Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

This weeks Illustrated Women in History was submitted by Bethany Weatherill and will be featured in the next Illustrated Women in History zine. The biography has been posted previously, here

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer. She is best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), which is widely thought of as the first science fiction novel.

Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in 1797 in Somers Town, London to Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist philosopher, educator, and writer and William Godwin, a philosopher, novelist and journalist. Shortly after giving birth, Wollstonecraft died, leaving Godwin to take care of their daughter. In 1801, struggling with debt, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont, who brought with her two daughters. Clairmont saw no reason that Shelley should be educated, and showed her dislike for her by sending only her own daughters to boarding school. Godwin himself provided Shelley with an education, tutoring her in a broad range of subjects, and allowing her access to his extensive library. From a young age she would often be found reading, occasionally by her mother’s grave. She developed a vivid imagination, and would daydream and write stories to escape her home life. Shelley was also influenced by the constant stream of writers who visited the family home, as well as scientists like Humphry Davy and William Nicholson, who were the two foremost experimenters with galvanic electricity in the early years of the nineteenth century. Her exposure to these scientists would prove useful in her later writing of Frankenstein.

In 1807 she published her first poem “Mounseer Nongtongpaw or The Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris.” through M. J. Godwin, her father’s company. By 1812 it was in a fourth edition. That year, Shelley was sent on an extended visit to the family of radical William Baxter in Dundee, Scotland. Shelley enjoyed the spacious surroundings and domestic tranquility that she had yet to experience and stayed for five months. A year later, she returned for another 10 months and on her return to London, she became involved with her father’s student Percy Bysshe Shelley. He visited the Godwin household frequently and the two soon fell in love, despite the fact she was only 16 and he was already married. Godwin disapproved of their relationship, so in 1814, they eloped to France accompanied by Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont. The three of them travelled through France to Switzerland, reading works by Mary Wollstonecraft and others, keeping a joint journal while working on their own writing. After a while, the trio were forced to turn back due to lack of money, and in September of that year arrived in Gravesend, Kent.

On their return, Shelley’s father refused to have anything to do with them, and the couple were forced to live in hiding to avoid Percy Shelley’s first wife and his previous debts. Shelley was now 17 and pregnant, and the couple were penniless. In February 1815, Shelley’s child was born prematurely. only surviving for a few days. Shelley became depressed and, for a time, was haunted by visions of her daughter. After receiving a significant inheritance from the death of Percy Shelley’s grandfather, the couple were able to rent a cottage in Bishopsgate where they settled and conceived another child. In 1816, Shelley gave birth to a son, William, named after her father.

In the summer of 1816, the couple travelled to Lake Geneva with Claire Clairmont, where they stayed with Lord Byron. The weather that summer was terrible, and Byron suggested the write ghost stories to pass the time. Shelley began writing what would become Frankenstein, a few pages which were so scary they caused Byron to flee in horror from the room. Shelley continued the novel on their return to England, her writing only interrupted by the suicide of her step-sister Fanny in November of that year, and the suicide of Harriet Shelley, Percy’s estranged wife in the December. Mary and Percy were then married, leading to a reconciliation with her father, William.

In 1817, Shelley published a travelogue of their time in Europe, entitled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour followed in 1818, by her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The novel was published anonymously, though many assumed that Percy Bysshe Shelley was the author as he had written its introduction. The book was a huge success. The Shelleys moved to Italy that year to escape mounting debts and were faced with further tragedy. Two of the couple’s children, Clare and William died, throwing Mary Shelley into a deep depression. She found comfort in her writing, working on the autobiographical novel Mathilda, the historical novel Valperga, and the plays Proserpine and Midas. In 1819, the Shelley’s had another son, Percy who would be the only one of their children to live into adulthood.

In 1822, Percy Shelley went out on a sailing boat and drowned. Shelley, lacking the finances necessary to stay in Italy returned to England with her son. She worked to support herself and son, continuing to write and publish her work. In 1823, the second edition of Frankenstein was published in France bearing her name as was her novel Valperga. This was followed in 1826 by a science fiction story entitled The Last Man which became her second best-known work and tackles the subject of mass catastrophe in society. Shelley also worked hard to promote her husband’s poetry and preserve his place in literary history, editing and supervising the publication of his poems, including the collection Posthumous Poems (1824).

Shelley continued to write, but never equalled the success of Frankenstein. In addition to the novels, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837) she produced a large amount of miscellaneous prose: short stories, biographies, and travel writings, including her final book, the retrospective Rambles in Italy and Germany of 1844 written after travelling with her son. Shelley died in 1851.

In the 1970’s, Mary Shelley’s works, particularly Frankenstein, began to attract the attention of scholars which lead to a growing interest into both her literary work and her life. Her work supported the view that she was a a political radical throughout her life, and showed that she felt that cooperation and sympathy, particularly as practised by women in the family, were the ways to reform civil society. Frankenstein remains a hugely popular novel and has inspired many theatrical and film adaptations. The groundbreaking novel is widely credited as being the first major work of science fiction.

Sources here, here, here and here

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