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Frankenstein Incarnate: The Passions of Mary Shelley
The life of novelist Mary Shelley overlaps and intertwines with the story that made her famous, illuminating the creator and creature within us all.
Mary W. Shelley Biographical Highlights and Chronology
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)
"I busied myself to think of a story ... one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart."
--Mary W. Shelley, introduction to Frankenstein
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the author of Frankenstein, the classic story of a scientist who discovers how to re-animate the dead and his monstrous creation, who ultimately destroys him. Ever since its publication in 1818, Frankenstein has seized the imagination of its readers and inspired countless dramatizations, imitations, and take-offs. It has become a cultural myth about the dangers of seeking knowledge.
Mary's background prepared her to think deeply and to express herself with conviction. Born in London, she was the daughter of influential philosopher William Godwin and trailblazing feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (who died from complications of giving birth to her). She grew up in a lively, intellectual household, which, after her father's second marriage, eventually came to include five children, three girls and two boys. Godwin encouraged the children to keep abreast of current events, to read widely, to write, and to think for themselves. A bookseller and publisher, he published Mary’s first book, a children's story that she wrote at the age of eleven.
Guests in the Godwin home included poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, American political exile Aaron Burr, and, fatefully, poet and utopian thinker Percy Bysshe Shelley. An admirer of Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Shelley came to London to meet its author, and was soon regularly attending dinner at his house. Shelley was twenty-two, married, the father of a small daughter, with another child on the way. Sixteen-year-old Mary fell in love with him and declared her willingness to run away with him, in accordance with his (and her father's) principles of free love. Along with her stepsister Claire Clairmont, they went to Switzerland, then lived a wandering life in England and Italy. Mary and Shelley were together for eight years, during which she was pregnant five times. Only one of their children, Percy Florence, survived to adulthood.
In the summer of 1816, Mary, Shelley and Claire were staying with Claire's lover, the (in)famous poet Lord Byron, in a villa in Switzerland. Bad weather kept them indoors, and, as an amusement, Byron proposed that they all write ghost stories. This celebrated challenge inspired Mary to write Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. It was published in 1818, when Mary was twenty years old.
Mary wrote professionally for the rest of her life. Her other books included Valperga, a historical novel about fourteenth-century Italy; Lodore, a romance whose hero