A biography of Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley was born on August 30, 1797, in London, England. She married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816. Two years later, she published her most famous novel, Frankenstein. She wrote several other books, including Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826). Shelley died of brain cancer on February 1, 1851, in London, England.

Early Life

Writer Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on August 30, 1797, in London, England. She was the daughter of philosopher and political writer William Godwin and famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft—the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Sadly for Shelley, she never really knew her mother who died shortly after her birth. Her father William Godwin was left to care for Shelley and her older half-sister Fanny Imlay. Imlay was Wollstonecraft’s daughter from an affair she had with a soldier.

The family dynamics soon changed with Godwin’s marriage to Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801. Clairmont brought her own two children into the union, and she and Godwin later had a son together. Shelley never got along with her stepmother. Her stepmother decided that her stepsister Jane (later Claire) should be sent away to school, but she saw no need to educate Shelley.

The Godwin household had a number of distinguished guests during Shelley’s childhood, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. While she didn’t have a formal education, she did make great use of her father’s extensive library. Shelley could often be found reading, sometimes by her mother’s grave. She also liked to daydream, escaping from her often challenging home life into her imagination.

Shelley also found a creative outlet in writing. According to The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, she once explained that « As a child, I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories.' » She published her first poem, « Mounseer Nongtongpaw, » in 1807, through her father’s company.

Love and Horror

During the summer of 1812, Shelley went to Scotland to stay with an acquintance of her father William Baxter and his family.

In 1814, Mary began a relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy Shelley was a devoted student of her father, but he soon focused his attentions on Mary. He was still married to his first wife when he and the teenaged Mary fled England together that same year. The couple was accompanied by Mary’s stepsister Jane. Mary’s actions alienated her from her father who did not speak to her for some time.

Mary and Percy Shelly traveled about Europe for a time. They struggled financially and faced the loss of their first child in 1815. Mary delivered a baby girl who only lived for a few days. The following summer, the Shelleys were in Switzerland with Jane Clairmont, Lord Byron and John Polidori. The group entertained themselves one rainy day by reading a book of ghost stories. Lord Byron suggested that they all should try their hand at writing their own horror story. It was at this time that Mary Shelley began work on what would become her most famous novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Later that year, Mary suffered the loss of her half-sister Fanny who committed suicide. Another suicide, this time by Percy’s wife, occurred a short time later. Mary and Percy Shelly were finally able to wed in December 1816. She published a travelogue of their escape to Europe, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817), while continuing to work on her soon-to-famous monster tale. In 1818, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus debuted as a new novel from an anonymous author. Many thought that Percy Bysshe Shelley had written it since he penned its introduction. The book proved to be a huge success. That same year, the Shelleys moved to Italy.

While Mary seemed devoted to her husband, she did not have the easiest marriage. Their union was riddled with adultery and heartache, including the death of two more of their children. Born in 1819, their son, Percy Florence, was the only child to live to adulthood. Mary’s life was rocked by another tragedy in 1822 when her husband drowned. He had been out sailing with a friend in the Gulf of Spezia.

Later Years

Made a widow at age 24, Mary Shelley worked hard to support herself and her son. She wrote several more novels, including Valperga and the science fiction tale The Last Man (1826). She also devoted herself to promoting her husband’s poetry and preserving his place in literary history. For several years, Shelley faced some opposition from her late husband’s father who had always disapproved his son’s bohemian lifestyle.

Mary Shelley died of brain cancer on February 1, 1851, at age 53, in London, England. She was buried at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, laid to rest alongside her father and mother and with the cremated remains of her late husband’s heart.

It was roughly a century after her passing that one of her novels, Mathilde, was finally released in the 1950s. Her lasting legacy, however, remains the classic tale of Frankenstein. This struggle between a monster and its creator has been an enduring part of popular culture. In 1994, Kenneth Branaugh and Robert De Niro appeared in a film adaptation of Shelley’s novel… Shelley’s monster lives on in such modern thrillers as I, Frankenstein (2013) as well.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Chapter 4  (Click for French version)

From this day natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation. I read with ardour those works, so full of genius and discrimination, which modern inquirers have written on these subjects. I attended the lectures and cultivated the acquaintance of the men of science of the university, and I found even in M. Krempe a great deal of sound sense and real information, combined, it is true, with a repulsive physiognomy and manners, but not on that account the less valuable. In M. Waldman I found a true friend. His gentleness was never tinged by dogmatism, and his instructions were given with an air of frankness and good nature that banished every idea of pedantry. In a thousand ways he smoothed for me the path of knowledge and made the most abstruse inquiries clear and facile to my apprehension. My application was at first fluctuating and uncertain; it gained strength as I proceeded and soon became so ardent and eager that the stars often disappeared in the light of morning whilst I was yet engaged in my laboratory…

One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries. I revolved these circumstances in my mind and determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology…

Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings. I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret. Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman.

The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens than that which I now affirm is true. Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter. The astonishment which I had at first experienced on this discovery soon gave place to delight and rapture. After so much time spent in painful labour, to arrive at once at the summit of my desires was the most gratifying consummation of my toils. But this discovery was so great and overwhelming that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result. What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world was now within my grasp…

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