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This article was first published in Literature Lust
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is world-famous. But what about the author?
As a young woman, Mary Shelley’s life was packed with rebellion, risks, and sorrow. Here are 8 fascinating facts about the writer you (probably) don’t know.
Her Mother is Often Considered the “Founder” of Feminism
Mary Shelley’s mother was none other than Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century radical, freethinker and the woman most often credited with kickstarting feminism.
A writer, philosopher and advocate for female equality, Wollstonecraft authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. This pioneering work argued that the education and empowerment of women would only aid and advance society, marriage and the family.
It was a wildly controversial idea in a world that still believed women were “by nature” weaker and intellectually inferior to men. But, calling as it did for the rights of women, it would form the foundation of what we call “equality” today.
Unfortunately, Shelley never got to know her mother. Wollstonecraft contracted an infection in childbirth and died a few days after her daughter was born.
Wollstonecraft’s Grave was a Place of Many “Firsts” for Shelley
After Wollstonecraft’s death, Shelley’s father, William Godwin, also a noted writer and philosopher as well as an atheist, remarried.
Shelley, whom her father described as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind” did not get on with her stepmother who already had two children of her own.
The young girl spent much of her lonely childhood and early youth by her mother’s tombstone in the Saint Pancreas Churchyard. Several scholars claim that it was here Shelley learned to write her name by tracing the engraving on her mother’s headstone.
She would later drag her mother’s and others’ books to this place of comfort, reading them over and over again.
In 1812, when she was just 14, she met the young 19-year-old Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who had come to visit her father. Percy, similarly radical to Godwin in his politics, would return two years later and he and the then 16-year-old writer-to-be would often sneak off to spend time together.
The literary scholar Sandra Gilbert is among many who believe that it was upon her mother’s tomb that Mary Shelley and her future husband first consummated their passion.
As macabre as this may seem, Gilbert notes in her article in Feminist Studies, that:
“The cemetery was not merely a repository of rotting corpses, but a site of knowledge and connection: It was a place where she [Shelley] read to deepen her literary education and her communion with her mother and a place where she was inducted into mysteries of sexuality. Literary, familial, and carnal knowledge were all bound together in one place”.
Shelley was a Runaway Teen Bride
William Godin did not approve of his daughter’s dalliance, particularly as Percy was already married with two children.
However, the young poet left his wife Harriet in 1814 and skipped off to France with his new love and her stepsister, Claire Claremont.
Within a few months, the 16-year-old Shelley was pregnant. A premature daughter was born in February and sadly died the following month.
Shunned by Her Father
Godwin shunned his daughter even though she and Percy were often penniless in Europe.
That same year, Percy received a large inheritance and he, his wife, and other members of their party travelled to Bishopsgate in Windsor Forest, where, in January 1816, Mary gave birth to a boy whom she named William for her father.
In December, Percy’s wife Harriet, believing she had been abandoned by her new lover, drowned herself in the Serpentine, a lake in London’s Hyde Park.
The news was shocking to all but it did mean the poet was now legally free to marry his teenage lover, which he did on 30 December 1816.
Mary Shelley was Friends with other Famous Writers
Mary Shelley was friendly with several famous Romantic writers of her time. These included Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth both of whom often visited her family home, and Lord Byron, John William Polidor and John Keats.
The world that Shelley grew up in and embraced as a young adult was a rapidly changing one.
The French Revolution of 1789 sparked fiery intellectual debates — of which her mother and father were part — around ideas of universal rights and a society organised along class and gender lines.
It also inspired early Romantic poets like Blake and Wordsworth who revolted against the previous Age of Enlightenment’s traditional systems of power and religion and the scientific rationalisation of nature.
In this new world, Mary Shelley and the young Romantic poets and writers in her company thirsted for freedom and adventure, and to live and feel fully in the moment whether those feelings brought on happiness or melancholy.
They were rebels, free lovers, and idealists. Their reverence for nature and the use of the senses and emotions to appreciate and experience life around them left a lasting legacy on literature and the modern world.
