What a classic trope: a woman, forced to conceal her talent because society sees it as dangerous, and, as a result, centuries later we remember only the name of the monster the woman created. Such is the case for Mary Shelley, who is best known for literally creating a monster. Her monster, a half-man, half-zombie creature made of parts put together and brought to life by a mad scientist in the middle of the night. Mary Shelley’s life is often obscured by the legacy of her monster; almost everyone in the modern world could tell you the name of Frankenstein based off only a few clues, while very few could cite his creator (his literal creator, not Victor). Ironic, considering Mary Shelley is somewhat of a Frankenstein herself: within her name, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, she carries one part of each of the most influential people in her life.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on August 30, 1797 in London, England to William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a prominent women’s rights activist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. Unfortunately, Mary Shelley only has the name and writings of Wollstonecraft to remember her mother by, as she died eleven days after giving birth to her. Shelley was left in the care of her father, who was also looking after her older half-sister Fanny Imlay, a child from her mother’s affair with a soldier. In 1801, her father remarried Mary Jane Clairmont, who brought her own son and daughter, Clara Clairmont, into the mix. Shelley’s relationship with her stepmother was a tumultuous one. Unfortunately, Clairmont did not allow Mary Shelley or Fanny to be formally educated. Luckily for Shelley, she had access to her father’s extensive library and the tutelage of many prominent authors, scientists, and political reformers who were acquaintances of her father and could almost always be found around her home. In 1807, when Shelley was just ten years old, she published her first poem, Monsieur Nongtongpaw, under her father’s publishing company. Mary Shelley met her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, for the first time when she was just seventeen years old. In 1814, just a few months after meeting him for the first time, Mary Shelley ran away with Percy and her stepsister Jane to Paris, causing her to become estranged from her father. Two years later, after Percy’s first wife committed suicide- which marks the second death to have a prominent effect on Mary’s life- Mary and Percy were married, officially beginning their life together, which came to be filled with literature, love and loss. Mary Shelley’s was a life cursed by death and stricken with grief. One year before she officially wed Percy, she suffered the loss of their first child, a baby girl who died only a few days after Mary gave birth to her. In 1816, the same year she got married, Mary’s half-sister Fanny committed suicide. Over the next two years, Mary and Percy lost two more children, a son and a daughter who both died when they were only a couple of years old. Mary Shelley’s only surviving child was her son Percy Florence, born in 1819. Unfortunately, Mary also endured the death of her husband in 1822, who drowned in a sailing accident. At just the young age of twenty-four, Mary Shelley was left a widow. According to Bennett (2004), after her husband’s death, Mary Shelley dedicated herself to spreading his unpublished works and getting him the recognition he didn’t receive while he was alive. She also fervently pursued her own literary career. Mary published Percy’s works and many of her own short stories, poems, and novels, including Valperga in 1823 and The Last Man in 1826. Certainly Shelley’s most well-known story is that of her monster: Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, which many believed was the work of her husband Percy Shelley when it was first published anonymously in 1818. The story goes that Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein when she found herself stuck inside on a rainy day with Percy, Jane, Lord Byron (poet and politician), and John Polidori (Romantic writer). After finding a book of ghost stories, Lord Byron suggested that they should all try their hand at writing horror stories. Shelley continued working on the novel and published it a few years later when she was just nineteen years old. The creation of two enduring archetypes- the man who fails to reach his lofty goals and the monster (sometimes literal, sometimes not), the evil outcast, though to no fault of his own- is an amazing accomplishment. Despite the world’s reluctance to accept Mary as the monster’s true creator, her legacy survives today, even if not that many people are aware that it’s her legacy. Mary Shelley arguably created one of the world’s most recognizable monsters. Frankenstein tells the story of a young and egotistical doctor who tries to create the perfect human, and warns against man’s aggressive and narcissistic strive to control nature, and the familiar trope is still popular in today’s narratives. Mary’s novel has inspired film adaptations like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Young Frankenstein. “Frankenstein” and “Frankensteinian” are even well-known shorthand when alluding to immoral technological interventions in biology or medicine.
Due to the work of her parents- her mother, a feminist, and her father, a political philosopher- Mary, even as a child, was keenly aware of the socio-political issues of her time. This understanding of the world around her is evident in Frankenstein and Shelley’s other works.