Mary Shelley Biography
Mary Shelley, British Romantic Era author, left her mark in literary history when she wrote her classic monster story, "Frankenstein".
British writer Mary Shelley was born in 1797, the only child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the noted radical-feminist, and William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist. Her mother died soon after Mary’s birth, and it was left to Godwin to raise her. From the moment she was born, great things were expected of Mary Godwin. Her father kept her surrounded by fellow literary figures and philosophers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb, who were a great influence to Mary and her later career.
By age 16, Mary had met and run away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Still married and heir to a baronetcy, Shelley was ridiculed by society for abandoning his pregnant wife and a daughter to live with Mary. The couple produced two illegitimate children before finally marrying in December of 1816. Their union occurred mere weeks after Percy’s despondent wife drowned herself. This incident only cast the two in greater societal disfavor. Mary’s own father publicly denounced her, despite the fact that he and Mary’s mother were not married when Mary was conceived.
After their marriage, the couple moved to Italy and in short order lost both their young children. By the summer of 1816, they decided to move to Geneva. They and an entourage that included Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori rented the Villa Diodoti along Lake Geneva. The eruption of a volcano in Indonesia caused weather conditions to change dramatically from day to day. On the night of June 16, another violent summer storm kept everyone indoors. The small group decided the atmosphere was perfect to read a collection of German ghost stories, entitled the “The Fantasmagoriana.” Afterward, Lord Byron challenged everyone to write something in a similar frightening style.
Byron wrote the beginning of a story that he never finished, and his doctor, Polidori, created, “The Vampyre,” a tale many regard as the first modern vampire story. Percy Shelley wrote a forgettable tale. Mary Shelley, however, was unable to come up with an idea. It wasn’t until June 22nd, after the group had discussed theories about whether or not life could be discovered and whether scientists could make a human being, that Mary is said to have suffered a “waking” nightmare. That nightmare became the beginning chapters of her novel, “Frankenstein.”
She finished “Frankenstein” in 1817, and the book was published in January of 1818. Critics considered it a literary failure. But the novel has never been out of print and has been translated into dozens of languages, not to mention numerous film versions.
Percy Shelley drowned when Mary was 24. Penniless and with a child to raise, she returned to England where she worked as a professional writer to support herself, her son, and her father. By the age of 48, she was an invalid and died in 1851 of a brain tumor. Even after her death, the strict British society never forgave her for her indiscretions with Percy Shelley, nor did she ever produce another book that gave her as much notoriety as her enduring and classic novel “Frankenstein.”