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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) is best known for her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), which has transcended the Gothic and horror genres and is now recognized as a work of philosophical and psychological resonance. In addition to Frankenstein, Shelley's literary works include several novels that were mildly successful in their time but are little known today and an edition of poetry by her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which she issued with notes that are now regarded as indispensable. Her reputation rests, however, on what she once called her "hideous progeny," Frankenstein.

Shelley's personal life has sometimes overshadowed her literary work. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist. Her parents' wedding, which occurred when Wollstonecraft was five months pregnant with Mary, was the marriage of two of the day's most noted freethinkers. While they both objected to the institution of matrimony, they agreed to marry to ensure their child's legitimacy. Ten days after Mary's birth, Wollstonecraft died from complications, leaving Godwin, an undemonstrative and self-absorbed intellectual, to care for both Mary and Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft's daughter from an earlier liaison. Mary's home life improved little with the arrival four years later of a stepmother and her two children. The new Mrs. Godwin, whom contemporaries described as petty and disagreeable, favored her own offspring over the daughters of the celebrated Wollstonecraft, and Mary was often solitary and unhappy. She was not formally educated, but absorbed the intellectual atmosphere created by her father and such visitors as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She read a wide variety of books, notably those of her mother, whom she idolized. Young Mary's favorite retreat was Wollstonecraft's grave in the St. Pancras churchyard, where she went to read and write and eventually to meet her lover, Percy Shelley.

An admirer of Godwin, Percy Shelley visited the author's home and briefly met Mary when she was fourteen, but their attraction did not take hold until a subsequent meeting two years later. Shelley, twenty-two, was married, and his wife was expecting their second child, but he and Mary, like Godwin and Wollstonecraft, believed that ties of the heart superseded legal ones. In July 1814, one month before her seventeenth birthday, Mary eloped with Percy to the Continent, where, apart from two interludes in England, they spent the next few years traveling in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. These years were characterized by financial difficulty and personal tragedy. Percy's father, Sir Timothy Shelley, a wealthy baronet, cut off his son's substantial allowance after his elopement. In 1816, Mary's half-sister Fanny committed suicide; just weeks later, Percy's wife, Harriet, drowned herself. Mary and Percy were married in London, in part because they hoped to gain custody of his two children by Harriet, but custody was denied. Three of their own children died in infancy, and Mary fell into a deep depression that was barely dispelled by the birth in 1819 of Percy Florence, her only surviving child. The Shelleys' marriage suffered, too, in the wake of their children's deaths, and Percy formed romantic attachments to other women. Despite these trying circumstances, both Mary and Percy maintained a schedule of rigorous study— including classical and European literature, Greek, Latin, and Italian language, music and art—and ambitious writing; during this period Mary completed Frankenstein and another novel, Valperga (1823). The two also enjoyed a coterie of stimulating friends, notably Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. The Shelleys were settled near Lenci, Italy, on the Gulf of Spezzia in 1822 when Percy drowned during a storm while sailing to meet Leigh and Marianne Hunt. After one mournful year in Italy, Mary returned permanently to England with her son.

Shelley's life after Percy's death was marked by melancholy and hardship as she struggled to support herself and her child. Sir Timothy Shelley offered her a meager stipend, but ordered that she keep the Shelley name out of print; thus, all her works were published anonymously. In addition to producing four novels in the years after Percy's death, Mary contributed a series of biographical and critical sketches to Chamber's Cabinet Cyclopedia, as well as occasional short stories, which she considered potboilers, to the literary annuals of the day. The Shelleys' financial situation improved when Sir Timothy increased Percy Florence's allowance with his coming of age in 1840, which enabled mother and son to travel in Italy and Germany; their journeys are recounted in Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844). Too ill in her last few years to complete her most cherished project, a biography of her husband, Shelley died at age fifty-four.

Although Frankenstein has consistently dominated critical discussions of Shelley's oeuvre, she also composed several other novels in addition to critical and biographical writings. Her five later novels attracted little notice, and critics generally agree that they share the faults of verbosity and awkward plotting. After Frankenstein, The Last Man (1826) is her best-known work. This novel, in which Shelley describes the destruction of the human race in the twenty-first century, is noted as an inventive depiction of the future and an early prototype of science fiction. Valperga and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830) are historical novels that have received scant attention from literary critics, while Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), thought by many to be autobiographical, are often examined for clues to the lives of the Shelleys and their circle. Shelley's stories were collected and published posthumously, as was Mathilda, a novella that appeared for the first time in the 1950s. The story of a father and daughter's incestuous attraction, it has been viewed as a fictional treatment—or distortion—of Shelley's relationship with Godwin. The posthumously published verse dramas, Proserpine and Midas (1922), were written to complement one of Percy Shelley's works and have garnered mild praise for their poetry. Critics also admire Shelley's non-fiction: the readable, though now dated, travel volumes, the essays for Chamber's Cabinet Cyclopedia, which are considered vigorous and erudite, and her illuminating notes on her husband's poetry.

