her father.

    Writing saved her. Though she never again wrote anything as popular as Frankenstein, Shelley worked diligently on books and articles for the remainder of her life. She published the (mostly unsuccessful) novel The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck in 1830, followed by the novels Lodore in 1835 and Falkner in 1837. She also wrote dozens of essays and reviews. Timothy Shelley eventually relented and allowed her to publish an anthology of Percy Shelley's work, provided that the collection not contain any biographical information about the poet. Shelley got around this clause by writing introductory notes to the poems. She published the collected poems of Shelley in November 1839, followed by a collection of Shelley's essays and other writing.

    Problems continued to hound Shelley, but she faced them with grit and courage. In 1841 a man claiming to be Lord Byron's son threatened to publish letters allegedly written by Mary and Percy Shelley unless Mary Shelley paid him off. She sought and won a court injunction to prevent him from doing so. By the late 1840s, Shelley was experiencing the first symptoms of the brain tumor that eventually took her life. In December 1850 her right leg went numb, and she had trouble talking. Within a month she was almost completely paralyzed. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley died 1 February 1851 at her home in London. She was buried between her parents, the two people who taught her by example never to compromise who she was.

    • Family

      Father: William Godwin (1756-1836)
      Mother: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
      Half-Sister: Fanny Imlay Godwin (1794-1816)
      Stepmother: Mary Jane Vial Clairmont (c. 1766-1841)
      Stepsister: Mary Jane "Claire" Clairmont (1798-1879)
      Half-Brother: William Godwin, Jr. (1803-1832)

      Husband: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
      Daughter: Clara Shelley (1815)
      Son: William Shelley (1816-1819)
      Daughter: Clara Everina Shelley (1817-1818)
      Son: Percy Florence Shelley (1819-1888)

    • Major Works

      History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817)
      Frankenstein (1818)
      Matilda (1820)
      Valperga (1823)
      The Last Man (1826)
      The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830)
      Lodore (1835)
      Falkner (1837)
      Rambles in Italy and Germany (1844)