Mary Shelley, by Reginald Easton
We often think that the great authors and artists of history were somehow wiser than we are. We read their brilliant works, and they shine, as if they were slightly superhuman, and perfect in every way.
This is not always true. Sometimes they were wild teenagers with unrealistic ideals, haring off on adventures while their parents had nervous breakdowns over their behavior.
Mary Shelley , famous as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on August 30, 1797. Her father was the political philosopher, William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. Both were famous in their day, and are still well known.
Mary’s mother died when she was eleven days old. Afterwards, Mary and her older half-sister, Fanny Imlay (her mother’s first child by an affair with a married man) were reared by their father. When Mary was four, her father married his neighbor, Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary Jane had a two year old daughter, Clara (Claire). Godwin considered all three girls his daughters and raised them accordingly.
William Godwin provided his three daughters with a good education, encouraging them to adhere to his liberal political theories, and values. He raised them to think independently, to his eternal regret.
Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound in Italy, Joseph Severn, 1845
In 1814, at the age of seventeen, Mary Godwin began a romantic relationship with one of her father’s political followers, the married Percy Bysshe Shelley. Together with Mary’s stepsister, fifteen-year-old Claire Clairmont, Mary and Percy left for France and traveled through Europe.
Their relationship created a huge scandal among the nobility. Mary’s father completely disowned her, which both surprised and hurt her deeply.
Upon their return to England, Mary was pregnant with Percy’s child. Over the next two years, she and Percy faced social ostracism, they were in constant debt (often fleeing creditors), and they also suffered the death of their prematurely born daughter.
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall
In 1816, the couple famously spent the summer with Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont near Geneva, Switzerland. While the weather was horrendous, the summer was the most important, in literary terms, of any summer since.
This is where Mary conceived the idea for her novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It was also the infamous summer with no sun, a volcanic-winter event caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia). It was the largest eruption in at least 1,300 years, and, falling in the Little Ice Age as it did, caused worldwide famine in the year that followed.
They were prompted to go to Geneva by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who, in competition with her sister, had initiated a liaison with mad, bad, and dangerous to know Lord Byron the previous April. Obsessed with him despite the fact that Byron’s interest in her had already waned, Claire used the opportunity of introducing him to the Shelleys to act as bait to lure him to Geneva.
The Shelleys and Byron rented neighboring houses on the shores of Lake Geneva. According to Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge:
Claire Clairmont, by Amelia Curran
While on a boating tour the two took together, Shelley was inspired to write his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, often considered his first significant production since Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. A tour of Chamonix in the French Alps inspired Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni.
Shelley also encouraged Byron to begin an epic poem on a contemporary subject, advice that resulted in Byron’s composition of Don Juan.
Mary and Percy married in late 1816 after the suicide of Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet.
John William Polidori, by F.G. Gainsford
This reads more like a modern soap-opera than what we nowadays think would be the accepted behavior of well-to-do people living during the early 19th century.
But it was the Era of Romanticism. Again, the Fount of All Knowledge, Wikipedia, has this to say about that:
The German painter Caspar David Friedrich said— “the artist’s feeling is his law.”
To William Wordsworth, poetry should begin as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which the poet then “recollect[s] in tranquility,” evoking a new but corresponding emotion the poet can then mould into art.
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818
In order to express these feelings, it was considered that the content of the art needed to come from the imagination of the artist, with as little interference as possible from “artificial” rules dictating what a work should consist of. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others believed there were natural laws which the imagination, at least of a good creative artist, would unconsciously follow through artistic inspiration if left alone to do so.
In other words–they were hippies, and it was the Regency equivalent of the summer of love.
The Shelleys left Britain in 1818 for Italy, where their second and third children died before Mary Shelley gave birth to her last and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley. In 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm near Viareggio.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a prolific author. She wrote
- History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817)
- Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)
- Mathilda (1819)
- Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823)
- Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1824)
- The Last Man (1826)
- The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830)
- Lodore (1835)
- Falkner (1837)
- The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1839)
- Contributions to Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men (1835–39), part of Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia
- Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844)
She also wrote numerous short stories and articles that were widely published, along with many children’s stories, and numerous other unpublished work found in her papers after her death. After 200 years of being just Percy Shelley’s wife who got lucky with the popularity of Frankenstein, scholars now admit that Mary Shelley was a major figure of the Romantic Movement, significant for both her literary achievements and her political voice as a woman and a liberal.
Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell
Mary Shelley died at the age of 53 from a brain tumor.
Her life was not long, by today’s standards, but she lived it to the fullest. She gave up everything to follow Percy, and while he loved her, she nevertheless had to sit by while he had affairs, even with her stepsister, Claire.
Mary suffered terrible personal losses, the deaths of her children and her husband, and her sister Fanny. She lived every day of her life with passion, and dared to write articles and stories with a sharp political edge, and she got away with it in an era when women had no voice. Percy Shelley himself called her a “child of love and light.”