Mary Shelley - Biography
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later known as Mary Shelley, was born in Somers Town, London, England, on the 30th of August 1797. She was the daughter of William Godwin, a journalist, philosopher and novelist, and Mary Wollstonecraft, educator and feminist philosopher which was to die only 11 days after her birth, from puerperal fever. She and her four years older half-sister Fanny Imlay, were raised and educated by her father who encouraged them to write from early age. Mary Shelley became an essayist, biographer, short story writer, and novelist, famous for her novel Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, from 1818. Similar to her mother, Shelley led a complicated private life and suffered much ostracism due to her affair with the married man Percy Bysshe Shelley, which was later to become her husband. Shelly also lost three of her children prematurely until the birth of her only surviving child Percy Florence, born in 1819. Shelley's husband also died prematurely sailing into a storm. Shelley herself died on the 1st of February 1851, after struggling through her last years most likely with a brain tumor.
When Mary Shelley was four years old, her father married Mary Jane Clairmont, their neighbor, who had already two children of her own. His new wife was disliked by most of Godwin's friends and she and Mary did not get along. From an early age, Mary was encouraged by her father to write letters and she took an early liking to writing. She was also encouraged to embrace her father's sociopolitical liberal views and theories and was mostly informally educated, at home. Mary Shelley had access to her father's library, had a governess and a daily tutor. She was later sent to stay with William Baxter, a known radical, and his family in Scotland. At the age of fifteen, she was described by her father as "singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible."
In 1814, with seventeen years old, Mary Shelley started a relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of her father's political admirers and a married man. Percy was also helping Godwin financially and, due to his admiration for Godwin's political thought, he was alienated from his aristocratic surroundings. Percy and Mary Shelley started meeting secretly at her mother's grave and when her father discovered, he tried to finish the relationship, without success. The couple travelled to France with Mary's step sister Claire Clairmont and only returned when there was no money left. Upon their return, Mary Shelley was pregnant and her father, to her surprise, refused any help. Percy was constantly leaving home, escaping from creditors and also at the time Percy's wife gave birth to their son and Percy seemed to want Mary Shelley to have an affair with his friend Hogg. They left to Geneva with Claire Clairmont in 1816, to spend the summer with Lord Byron, Claire's affair at the time. The bad weather confined them to the house and they spend much of their time talking about galvanism and reading ghost stories which prompted her to write the first sketch of what was to become her most famous novel Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus.
Soon after Mary, Percy and Claire returned to England, Mary's sister and Peter's wife Harriet suicide in the space of two months. Percy was advised by his lawyer to marry Mary which he did at the end of 1816. In the following year Percy was declared morally unfit by the Chancery Court and lost custody of his children with his deceased wife Harriet. The Shelley's, Claire Clairmont and her new baby Alba, daughter of Lord Byron, moved to a large building on the river Thames, where Shelley gave birth to Clara, her third child. In the same year, once more afraid of creditors, they all left to Italy without intention of ever returning. After leaving Alba with Lord Byron, who agreed to raise her with the condition that her mother would have nothing more to do with her, the group wandered around Italy, socializing, writing, and accumulating friends that would often travel with them. The lightness of their existence came to an end with the death of Shelley's two children in 1818 and 1819 which left her devastated and alienated from her husband. Her spirits only lifted with the arrival of their fourth child, Percy Florence, by the end of 1819. During their time in Italy, Mary Shelley wrote prolifically, most noticeably the plays Midas and Proserpine, the novel Matilda, and Valperga, a historical novel, the latter being written in an attempt to help her father's finances. Mary Shelley had to still cope with her husband's interests in other women although she had her share of men around her.
The trio moved to Naples and there were accused by Paolo and Elise Foggi, servants that they had engaged in Naples, for registering a two-month old baby as Percy's and Shelley's daughter, when they claimed it was actually Claire's daughter. There has been much speculation about what actually happened in Naples, without final conclusion. The baby died in the beginning of 1820.
In 1822 Mary Shelley was pregnant again and they moved to Villa Magni, an isolated place at the Bay of Lerici. There Claire learned that her daughter Alba had died in a convent at Bagnacavallo. Mary Shelley was herself depressed in such isolated surroundings, miscarried and almost died from it. Percy spend more time with his Jane Williams, whom he idolized, than with his debilitated wife. The other playtime for Percy was a new sailing boat which ended up on killing him in a storm. Following the death of her husband, Mary Shelley spend much of her time translating poems by Byron but her finances were in precarious state. She moved back to England where she stayed first with her father and was later able to live alone, thanks to an allowance by Percy's father, Sir Timothy Shelley. They disagreed over her son's education which made her financial situation complicated yet again. She enjoyed a stimulating social life in the circles of her father but was still ostracized by many for her relationship with Percy. She moved to London in 1824 to be close to Jane Williams, with whom she was probably in love with. At the time she was working on The Last Man and famously rejected a marriage proposal by John Howard Payne by claiming that having been married to a genius she could only marry another one.
During the last 20 years of her life, Mary Shelley was very busy editing and writing. She published Perkin Warbeck in 1830, Lodore in 1835, and Falkner in 1837. She contributed frequently to ladies' magazines and after her father's death she planned to write his memoirs but ended up giving up on it. She also promoted Percy's poetry and was devoted to her son Percy Florence. From 1939 Shelley's health started to decline, preventing her from work and she died most likely of a brain tumor on the 1st of February 1851.
Mary Shelley's most famous novel, Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, was released anonymously when she was only 21 years old. Only from its second edition, five years later, was her name to appear as the author. It was initially thought that the author was her husband Percy, as the book was dedicated to William Godwin, his political hero. The work came out of a competition proposed by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816 so as who could write the best horror story. The central idea came to Shelly in a dream where she saw a student putting together parts of a man's body and working through a big engine to animate it. She first wrote a short story but Percy encouraged her to expand it into a novel. The novel had at the center of its plot a failed attempt at artificial life, by the scientist Frankenstein, which produced a monster. The work is considered to be a mixture of science fiction, gothic novel, and having elements from the Romantic movement. It was partly inspired by the electrical experiments conducted on dead and living animals by the italian physicist Giovanni Aldini. Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus is also seen as a warning about the transformations of man under the Industrial Revolution. In what is the chronological end of the novel's story, even if the scene belongs to the beginning of the book, Frankenstein warns about the terrible effects of letting oneself be driven by ambition and loosing control over its own possibilities.