The 30th August marks the 219th anniversary of the birth of arguably one of the founding figures of the horror genre, Mary Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus’.
Born in London in 1797, Mary was the daughter of philosopher and political author William Godwin and infamous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for writing ‘The Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in 1792, who sadly died shortly after Mary’s birth. Shelley was raised by her father, alongside her half sister Fanny Imlay, a product of Wollstonecraft’s affair with a soldier.
In 1801, William Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont, who caused a shift in the family dynamic with the introduction of her own two children, also having a son with William. It’s widely known that Mary was not favoured by Clairmont, who sent Mary’s step sister away to school, but ironically saw no need to educate Shelley, who would later go down as one of the most iconic scholars in history.
Growing up, the Shelley household played host to a number of prestigious guests including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known for epic literary piece, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1798, and William Wordsworth, a major figure in the Romantic Movement in the 19th century, which arguably sowed the seeds for Mary Shelley’s future. What she lacked in formal education, Mary made up for in knowledge, making deep and frequent use of William Godwin’s extensive library.
Shelley could often be found with her nose in a book, often sat by her mother’s grave, which it could be argued influenced the direction of her writing, often daydreaming to escape from her troubled home life into the safety of her imagination. She turned her hand to writing towards the end of the 1700’s; in ‘The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft’, she described how “As a child, I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories”, and in 1807, her first poem was published, entitled ‘Mounseer Nongtongpaw’, through her father’s company.
Mary’s life was riddled with tragedy; her half sister Fanny committed suicide, followed by the suicide of Percy’s wife a short while later. In December 1816, Mary and Percy were wed. The following year, Mary published a chronicle of the duo’s trip to Europe, entitled ‘History of a Six Weeks’ Tour’, all the while working on her monster epic, which was released in 1818, with her name left off the piece, assumed by many to have been written by Percy. Regardless, the book proved to be a phenomenal success, still held in high regard all over the world today. In the same year, the duo moved to Italy.
In 1812, Mary travelled to Scotland to visit an acquaintance of Mary’s father, William Baxter and his family, where her perspective over the course of the year of how home life should be was subverted, experiencing domestic tranquillity the likes of which she had never known. A year after her return, Mary began a romantic endeavour with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a student of Mary’s father, whose attention soon turned from an education to Mary, all the while still married. As a result, with a teenage Mary in tow, Percy fled England, accompanied by Jane. This runaway created friction in the relationship between Mary and her father, who did not speak for some time after.
Together, Mary and Percy ventured across Europe, where they were befallen by a financial struggle and the tragic loss of their first child in 1815, delivering a baby girl who sadly only survived for a few days. It was around this time that Mary’s roots in horror really began, when on a fateful night, in the company of Lord Byron and John Polidori, the trio of Mary, Jane and Percy spent a rainy day reading a book of ghost stories. In the spirit of this, Byron suggested the group each try to write their own horror story. It was here that Mary Shelley laid the foundations of what would later be known globally as ‘Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus.’
The Shelleys’ marriage was not without its problems; riddled with adultery and heartache, they would sadly lose two more of their children. Their son Percy Florence, would be their only child to survive into adulthood. In 1822, Percy drowned while out sailing in the Gulf of Spezia with a friend. Widowed at 24, Mary would work hard to support herself, going on to write a number of novels, including ‘Valperga’, and sci-fi story, ‘The Last Man’, published in 1826. She devoted herself to pushing Percy’s poetry, ensuring his name was engraved in the slabs of literary history, which would be met by Percy’s father with disdain, who had disapproved of Percy’s ‘bohemian’ lifestyle.
On February 1st 1853, Mary Shelley passed away in London after suffering from brain cancer and she was buried at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, alongside her mother and father and the cremated remains of Percy’s heart. Although no longer with us, Mary’s legacy lives on through Frankenstein, which since its publication, has been replicated time and time again, parodied in 1974 with the late Gene Wilder feature, ‘Young Frankenstein’, in 1994, ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’, where Frankenstein was directed by and starred Kenneth Brannagh, with a supporting cast of Robert DeNiro and Helena Bonham Carter, and as recently as 2015, where James McAvoy portrayed the mad scientist who attempted to play God in ‘Victor Frankenstein’.