Since Shelley's death, critics have devoted nearly all of their attention to Frankenstein. Early critics, generally with some dismay, usually relegated the novel to the Gothic genre then practiced by such popular authors as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory "Monk" Lewis. While most early Victorian reviewers reviled what they considered the sensationalist and gruesome elements in Frankenstein, many praised the anonymous author's imagination and powers of description. In the later nineteenth century and throughout Frankenstein criticism, commentators have focused on Prometheanism in the novel, an aspect that Shelley herself highlighted in the book's subtitle. This line of inquiry, which continues to engage critics, likens Dr. Frankenstein to the Greek mythic figure who wreaks his own destruction through abuse of power. Percy Shelley treated the same mythic-philosophic theme in his poetry, most notably in Prometheus Unbound, and critics have searched for his influence on Frankenstein, particularly in the expression of Romantic ideals and attitudes. Scholars have also debated the value of the additional narratives that he encouraged her to write. While some have praised the novel's resulting three-part structure, others have argued that these additions detract from and merely pad the story, although most have valued the other-worldly Arctic scenes. Commentators have also frequently noted the influence of Shelley's father, tracing strains of Godwin's humanitarian social views; in addition, some critics have found direct thematic links to his fiction, particularly to his novel, Caleb Williams. Other literary allusions often noted in Frankenstein include those to John Milton's Paradise Lost, the source of the book's epigraph, as well as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faustand Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Frankenstein criticism has proliferated since the 1950s, encompassing a wide variety of themes and approaches. The monster, who is often the focus of commentary, has been interpreted as representing issues ranging from the alienation of modern humanity to the repression of women. Many commentators have viewed the monster as Dr. Frankenstein's double, an example of the doppelganger archetype. In a similar vein, critics have discussed Dr. Frankenstein and the monster as embodying Sigmund Freud's theory of id and ego. Students of the Gothic, supernatural horror, and science fiction novel have adopted Frankenstein as a venerable forebear and have approached it from a historical slant. Alternately, Shelley's life has served as a starting point for those who perceive in the novel expressions of the author's feelings toward her parents, husband, children, and friends. Recent feminist critics, in particular, have found Shelley and Frankenstein a rich source for study, describing it, for example, as a manifestation of the author's ambivalent feelings toward motherhood.

Leigh Hunt once characterized Shelley as "fourfamed—for her parents, her lord / And the poor lone impossible monster abhorr'd." Today, she has emerged from the shadow of her parents and husband as an artist in her own right. The volume and variety of Frankenstein criticism attests to the endurance of her vision.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, editor, Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1985.

Church, Richard, Mary Shelley, Gerald Howe, 1928.

Dunn, Jane, Moon in Eclipse: A Life of Mary Shelley, St. Martin's, 1978.

Gerson, Noel B., Daughter of Earth and Water: A Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Morrow, 1973.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, Yale University Press, 1979.

Grylls, Glynn R., Mary Shelley: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1938.

Harris, Janet, The Woman Who Created Frankenstein: A Portrait of Mary Shelley, Harper, 1979. □

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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1797–1851, English author; daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1814 she fell in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, accompanied him abroad, and after the death of his first wife in 1816 was married to him. Her most notable contribution to literature is her novel of terror, Frankenstein, published in 1818. It is the story of a German student who learns the secret of infusing life into inanimate matter and creates a monster that ultimately destroys him. Included among her other novels are Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826), and the partly autobiographical Lodore (1835). After Shelley's death in 1822, she devoted herself to caring for her aged father and educating her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley. In 1839–40 she edited her husband's works.

See her journal (ed. by F. L. Jones, 1947); her letters (ed. by M. Spark and D. Stamford, 1953); biographies by M. Spark (1951, repr. 1988), N. B. Gerson (1973), and M. Seymour (2001); studies by W. A. Walling (1972), E. Sunstein (1989), and R. Montillo (2013).

