She was born of impeccable parentage – the daughter of two of the 18th century’s most notable and infamous thinkers: pioneering feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft; and radical philosopher and proto-anarchist, William Godwin. She was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the most brilliant revolutionary lyric poet in the English language, with whom she ran off when she was sixteen. And, by the time she was nineteen, she had written one of the most famous and groundbreaking novels ever published. Today we pay tribute to Mary Shelley, who died on this day aged 53. Her dramatic personal life – marred by the tragic deaths of her mother just ten days after she was born, her husband, and three of her four children – has often overshadowed her remarkable literary achievements. The author of seven novels as well as travel narratives, biographies, journals, critical reviews and short stories, Mary Shelley was also a skilled editor, translator, historian and resuscitator of her husband’s posthumous reputation. But it is to an extraordinary first effort, commenced when she was just 18, that we must turn our attention…
In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley recalled how she “came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea.” It was a rainy evening in June 1816 at Lake Leman in Switzerland, when Mary, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori challenged each other to compose a work of Gothic fiction. Mary endeavoured to think of a story “which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awake thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” Her more illustrious and experienced competitors soon abandoned their stories, but Mary pursued her idea. And then one night, after a discussion concerning galvanism and Erasmus Darwin’s sensational success in causing a strand of vermicelli to move voluntarily, Mary fell into “a waking dream” where she saw “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” She felt the terror for the artist who dared “to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” by giving the “spark of life to a hideous corpse.” The next morning, after Shelley and Byron went off sailing, Mary began work on what was to become chapter 4 of Frankenstein. “It was on a dreary night of November…”
First published in 1818 and deeply rooted in the revolutionary politics and radical new science of its time, Frankenstein tells the story of an over-reacher who brings to life the monster who inhabits one’s dreams – a cautionary tale which still stands as a powerful and enduring example of those who would dare to tinker with humanity and nature. It is recognised as the first true example of science fiction, is one of the seminal (and most popularly enjoyed) works of the Romantic period and has sparked a host of stage and screen interpretations.
For bringing forth one of the great literary masterpieces of the unruly imagination; for a lifelong devotion to radical ideas; and for an unrelenting commitment to the immortalisation of her husband: Mary Shelley – we salute you!
She was an exemplary writer and a prophetess of her time. Western society is pretty much destroying itself now the way Victor Frankenstein did in the book. Thanks for recognising her genius today; excellent article!