Happy October, Germ readers! I hope your month thus far has been filled with yummy pumpkin spice lattes, cold sweater weather (which has yet to hit Southern California, unfortunately), imminent pumpkin carvings, and preliminary brainstorming for that perfect costume. Today for Badass Ladies in History, I bring to you a staple of the English major’s curriculum as well as the first author of modern science fiction: British author, Mary Shelley.
When trying to think of what to write about Mary Shelley (intellectual mastermind), I asked myself, “How are you going to do the Mary Shelley justice in one little article?” And this question still haunts me because, indeed, Mary Shelley — much like her parents — was truly a force to be reckoned with. Her intellect, imagination, talent, and passion culminated in one of the biggest cult stories of all time, and to this day we celebrate her “creation” around this very time of year.
Mary Shelley was born in 1797 to two incredibly intellectually gifted parents, Mary Wollstonecraft (writer and important contributor to feminist history with her most famous work: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin (the first modern purveyor of the political philosophy of anarchism). Unfortunately, only 11 days after giving birth to Mary, Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever caused by an infected placenta, leaving Godwin to raise Mary all by himself.
When it came to her intellectual inheritance, Mary Shelley did not disappoint. From a very young age, she was incredibly intelligent and bright without having any formal education. Shelley was tutored at home and also had access to her father’s library, which was filled with literature, philosophy, and stories abounding in imaginative splendor. Although she was very young, Mary was described by her father as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”
When Mary was 16 years old, she began a romantic relationship with one of her father’s biggest political admirers, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy — who was five years older than Mary and also married to another woman at the time — stole Mary’s heart, and they soon began to see each other under the cover of darkness at Mary’s mother’s grave. When Godwin found out about their relationship, he forbade the two to see each other, which then led 16-year-old Mary to elope with Percy. The only odd thing about this elopement was that Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont joined the duo and became their companion throughout their travels. Rumors still abound as to whether or not Claire was Percy’s lover at one point, but, again, they are still only rumors.
Mary, Percy, and Claire — in the summer of 1816 — visited their friend and Claire’s lover, the poet Lord Byron, at his villa near Lake Geneva. The events of that summer would set the precedent for Shelley’s greatest and most famous contribution to English Literature. During the time of their visit, Shelley’s world was very bleak in a societal sense as well as in a personal sense. During 1816, the world was a gloomy place due to the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. Shelley’s life was also a gloomy one due to the loss of her first born child, whom Shelley was haunted by in dreams and nightmares. It was under these circumstances of bad weather and depression that Shelley, at only 19 years of age, created the world of Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.
Because of the horrible weather, Percy, Mary, Claire, and Byron remained indoors telling German ghost stories, which then evolved into a competition as to who could come up with the best original ghost story. The tale goes that it was under these circumstances that Mary imagined her ghost story in a dream of a scientist who created life. Whether or not she actually dreamed her original idea, Mary did in fact leave Lake Geneva with a short ghost story of a scientist who created human life — which would eventually become the novel we all know as Frankenstein.
Mary lived a life rife with death. It followed her from a very early age, much like death follows the creature in Frankenstein. From her mother’s death and the death of her first child to the slew of deaths that followed her time at Lake Geneva (her half-sister Fanny and Percy’s wife both committed suicide), it is not hard to believe that Mary Shelley became obsessed with the idea of bringing the dead back to life — not to mention creating a creature who leaves death in its wake. By May 1817, Mary had finished her story, and on January 1, 1818, Frankenstein was published anonymously with the only sign of Mary’s handiwork being a dedication to her father, William Godwin.
Although Frankenstein enjoyed immense success and positive reviews, Mary Shelley did not lead such an enjoyable life after the publication. Not only had she lost two more children, but she soon lost her husband in 1822 in a boating accident due to a storm. After Percy’s death, Mary delved into her writing and nurtured her relationship with her father and her only surviving child, Percy Florence. As an homage to her husband, Mary worked relentlessly to get Percy’s poems published. Thanks to her tremendous efforts, Percy Bysshe Shelley is taught in English curriculum alongside his wife (although he would never become as popular as Mary’s monster and titular mad scientist). Mary wrote novels as well as stories for women’s magazines during her career, continuing as both a writer and editor until 1839 when her health declined, causing her to retire from her work. She lived with her now grown-up son and his wife, Jane Shelley, in Sussex until she died of what was suspected to be a brain tumor in 1851.
Mary Shelley was truly one of the most badass ladies history has ever seen. Guided by not only intellect, but passion, Shelley created a world that her contemporaries loved and that we love and preserve today with film, television, and live theater adaptations (her story has also even crossed into the newer medium of web video). Shelley’s knowledge and imagination drove her to create what is now known as a true cult classic, and it stays with us via her words in her novel or the famous phrase “IT’S ALIVE.” Frankenstein instills in its readers the gothic horror of the 19th century, and it translates seamlessly into the modern horror we experience every October. Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most iconic pop cultural staples in our lives, and it all began when a 19-year-old girl deemed to share her haunted ghost story of bringing the dead back to life.
So here are three cheers to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley! Setting the science fiction standard higher than anyone else since 1816!
Keep your eyes peeled tomorrow for an in-depth feature of web series Frankenstein, MD, the newest version of Shelley’s timeless story.