Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who was born on Aug. 30, 1797, became famous in literary history as the wife of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and as the author of Frankenstein, perhaps the most famous horror novel in Western literature.
Mary was born in London to two famous parents. Her mother was the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was the political philosopher William Godwin. She was largely educated at home within the stimulating intellectual environment in her parents’ household. This environment largely shaped Mary’s independent spirit as an adult.
Mary met Percy Shelley in 1812, and over a period of time they fell in love. She eloped with Shelley to France in July 1814, and they were married in 1816, after Shelley’s first wife committed suicide. After her husband was drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822, Mary returned to England and devoted herself to publicizing his writings. She published Shelley’s Posthumous Poems (1824) and edited his Poetical Works (1839). Mary’s published notes on her husband’s works as well as her Journal and letters have provided literary historians with a rich source of biographical information about her and her celebrated husband.
Mary published Frankenstein in 1818. Its full title was Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The novel reflects a popular literary style of Mary’s day called Gothic romance. The book is credited with introducing science fiction into English literature.
In the book, Victor Frankenstein is a Swiss student of science who creates an artificial man from pieces of corpses and then brings his creature to life. The creature, who is never given a name, is despised and rejected for his terrifying appearance. It learns human ways but never finds companionship. The creature haunts Frankenstein and insists that he create a female companion. Frankenstein at first agrees but ultimately cannot go through with the creation. The creature eventually turns to evil and destroys Frankenstein.
Mary conceived the story on a stormy June night in Geneva, Switzerland, during a ghost-writing contest with friends. The novel immediately captured the imagination of English society. It was discussed in newspapers, inspired political cartoons, was adapted into dramas, and even was debated in Parliament. The nameless creature became the most famous monster in Western literature. Many critics claimed a woman could not have written such a novel and credited her husband as the author.
Mary Shelley wrote several other novels, including Valperga (1823), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), the autobiographical Ladore (1835), and Falkner (1837). Many scholars consider The Last Man (1826) as her finest work. The novel is an account of the future destruction of the human race by a plague. Her travel book History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817) tells about the continental tour she and Shelley took in 1814 following their elopement as well as a description of the summer the couple spent in 1816 in Geneva, where Frankenstein was born. She also wrote many essays, book reviews, short stories, and poems.
Mary Shelley had four children, but only the fourth, her son Percy Florence Shelley (1819-1889), survived her. The first three died in infancy. Mary died on Feb. 1, 1851.