One hundred sixty three years ago today, writer Mary Shelley died of an apparent brain tumor. She was fifty-three years old (1797-1851). Known primarily for her Gothic/horror novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s life (both literary and personal) was marked by enormous challenges and tragedy.
Any discussion of Mary Shelley is inextricably linked with that of her parents and her poet husband as well. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, (1759-1797) died less than two weeks after delivering her second child, Mary. [Other resources provide biographical information on Mary Wollstonecraft. Suffice to say, the woman was a writer/philosopher whose unconventional life and opinions have earned her folk-hero status among some of today’s feminists.]
Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin (1756-1836), was also a philosopher, political thinker, writer and publisher. The life and literary achievements of Mary’s husband, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), often overshadowed Mary Shelley’s personal accomplishments. That may have been partly by design, because following Percy’s untimely death, Mary devoted the rest of her life to ensuring Percy’s writing would continue to be remembered in the public consciousness.
Although Mary Shelley wrote several novels, her most enduring work is Frankenstein, subtitled The Modern Prometheus. It was first published in 1818. In the preface, Shelley describes how the novel was birthed. As a challenge between Percy, Lord Byron and herself (Wikipedia notes four partners in the adventure), Mary’s preface clearly states she and “two friends” agreed to see which one could write a story “founded on some supernatural occurrence.”
Suggestions that Frankenstein was in any measure autobiographical have been discussed through the years. I ran across one such treatment in this online post.
Whether Frankenstein is autobiographical or not, we know writers generally reflect in their writing what is happening to them and around them in their daily lives, often on a subconscious (rather than intentional) level. Mary Shelley wrote reflecting the world where she was, as well as the people and situations that animated her world.
From the outset, Mary was already a vulnerable figure.The two people most important for Mary’s formative years had disappeared. If only by reputation, Mary’s mother would have been a formidable (and idealized) character for a young girl’s early development. The lack of guidance (purposeful inattention) from Mary’s father also created a vacuum in her world. Being exposed to well-known literary figures who gathered in her father’s home surely awakened precocious emotions in Mary. (She first met Percy within her father’s circle.)
It’s difficult for me to be objective about Percy Bysshe Shelley. His actions mostly speak to a degradation of character that is in no way admirable. He was already married and his wife was pregnant when he abandoned her to run away with Mary. At the time, Mary was a mere sixteen years old. [Again, there are sufficient resources elsewhere for the details of Percy Shelley’s short life. In my view, he was a predator who had a huge appetite for devouring women. His narcissism laid waste to many around him.]
In writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley gave voice to a monster. Victor Frankenstein contemplates the goodness that can be derived by combining “science and mechanics” to “create a new species [that] would bless me as its creator and source.” Today, we’d read the story and agree Frankenstein the scientist and creator acted with good intent. But the creator was quickly overcome with remorse because of his creation. The remainder of the novel is driven by that remorse and “the life which I so thoughtlessly bestowed” becomes his nemesis.
Remorse is a significant factor in Mary Shelley’s experience. Once her first child was born (and died shortly thereafter), she seems to have suffered intense regret connected to her own mother’s death following childbirth. It is Mary’s offspring, however, who perish; of her four children, only one survived to adulthood.
Suicide is a recurring theme in Mary’s life. Before her eventual death from puerperal fever, Mary’s mother had twice attempted suicide. Mary’s half-sister committed suicide the same year Mary and Percy were married; they were only able to marry because Percy’s wife also committed suicide earlier that year. These suicides, the deaths of her children and the drowning death of Percy created deep scars that left Mary repeatedly depressed and which she eventually carried to her grave.
Shelley was twenty-one years old when Frankenstein was published anonymously. She began writing the story at eighteen. Consider the world in which she lived: though born in London, she was born in the shadow (1789-1799) of the French Revolution. She had already experienced in her young life more than many of us endure over a lifetime.
In giving voice to the monster, Shelley tells us some things about that world. (I can’t help but wonder that it also tells us something about the turmoil of her relationship with Percy.) I think the subtitle is also revealing. Prometheus is the Greek god who gives fire to humanity. Fire in the hands of humanity can be a good thing; it can also be a device to deliver disaster.
Frankenstein was a work of fiction; the novel should resonate as a universal metaphor for the Brave New World in which we live today.