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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (1797–1851). Author. Only daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, pretty, bookish Mary eloped with the young Percy Bysshe Shelley to Europe in 1814, marrying him on his wife Harriet's suicide (1816). Her most famous novel Frankenstein (1818) arose from Byron's ghost-story contest one ‘wet, ungenial summer’ by Lake Geneva, being overseen by her husband at every stage; this founded the genre of ‘scientific Gothick’ later exploited by horror-film makers. After the poet's death (1822), Mary returned to England and became a professional writer in order to educate her only surviving child Percy Florence Shelley. Devotion prompted editions of her husband's works to perpetuate his memory, while her letters and journal are further rich biographical sources.

A. S. Hargreaves

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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (1797–1851) English novelist, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. She eloped with Percy Shelley in 1814, and married him in 1816. Her later works of fiction, which include The Last Man (1826) and Lodore (1835), have been eclipsed by her first novel, Frankenstein (1818).

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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

BORN: 1797, London

DIED: 1851, London

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Fiction, poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)
The Last Man (1826)
Lives of the Most Important Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal (1835–1837)

Overview

British author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a skilled editor and critic, an influential travel writer, a literary historian, and a dabbler in verse as well as short stories. By the age of nineteen, Shelley had created the greatest and what many believe to be the first science fiction novel in history: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). This one novel has risen above the gothic and horror genres to gain recognition as a work of psychological and philosophical depth. Although she wrote several other novels, along with respected nonfiction pieces, Shelley's legacy lives on through Frankenstein.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Unhappy Childhood Born in London on August 30, 1797, Shelley was the daughter of two great intellectual rebels of the 1790s: Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist who wrote the renowned Vindication of the Rights of

Women (1792), and William Godwin, a novelist and political philosopher. Ten days after Shelley was born, her mother died from complications related to her birth, leaving Godwin to care for Shelley and Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft's three-year old-daughter from a previous relationship. Although her father was not particularly affectionate or attentive, Shelley did not grow up alone.

After Godwin remarried in 1801, Mary gained more siblings. Her stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont, favored her own two children and the son she and Godwin shared over Wollstonecraft's daughters. Mary's childhood was not happy. At one point, she was sent to live with family friends in Scotland for two years, probably because of conflict between her and her stepmother. Although Shelley received no formal education—which was somewhat common for British girls at this time—she found consolation in intellectual pursuits, especially books.

Married Percy Bysshe Shelley Shelley's father hosted many of the prominent intellectuals and writers of the day, including poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy met Mary when she was fourteen. However, they were not romantically interested in one another until two years later. At this time, Percy Shelley was married, his wife pregnant with their second child. Nevertheless, he and Shelley felt that matters of the heart were more significant than legal ties, and the couple ran away together in July 1814, a month before Shelley's seventeenth birthday.

Love and Loss The couple spent the subsequent years traveling in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy even though Percy Shelley's father, a wealthy baronet, discontinued his son's substantial allowance after Percy Shelley abandoned his family. (Until 1858, a divorce could only be obtained by an act of Parliament, an expensive and formidable task.) These years were marked by personal tragedy as well. Their first child died eleven days after she was born, and Fanny, Shelley's half-sister, and Harriet, Percy's wife, both committed suicide in 1816.

Ghost Stories The couple spent most of the summer of 1816 in Geneva, Switzerland, with Lord Byron, a poet, and John Polidori, a writer and physician. That year was an auspicious one; because of the weather, 1816 became known as “the year without a summer.” Probably because of the effects of several major volcanic eruptions that caused an extreme buildup of atmospheric dust, there was essentially no extended summer that year in much of the northern United States, parts of Canada, and northern Europe as well as other parts of the world. Temperatures shifted between typical summer warmth and near freezing within short amounts of time. Because of the atypical summer, most crops were lost and the areas hardest hit suffered from food shortages. In Switzerland, for example, there was widespread famine that led to food riots and the government's declaring a national emergency.

During a June snowstorm in Geneva, the group read aloud a collection of German ghost stories that inspired Byron to challenge the others to write their own ghost stories. While Percy Shelley wrote an inconsequential story, Byron wrote a fragment of a story, and Polidori began “The Vampyre” (1819), what some view as the first modern vampire tale. Shelley, inspired by a vivid nightmare, began writing Frankenstein.

