Mary Shelley was born on August 30th, 1797, to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Her mother, a renowned philosopher and feminist, died only a month after her birth. Raised by her father and a stepmother that she was not fond of, Mary’s early years were dark and lonely ones. Despite this, she distinguished herself by her thirst for knowledge and her love of writing. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, she kept a journal in which she composed short stories about the grounds of her father’s estate and philosophical concepts from her education.
When she was seventeen years old, Mary met Percy Shelley. What followed was a tumultuous affair that resulted in Percy leaving his wife and Mary running away from her father. Her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, accompanied them. For the next two years, Mary suffered greatly as she endured poverty and ostracism from society due to her relationship with Percy. The greatest tragedy, however, came when her first child was born prematurely and died on February 22nd, 1815. In a deep depression, she withdrew from Percy and began to ruminate on what would become the theme of her greatest work: the idea of bringing the dead back to life.
In an effort to repair relationships with family members, the couple decided to marry in 1816. During this time, Mary returned to writing. Her first published work was a travel narrative, History of a Six Week’s Tour, which detailed two journeys that the couple took: one to Europe in 1814 and another to Geneva in 1816. During their stay at Byron’s estate in Geneva, an eerie incident gave Mary the inspiration she needed to start work on her most famous novel, Frankenstein.
After a year of feverish work, she finished writing her story in May 1817. Due to her gender and the nature of the work, she chose to publish anonymously to avoid censure. Initially titled Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, it was published in January 1818 with a small run of only 500 copies. Despite this, it sold extremely well and gave Mary ample motivation to continue writing.
During this time, Mary Shelley’s life was in a constant state of upheaval. Percy, having run through most of his funds, was in danger of being sent to debtor’s prison. Her stepsister Claire was now pregnant with Byron’s illegitimate child. Facing the very real threats of prison and the potential loss of their remaining children, the Shelleys and Claire decided to move to Italy.
Their time in Italy was comprised of both light and darkness. Mary’s second child, a boy named William Shelley, contracted malaria and died in 1819. This, combined with the loss of her third child Clara just a few weeks after birth, threw Mary into an even deeper state of depression. During this time, she focused entirely on her writing as her only source of solace. Her relationship with Percy, already strained due to their financial insecurity and his womanizing, could offer her no comfort.
Her first longer work after Frankenstein was a Gothic novella called Mathilda, which she worked on from August 1819 to February 1820. She sent the completed manuscript to her father with the hope that he would praise it and submit it for publication. However, he was so disturbed by the theme (a father’s incestuous love for his daughter) that he refused and the work was only published posthumously in 1959.
In the summer of 1822, Mary Shelley moved with her husband and her stepsister to an isolated villa near the sea. It was here that Percy revealed to her that Claire’s child, sent to live in a convent by Byron, had died from typhus. Mary was so horrified by the news that she had a miscarriage, which prompted her to once again withdraw from Percy. In response, he chose to pursue a relationship with Claire and to spend the remainder of his free time with his new sailboat. In the midst of Percy’s return from a trip down the coast, there was a violent storm. Waiting anxiously for any correspondence to indicate that all was well, Mary felt the specter of death hover over her once more. Ten days after the storm, his body washed up on the shore. He was cremated on the beach with select portions of his remains taken as mementos by Mary and his close friends. From that point, Mary resolved to sustain both herself and her infant son, Percy Florence, on income from her writing.
For the next two decades, she edited Percy’s poetry, submitted short stories to magazines, and published four novels. The first of these, titled The Last Man, was published in 1826 and focused on a world that has been almost entirely wiped out by a plague. Her second novel, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, was historical fiction set during the War of the Roses. Her third novel, Lodore, illustrated the precarious situation of women in a patriarchal society as the wife and daughter of Lord Lodore struggle to stay afloat after his death. Her fourth novel, Falkner, further explored the theme of family as the heroine negotiates a reconciliation between her father and the man she loves.
In 1831, she returned to Frankenstein and published the edition that is most commonly used today. In an effort to make her work less controversial and more acceptable for a mainstream audience, she made a significant number of changes. One notable change is that the characters were now presented as being victims of fate rather than exercising free will. She also changed certain controversial elements, such as Victor’s love interest, Elizabeth, being his blood cousin.
For the last decade of her life, Mary Shelley’s health continued to decline. Debilitating headaches and bodily paralysis largely prevented her from reading and writing. Her last work was a travelogue, Rambles in Germany and Italy, detailing a trip she took with her son and his friends from the university. She died on February 1st, 1851 at the age of 51 and was buried at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth.
Although her life was marred by tragedy, she nevertheless left behind a rich legacy as a writer. Throughout her literary career, she emphasized the importance of cooperation and compassion in order to create the best possible world. As her most famous work, Frankenstein perfectly illustrates the responsibility that we have as humans for ourselves, for those around us, and for whatever we choose to bring into this world. For these reasons, Mary Shelley’s writing will remain relevant for centuries to come.
Celebrate Franken Fridays with us! Frighteningly fun events are held each Friday to celebrate Frankenstein’s 200th publishing anniversary. Connect with us on social media using the #FrankenFriday tag.
Friday, Oct. 12:
- 1 p.m., Library 134, Gainesville campus—”The Many Faces of Frankenstein” film presentation by Dr. Candice Wilson of UNG and Dr. Tobias Wilson-Bates of Georgia Tech
- TBA, Student Resource Center 311, Oconee Campus—From “Frankenstein” to Fake News: A brief history of science fiction by UNG instructor Derek Thiess
- Film screenings of 1931 “Frankenstein” and selections from Films on Demand by Drs. Melissa Schindler and Ann Marie Francis and co-sponsored with the Student Government Association, Forsyth County Library (1931 film) and classroom on Cumming Campus
Thursday, Oct. 18:
- 3:30 p.m., front of Library, West End Art Exhibit in Library, Dahlonega Campus—Birthday Party for Mary Shelley’s Creature. Reading by Scott Fugate
Friday, Oct. 19:
- 11 a.m. to noon, Library 134, Gainesville Campus—Visiting artist Drema Montgomery, who creates art by assembling various found objects, will demonstrate her work and correlate it to Dr. Frankenstein’s manufacturing the monster.
- Noon to 4 p.m., Forsyth County Library and Cumming Campus—Frankenstein-themed rock art by World Literature II students
- 1 p.m., Library 134, Gainesville Campus—English faculty panel including Dr. Diana Edelman, Anita Turlington and Dr. Kasee Laster
- TBA, Student Resource Center 311, Oconee Campus—The Many Faces of Frankenstein: media and roundtable discussion with Drs. Dan Cabaniss, Stephanie Rountree and Shane Toepfer
Friday, Oct. 26
- 11 a.m., Library 134, Gainesville Campus—”Frankenstein and Posthumanism” faculty panel featuring Dr. Lynn Berdanier, Dr. John Hamilton, Dr. Jeanelle Morgan, and Dr. Kristin Yager
- Noon to 3 p.m., upstairs lobby, Cumming Campus—PoeDown and costume contest
- Noon, Library 134, Gainesville Campus—”Monster Theory” faculty panel featuring Dr. Jeff Pardue, Dr. Phil Guerty, Dr. Patsy Worrall
- 3-5 p.m., Mount Hope Cemetery, Dahlonega Campus—”Secrets from the Grave” guided tour of Mount Hope Cemetery.