Mary Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was born at the Polygon, Somers Town, London, where her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was living after her marriage to William Godwin earlier that year. Wollstonecraft died in September 1797 a few weeks after her daughter’s birth.  Godwin continued to raise her and Wollstonecraft’s daughter through Gilbert Imlay, Fanny Godwin (17940-1816). This continued after his marriage in 1801 to Mary Jane Clairmont (1768-1841), who brought two illegitimate children of her own into the marriage.  Mary’s younger half-brother, William Godwin, Jr., was born in 1803.  Her primary education was at home via her father, and she read widely in history, mythology, and literature, as well as Latin and French.  She followed him in becoming a Deist and probably a pantheist as well, and absorbed much of her mother’s and father’s political activism and reformist tendencies. In 1812 she first met Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and his wife, Harriet, in London. In May 1814, after Shelley’s promise of financial support to Godwin, they began an affair. Her father tried to stop the affair, but on 28 July they eloped to the Continent, joined by Claire Clairmont, her step-sister, during the lull in the Napoleonic Wars. When they returned to England in September, she was pregnant. The couple settled at Bishopsgate, with Shelley now the recipient of a £1000 per annum inheritance, which brought them financial stability. Her first child, a daughter, died shortly after birth. In January 1816, a son, William, was born.  The couple did not marry until late in 1816, and the social ramifications of their elopement and affair would cost Mary Shelley dearly the remainder of her life. In 1816 the couple and Claire Clairmont traveled to Geneva, meeting there with Byron  (Clairmont was then pregnant with his child, and like Mary, not married to the father). During their time there she wrote Frankenstein, one of the earliest entries in English in the genre of science fiction.  Once her sex was known as the author, the book was not treated as seriously as it deserved, viewed more as a romance than a social and political novel, topics that were generally viewed as belonging to the domain of men. When they returned to England, they settled in Bath, and were confronted by two personal family tragedies: the suicide of Fanny Imlay on 9 October in Swansea, and the intentional drowning of Harriet Shelley, Shelley’s lawful wife, on 9 November, herself pregnant at the time. Mary and Percy were married on 30 December, with her father and stepmother as witnesses. In March 1818, the Shelleys, along with Claire Clairmont and her illegitimate daughter, Clara Allegra Byron, traveled to Italy to treat Percy Shelley’s illness (pulmonary disease). Her two children died on this trip, though she was pregnant once again. During this trip she wrote Matilda, a novel about incest, but it was not published until 1959. Her fourth (and only surviving) child, Percy Florence Shelley, was born in November 1819 in Florence, Italy. They lived in several more places in Italy into 1822, only to have everything change with the drowning that May of P. B. Shelley and Edward Williams in the gulf of Spezia. Mary Shelley returned to England in 1823 lived much as an “exile” in a country that did not appreciate her previous choices of relationships and life style.  In order to gain funds for her son from his grandfather Shelley, she lived under severe restrictions upon her publishing. Nevertheless, she contributed many articles to periodicals and published several posthumous works by her husband, and composed her second best novel, The Last Man(1826). This was followed by The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck(1830), Lodore(1835), and Falkner(1837). Like Mary Hays, Mary Shelley also turned to writing biographies of important people, contributing most of the essays in Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet of Biography: Lives of the most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal (5 vols, 1835-37) and Lives of the most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France(1838-39).  Two important editions of her husband’s works were prepared by her in 1839, The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley(4 vols) and Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley (2 vols), and a one-volume collection of his poetry in 1840. Her last full-length work was Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843(1844). She died on 1 February 1851 in her home at 24 Chester Square, London. At her death, the remains of her father and mother were exhumed and removed to St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth, where she was buried with them by her surviving son and his wife.