Married Life In part because they sought custody of Percy Shelley's two children, Percy and Mary married in London in December 1816. Still, custody was denied. After two more of the couple's own children died before the age of three, Mary Shelley fell into a deep depression until the 1819 birth of their only surviving child, a son, Percy Florence. Despite marital problems caused by Shelley's depression and her husband's involvement with other women, including his sister-in-law Claire Clair-mont, both Shelleys were prolific writers and were dedicated to their studies of European literature and Greek, Latin, and Italian language, art, and music. Intelligent and remarkably gifted, Shelley completed Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus at the age of nineteen.

Percy Shelley's Death The Shelleys settled near Lenci, Italy, on the Gulf of Spezzia. Sailing to meet fellow poet Leigh Hunt in 1822, Percy Shelley drowned during a storm. Grief-stricken, Shelley remained in Italy for a year and then returned permanently to England with her son, where she struggled to support the two of them. When Percy Shelley's father offered her a small stipend on the condition that she keep the Shelley name out of print, she published her works anonymously. Besides writing four novels in the years after Percy's death, she contributed a series of biographical and critical essays to Chamber's Cabinet Cyclopedia, in addition to submitting occasional short stories—pieces she considered hackwork—to literary journals.

As Shelley's son got older, her father-in-law increased the boy's allowance, providing the resources for mother and son to journey to Italy and Germany, travels Shelley describes in Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844). She spent the last years of her life focused on editing her late husband's work and writing his biography. In 1848, Shelley began showing symptoms of the brain tumor that would eventually kill her, and by the time of her death in London on February 1, 1851, she was almost completely paralyzed. She died without completing Percy's biography, which had become her most treasured project.

Works in Literary Context

Gothic and Biblical Influences Through the years, Shelley's influences have been well documented by scholars. Without a doubt, the Gothic tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries played a role in Shelley's creation of Frankenstein. Other sources of inspiration included the myth of Prometheus, the Bible, and the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, along with discoveries regarding electricity, chemistry, and anatomy made during Shelley's lifetime. Especially evident in Shelley's work is her familiarity with John Milton's biblical epic Paradise Lost (1667).

Science Fiction In the genre of science fiction, Frankenstein is viewed as an archetype, its premise commonly used by authors intent on illustrating how destructive the relentless pursuit of scientific knowledge can be. The foundation of Shelley's story is simple and familiar: A scientist rejects accepted theories and turns instead to his own research, which leads to deadly consequences. However, in many ways Frankenstein is unlike much science fiction published since.

In style and structure, it is much closer to its eighteenth-century predecessors: an epistolary novel told in increasingly tightening circles or frames and interspersed with poetry (including that of Shelley's husband). It also differs from much science fiction in its use of Gothic conventions. While Shelley departed from many of the characteristics of the mode, with its haunted castles and threatened maidens, she nonetheless successfully conveys a Gothic atmosphere, which, in its sense of the strange and the irrational, stands in sharp contrast both to Enlightenment rationality and to the scientific objectivity of modern science fiction.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Shelley's famous contemporaries include:

Washington Irving (1783–1859): American writer Irving wrote “Rip Van Winkle” (1819). Based on a Germanic folk tale, this short story is an Americanized version that has been a popular favorite since its publication.

Stendhal (1783–1842): An advocate of French liberalism, author Stendhal (the pen name of Henri-Marie Beyle) believed that man, basically reasonable, requires a society where talent can be expressed in whatever intellectual, political, or economic manner deemed appropriate by the individual. His works include The Red and the Black (1830).

Jane Austen (1775–1817): British novelist Austen captured the constraints of society with such works as Pride and Prejudice (1813), in which human relationships are determined by wealth and class.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851): American novelist Cooper wrote the internationally best-selling novel The Spy (1821) as well as his Leatherstocking tales (including The Last of the Mohicans [1826]) that feature the character Natty Bumpo.

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873): English utilitarian philosopher Mill wrote the essay, On Liberty (1859), considered one of the most important statements on individual freedom in the history of Western democracy.

King Ferdinand VII (1784–1833): During the Napoleonic Wars, this Spanish king was imprisoned in France by Napoléon for almost seven years after being forced to abdicate his throne in 1808. Ferdinand returned to the Spanish throne in 1813 and ruled Spain during the tumultuous loss of its empire.

The novel is about a driven doctor, Victor Frankenstein, and his desire to bypass God and create human life in the laboratory. Like a character in ancient Greek tragedy whose fatal flaw is hubris, or excessive pride, Frank-enstein is punished for his arrogance by the very forces he has unleashed upon the world. The principal reason scholars have identified Frankenstein as an influential work of science fiction is the result of Victor Frankenstein's reliance on natural or scientific means to create his man. Ultimately, nature becomes a mechanized force with the ability to create and destroy.

