10 Facts About Mary Shelley: The Woman Behind Frankenstein | History Hit

10 Facts About Mary Shelley: The Woman Behind Frankenstein

Amy Irvine

05 Jun 2023
Portrait of 'Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley', by Richard Rothwell (1800–1868), exhibited 1840
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain

Mary Shelley was a remarkable writer and woman whose contributions to literature and science continue to inspire and fascinate people. Born in London in 1797, she led a life full of personal and professional challenges, yet managed to create some of the most enduring works of literature of the Romantic era.

Here are 10 interesting facts about Mary Shelley.

1. Her parents were famous intellectuals

Mary Shelley was born to two of the most famous intellectuals of her time. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, a writer, feminist philosopher and women’s rights advocate, who famously wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her father was William Godwin, a political philosopher and novelist.

Mary’s mother died less than a fortnight after giving birth to her. She was raised by her father, who provided her with an informal yet rich education, encouraging her to adhere to his own anarchist political theories. Her father remarried when Mary was aged 4, to their neighbour, Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary came to have a troubled relationship with her.

Dan talks to Bee Rowlatt about the life and death of the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft.
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2. She eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley

In 1814, while still a teenager, Mary started a romance with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet who was one of her father’s political followers, who was already married with a child. Along with her stepsister Claire, Mary and Percy left for France in 1814 and travelled around Europe.

Upon their return to England, Mary was pregnant with Percy’s child. Over the next two years, she and Percy were ostracised, and faced constant debt, along with the death of their prematurely born daughter. They married in late 1816, after the suicide of Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet.

Although they faced many difficulties throughout their relationship, they remained together until Percy’s death in 1822.

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Amelia Curran

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain

3. Her father disapproved of her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley

William Godwin disapproved of his daughter’s relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, partly because Percy was still married to his first wife when he met Mary. This disapproval strained his relationship with Mary, but they eventually Mary and her father reconciled.

4. She was friends with other famous writers

Mary Shelley was friends with several other famous writers of her time, including Lord Byron, John William Polidori and John Keats.

Her friendship with Byron was particularly close, and it was he who challenged the assembled company one night on Lake Geneva (during her 1814 European travels with Percy) that each produce a ghost story. Mary won the challenge, with her novel that eventually became Frankenstein.

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5. Mary Shelley’s most famous work is Frankenstein

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus when she was aged just 18. The novel tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who creates a sentient creature from dead body parts who exacts vengeance on his maker. Frankenstein is now considered a classic of Gothic literature and has had a lasting impact on popular culture.

Left: Manuscript page from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1816. Right:
Title page of first edition of Frankenstein, Volume I. (Background: Portrait of Mary Shelley)

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

6. She suffered many personal tragedies

Mary Shelley’s life was marked by personal tragedy. As well as her mother dying shortly after giving birth to her, Mary lost three of her four children to illness. She also suffered the deaths of several close friends and family members, and later her husband.

Percy Shelley died in 1822, and Mary spent more years as his widow than as his consort, doting on her surviving child, Percy Florence.

7. She was a prolific writer

In addition to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote several other novels, including Valperga, The Last Man, and Lodore. She also wrote numerous short stories, essays, and poems. Despite her many personal challenges, she continued to write throughout her life including genre fiction for London Magazine.

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8. Shelley was interested in science

Mary Shelley was fascinated by science, particularly the work of scientists like Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta. This interest is evident in Frankenstein, which explores the consequences of playing God through scientific experimentation.

9. Shelley edited and published her husband’s work after his death

After Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in 1822, Mary Shelley edited and published several volumes of his work. She also wrote his biography, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which is still considered one of the most important works of Shelley scholarship.

10. Mary Shelley’s legacy continues to inspire

Mary Shelley died in 1851, aged 53. In the years immediately after her death, she was mostly remembered as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife and a one-novel author of Frankenstein.

However, in 1989, Emily Sunstein published a prizewinning biography of her – Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality – that analysed all of Shelley’s letters, journals, and works within their historical context. This lead to a republication of nearly all Shelley’s writings, and her voracious reading habits and intensive study (revealed in her journals, letters and works), is now better appreciated, with scholars now considering her a major Romantic literary figure.

Shelley’s exploration of themes like science, morality, and the role of women in society remain as relevant today as they were in the 19th century, and her life and work continues to inspire writers, scientists, and feminists around the world.

Amy Irvine