Photo Credit: Unknown Woman Formally Known as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Samuel John Stump, date unknown (but before 1863), National Portrait Gallery: Dcoetzee/Wikimedia Commons /PD Art (PD Old 100)
“‘Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos’” (as quoted in “How Mary Shelley…”, par. 17)
Going through my email last week, I came across this article from the Literary Ladies Guide website that mentioned how this year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s horror classic Frankenstein. In fact, Shelley’s novel was published (anonymously – something I’ll discuss below) on January 1, 1818. While I like and admire the book, I never considered it on my top ten list of favorite classic books. However, I don’t feel the same way about Marry Shelley herself.
I recently read Daughter of Earth and Water: A Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Noel Gerson because, as a fan of Mary Wollstonecraft, I was curious to learn about her daughter. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, since I didn’t know much about Mary Shelley other than she wrote Frankenstein and was the lover and later, wife, of the poet Percy B. Shelley. But the book completely changed my view of this daughter of famous 19th century intellectuals (not only did she have a famous mother in the notorious early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, but her father was William Godwin, one of the most well-respected radical philosophers and thinkers of the day). I came to have an enormous admiration and respect for this woman who suffered so much and balanced the conventional wife and mother roles expected of nineteenth century women while holding on to her intellectual ideals and pursuing her writing.
Mary’s* life was not an easy one. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died soon after Mary was born but she stayed connected to her mother her entire life. In fact, Wollstonecraft Shelley was known to visit her mother’s grave and confide in her dead mother (which might sound a little gruesome but nineteenth century people didn’t feel the same creepiness toward the dead that we do today). Her father, William Godwin, was an intellectual and a philosopher who was attached to his daughter but ill-equipped to care for his and his step-daughter so he quickly remarried a woman who did not get along with Mary. Her father’s constant debts caused constant financial instability in the family. Wollstonecraft Shelley met and fell in love with Percy B. Shelley in 1814 and ran away with him even though he was married with two children at the time. Both she and Shelley followed their hearts and their ideals (both believed in freedom for each partner in a marriage) but they paid dearly for it. They were ostracized from British society (Mary suffered especially because she was living as Shelley’s mistress for two years before the suicide of Shelley’s first wife allowed them to marry in 1816. They lived in exile in Switzerland and later Italy though their life together was a happy and fulfilling one professionally and personally. However, all was not always rosy, as Mary endured the death of two infants and domestic feuds and scandal involving her half-sister, Claire Clairmont, who had accompanied the couple abroad, made her life difficult. After Shelley died in a boating accident in 1822, Mary returned to England and managed to make a paltry living off her writing to support herself and her son and gained some recognition as an intelligent woman and a talented writer, accepted in the British literary scene at last.
Mary, like many aspiring writers with troubled home lives, grew up taking refuge in the imagination and in dreams. In her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she states “‘my dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed—my dearest pleasure when free’” (as quoted in “How Mary Shelley…”, par. 3). Her imagination led her to conceive of a story like Frankenstein at such a young age (she was twenty when it was first published), a story that went against all expectations of Victorian womanhood. Mary was very much aware of this, as she mentions in the preface that she agreed to write it in order to “‘give a general answer to the question, so frequently asked… ‘How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”’ (as quoted in “How Mary Shelley…”, par. 2) The idea that a Victorian woman had no business writing about anything as dark, complex, and frightening as Frankenstein’s monster is something I touch upon here when I discuss Charlotte Bronte’s almost apologetic introduction to the reprint of her sister Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights, which, like Frankenstein, tackled subject matter that was not considered suitable for a woman of her time. And, like Wuthering Heights, Mary’s book was not published under her own name until 1823. In fact, “[t]he prejudices against women were so strong that the first edition was published anonymously, and the reviewers were unanimous in believing that the author was a man” (Gerson, location 1306) and “critics who reviewed Mary’s later works rarely failed to wonder, at length, that the tale of horror had been written by a woman” (Gerson, location 1306). In fact, when Mary’s name finally did appear as the author for the book, many would still believed that it was the husband and not the wife who had actually written the book.
Photo Credit: Victor Frankenstein disgusted at his creation, The Monster. Illustration is from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. Steel engraving from the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831, Tate Britain, private collection, Bath: Themadchopper/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100 1923)
Shelley did play a role in the book but more behind the scenes. The story of how Frankenstein came to be written is familiar to many. Summering in Switzerland and faced with days of heavy rain and boredom, their neighbor Lord Byron proposed that they all write a ghost story. Mary struggled to come up with an idea that satisfied her for the challenge until she had a dream one night. She describes the dream in detail in the 1831 preface:
“I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handy work, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.’” (as quoted in “How Mary Shelley…”, par. 19-21)
Her initial idea was to write a short story but it was her husband who encouraged her to expand the story into a novel. Shelley pointed out that “[i]f she allowed herself to dwell on the various problems that the creation of her inhuman creature would raise, she would soon see that she could not do her subject justice in a short story. She would need to write a full-length novel that would explore every aspect of the matter” (Gerson, location 1223). This is maybe one reason why Frankenstein stands out above other Gothic novels popular during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It has a philosophy and intelligence behind it that goes beyond the chills and thrills of a typical horror story. Indeed,
“although posterity has evaluated Frankenstein as no more and no less than a horror story, albeit the first and purest of its kind, the critics and reading public of nineteenth-century England considered it an intellectual and literary exercise of great merit.” (Gerson, par. 1277)
It’s true that the remainder of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s work seems to have fallen by the wayside (she wrote mostly historical fiction after Frankenstein). But after reading about her life and seeing her incredible patience and optimism in the face of constant strife and tragedy, I agree with Gerson that “Mary Wollstonecraft had blazed the trail, but her daughter was the true pioneer who broke precedent and proved that mass audiences would be willing to read the works of a woman” (Gerson, location 1272).
*I refer to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by her first name instead of the usual last name reference so as not to confuse my discussion of her with my discussion of her husband.
Gerson, Noel B., Daughter of Earth and Water: A Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Endeavor Press, Ltd., 2015. Kindle digital file
“How Mary Shelley Came to Write Frankenstein, 1818.” Literary Ladies Guide to The Writing Life. Literary Ladies Guide to The Writing Life, 2015. Web. 10 January 2018.