Shelley's Legacy Few literary works have had such a profound impact on the genres of fantasy and horror, the development of science fiction, and the Western world's conception of both. Inspiring plays, an opera, movie and television adaptations, numerous sequels, and countless imitators, Frankenstein has taken on a life of its own. In fact, Shelley's novel often surprises those modern readers whose knowledge of the story is limited to movie versions that are not faithful to the story itself.

Works in Critical Context

Literary Value With Frankenstein dominating critical discussions of her writing, Shelley's other fictional works have received little attention. Critics generally agree that her five later novels are characterized by awkward plotting and verbosity; all the same, most of them have some element of literary value. For instance, scholars consider The Last Man, Shelley's best-known work after Frankenstein, to be an early prototype of science fiction, with its description of the destruction of the human race in the twenty-first century. Thought by many to be autobiographical, the novels Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837) have been studied for clues to the lives of the Shelleys and their circle of literary friends. In regard to Shelley's nonfiction, critics admire the intelligent, insightful essays she wrote for Chamber's Cabinet Cyclopedia, as well as her enlightening notes on Percy Shelley's poetry.

Frankenstein Having been adapted for a variety of media, the Frankenstein myth has become part of modern culture. However, when Frankenstein was first published, critics typically looked upon the novel as another addition to Gothic fiction, a genre unworthy of serious literary analysis. Early Victorian critics held the same viewpoint, though later scholars began to appreciate the psychological depth beneath the horror in Frankenstein. Critics have also focused on the prometheanism in the novel, an aspect that Shelley herself highlighted in the book's subtitle. This line of inquiry, which continues to engage critics, likens Dr. Frankenstein to the Greek mythic figure who wreaks his own destruction through abuse of power. Since then, generations of critics have delved into the novel, discovering the complexities overlooked by early scholars.

Modern critics agree that Shelley's depiction of a godless world in which science and technology have gone awry continues to be a powerful metaphor for the modern age. The monster, who is often the focus of criticism, has been interpreted as representing issues ranging from the alienation of modern humanity to the oppression of women. On the other hand, his maker must confront his sin against the moral and social order. George Levine, for example, comments on the novel's conflict between individual desire and social responsibility: “Frankenstein spells out both the horror of going ahead and the emptiness of return. In particular, it spells out the price of heroism.”

In describing Frankenstein's efforts to bring his creature to life by scientific rather than supernatural means, Shelley fuses Gothic atmosphere with philosophical allegory. Critic Bonnie R. Neumann points out the fact that Frankenstein illustrates a common theological theme, the “initiation—or fall—from … innocent, happy illusions … into the reality of [life] with its knowledge of loneliness, pain, and death.” Farsighted and relevant, Frankenstein has presented to the world Victor Frankenstein, a scientist whose name has become synonymous with the reckless use of science and technology—and its potential for catastrophe.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Shelley, like other Romantic writers, often wrote of isolated individuals in a fallen world. The theme of being alone after the destruction of the world is one that writers have explored for centuries, as shown by the works listed below:

Robinson Crusoe (1719), a novel by Daniel Defoe. Shipwrecked off the coast of Trinidad, Crusoe develops the survival skills necessary for living alone on an island.

I Am Legend (2007), a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Robert Neville, a military scientist who thinks he may be the lone survivor after a man-made virus infects the world, works to discover a cure while living in a city inhabited by bloodthirsty victims of the virus.

A Gift upon the Shore (2000), a novel by M. K. Wren. Surrounded by complete devastation from a nuclear holocaust and its aftermath, two women dedicate their lives to collecting and preserving the great books of Western culture.

Alas, Babylon (1959), a novel by Pat Frank. With tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union at an all-time high, Frank published his novel about the survival tactics of a small Florida town after all the major cities in Florida are destroyed in a nuclear war.