Frankenstein Came About Thanks to a “Year without Summer”
In 1815, the year before Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein, a gigantic volcanic eruption occurred on Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The explosion was heard up to 1400 km away and killed over 70,000 people in its immediate aftermath. This made it the deadliest volcano eruption in history.
Millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide and other elements were released into the atmosphere. Together, they produced tiny particles of sulphate ions which reflected sunlight, creating a darker light that spread across Asia, Oceania, and parts of Europe.
The lack of normal light as well as the dense veil of volcanic ash that floated in the atmosphere for months disrupted global temperatures and weather patterns, which lasted well into the following year.
That next summer crops failed, famines followed, and a thick fog and constant rain fell across Europe.
Escape to France
Eighteen-year-old Shelley, her stepsister, and Percy had escaped to France that summer for a long vacation. However, the weather was so bad they decided to decamp to Geneva and spend the dim and dreary summer months with their friend the poet Lord Byron and his physician (also a writer) John Polidori.
Claire embarked upon an affair with Byron, but it was short-lived, and the friction between them only added to the tensions already mounting among the restless group that, thanks to the weather, were forced to remain indoors.
The young Romantics survived the boredom — and each other — by contemplating life, discussing personal philosophies, and telling ghost stories.
On one particularly stormy night, Byron challenged them to each produce a ghost story over the next few days. They did, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Shelley produced a tale inspired by the distant thunder and lightning, wherein she claims:
“I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out …and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life”.
It was, of course, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, which, when it was published two years later, would go on to revolutionise literature and create a whole new genre of literature — science fiction.
People Credited Shelley’s Husband for Frankenstein
After she had read the first draft of her story out to Lord Byron and the others in Geneva, Shelley began working on Frankenstein in earnest. By all accounts, Percy encouraged her writing and helped her edit some areas of the plot.
In 1818, when the novel was first published in a limited series of just 500 copies, Shelley did not attach her name to it.
However, the edition featured an unsigned preface by Percy and a dedication to Mary’s father, philosopher William Godwin.
As a result, many (ahem!… male) readers began to wonder if Percy Shelley was the writer behind the monster and not his wife. This argument is still bandied about today, even though it is widely accepted that Percy, like many spouses (and professional publishing houses), only helped in the editing.
The original copy of Frankenstein, which is held today by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, is written in Shelley’s handwriting, with Percy’s editing suggestions scribbled here and there along the sides.
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Mary Shelley Suffered Great Losses in Her Life
Frankenstein was a great success and Shelley wrote seven other books, carving out a healthy career for herself as a writer. Yet her success was tempered by a lot of suffering.
Alongside the loss of her mother and the death of her first child, Shelley’s two subsequent children — William and Clara — both died when they were toddlers. Her fourth and final child, Percy Florence, was the only one who survived into adulthood.
In addition, Shelley’s half-sister, born out of wedlock to Shelley’s mother, Mary, and the American commercial speculator and diplomat Gilbert Imlay died by suicide in 1816. She booked into a hotel and took an overdose of laudanum just months before Percy’s first wife took her own life. Many believed she was in love with and possibly had had an affair with the poet.
Mary Shelley’s young life was further upended by yet another tragedy in 1822 when her husband drowned. The 29-year-old had been out sailing with a friend in the Gulf of Spezia in North-West Italy where the family had moved to, and was thrown from the boat during an unexpected storm. His badly decomposed body washed up ashore some 10 days later.
Shelley Had her Husband’s Heart …Literally
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s remains were cremated on a beach near Viareggio and the ashes were buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome (the same place as the poet John Keats).
However, astonishingly, while his body burned during the cremation, his heart did not. Doctors have since suggested that Shelley may have suffered from tuberculosis, which could have partly caused the organ to calcify, preventing it from catching fire.
Shelley was not at her husband’s funeral, but his friend, the novelist Edward John Trelawney, was. He retrieved the heart from the funeral pyre and gave it to Shelley later.
From then on, Mary Shelley was said to have kept her late husband’s heart with her as a keepsake. And when the famous novelist died at the age of 53 in 1851, the heart was discovered on her desk wrapped in the pages of Percy Shelley’s poem Adonais.