Responses to Literature

  1. As the monster in Frankenstein develops, he learns to speak and read and eventually comes to understand how he was created. Most film versions of Frankenstein depict the monster as mute or vocally incoherent. How do the monster's verbal skills and powers of persuasion in the novel evoke a different reaction toward his existence? Compare and contrast the monster from the novel to the monster in film versions in a paper.
  2. In a critical essay, analyze the importance of narrative shifts in Frankenstein. Explain the differences in foreshadowing in the narratives of Victor, the monster, and Walton. How does the novel's shift in narrative perspective add to or detract from the overall message of the novel?
  3. Although written by the daughter of a famous feminist, Frankenstein is noticeably lacking in strong female characters. As you read the novel, take notes about the following female characters: Justine, Elizabeth, and Caroline Beaufort. Discuss the role of women in Frankenstein. Do Victor and the monster have differing views of women? Why do you think Shelley chose to create weak female characters? Create a presentation of your findings.
  4. From her mother's legacy to her scandalous elopement with a married man to her famous husband's death, Shelley's personal life has often overshadowed her literary work. Research what the critics say about Shelley's personal life and write a related essay. Why do you believe critics and general readers alike are so attracted to details unrelated to actual textual analysis?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bloom, Harold, ed. Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Gerson, Noel B. Daughter of Earth and Water: A Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. New York: Morrow, 1973.

Harris, Janet. The Woman Who Created Frankenstein: A Portrait of Mary Shelley. New York: Harper, 1979.

Levine, George, and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Miller, Calvin Craig. Spirit Like a Storm: The Story ofMary Shelley. Greensboro, N. C.: Morgan Reynolds, 1996.

Neumann, Bonnie R. The Lonely Muse: A Critical Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. New York: Edwin Mellen, 1979.

Smith, Johanna M. Mary Shelley. Boston: Twayne, 1996.

Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. London: Little, Brown, 1989.

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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft

SHELLEY, MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (1797–1851), author of Frankenstein (1818), often considered the first science fiction novel and source of the universal modern image of science gone awry, was born in London on August 30 and died there on February 1. Her father, William Godwin (1756–1836), to whom Frankenstein is dedicated, was an important liberal reformer now best known for An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), who died four days after her daughter's birth, was an important early feminist now best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In 1814 young Mary eloped to the European Continent with Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), considered one of the greatest Romantic poets. Two years later, having already produced two children and begun Frankenstein, Mary married Percy after the suicide of his first wife. They had four children before Percy drowned, but only Percy Florence survived into adulthood. Mary never remarried, devoting herself to motherhood, writing, and editing her husband's works.

Mary treated science less as a solution to practical problems or an intellectual discipline than as a means to "afford a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield" (Shelley 1969, p. 13) Her consistent philosophical position, expressed in science fictions, historical romances, travel books, and essays, was staunchly democratic, based on her belief that while genius must be encouraged, when the discoveries of genius impinge on others, there must be responsibility to the wider community. Frankenstein's murderous monster represents the escape of untempered genius into the world.

Her novel The Last Man (1826) is the first in English of the subgenre of works that imagine a global catastrophe. In this case the Percy-like protagonist, Lionel Verney, moves from England to a progressively depopulated Europe, apparently the only human with a natural immunity to a new plague. In this situation science is encouraged to tame rampant Nature. Soon after the deaths begin, a character remarks to Verney that should "this last but twelve months ... earth will become a Paradise. The energies of man were before directed to the destruction of his species: they now aim at its liberation and preservation" (Shelley 1965, p. 159).

Science always raises social and moral problems in Mary Shelley's writing. In her philosophical satire "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman" (1826), the fact that someone is brought back from frozen suspended animation to live out a 209 year life span, raises fundamental questions of authenticity. Was he alive while frozen? Is his even one life?


In her fiction Mary Shelley consistently articulates ethical issues related to science and technology that have since become major themes of public discussion. In Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Queen Mab" (1813), we see the cleft stick implicit in the progress of science: "Power, like a desolating pestilence, / Pollutes whate'er it touches; and [yet] obedience, / Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth, / Makes slaves of men, and, of the human frame, / A mechanized automaton." Mary Shelley contributes to ethical thinking about science and technology by calling on society to consider how the power of scientific genius might be limited by the moral claims of the human community. Mary Shelley asks humans, by pursuing science within a community, to do better than they—and her characters—have.


ERIC S. RABKIN

SEE ALSO Enlightenment Social Theory; Frankenstein; Science, Technology, and Literature.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bennett, Betty T., and Charles E. Robinson, eds. (1990). The Mary Shelley Reader. New York: Oxford University Press..

Muriel Spark. (1987). Mary Shelley. New York: Dutton.

Shelley, Mary. (1965). The Last Man, ed. Hugh J. Luke, Jr. Lincoln: The University Press of Nebraska. Text originally published in 1826.

Shelley, Mary. (1969). Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,. ed. M. K. Joseph. New York: Oxford University Press. M. K. Text originally published in 1818 and 1831.

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