Shelley, Mary (1797–1851)

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Shelley, Mary (1797–1851)

Romantic author of Frankenstein and other texts who is as notable for her influence on her lover and husband Percy Bysshe Shelley as for her own writings. Name variations: Mary Godwin Shelley; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on August 30, 1797, in London, England; died in Chester Square, London, on February 1, 1851; daughter of William Godwin (a political philosopher) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman); married Percy Bysshe Shelley (the poet), in 1816; children: William (died young); Clara (died young); Percy.

Eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley (1814); wrote Frankenstein (1816–17); lost two of her children and her husband in quick succession (by 1822); edited Shelley's works for posthumous publication; published The Last Man (1826), and Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844), shortly before succumbing to a brain tumor and eventual death (1851).

Selected writings:

Frankenstein (1817); History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817); Matilda (1820); Proserpine (1820); Midas (1820); Valperga (1823); Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1824); The Last Man (1826); The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830); Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal (1835); Lodore (1835); Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844).

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley entered a world in the throes of change. She was born in 1797, eight years after the storming of the Bastille initiated the French Revolution, which wholly altered the political and social landscape of Europe. Child of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, thinkers whose ideas inspired and were inspired by the spirit of the age, she would live to participate in a literary revolution as radical as its political counterpart: Romanticism. With Lord Byron, John Keats, and her lover and husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, she became a major figure in the "second generation" of Romantics. Before she died of a brain tumor in 1851, Mary Shelley produced six novels, including Frankenstein, as well as biographies, travel books, essays, reviews and poems. As the only major figure of the second generation to have survived into the Victorian age, she is further responsible for consolidating their reputation. Ironically, owing in large part to her own critical efforts, she has been overshadowed by her male counterparts, especially her husband. Only recently have we come to recognize her for her own formidable accomplishments.

"Thou child of love and light," Percy Shelley called her, referring to her remarkable parentage. The sole product of a brief union between Godwin and Wollstonecraft, she was raised with a sense of destiny. Her birth was portended by tempests and the appearance of a comet in the skies over London. When Mary was ten days old, her mother died from complications associated with her birth. This left Mary and her half-sister Fanny Imlay in the sole care of Godwin, who, until his affair with Wollstonecraft, had been free of emotional ties. One of the most influential philosophers of his day, Godwin advanced radical theories for which he gained a loyal following of disciples, including the young Percy Shelley. In his enormously popular An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), Godwin argued against the interference of government and other institutions in human affairs. He held that reason alone can lead humans to moral action and to justice: "It is to the improvement of reason … that we are to look for the improvement of our social condition."

In his private life, Godwin had sought to embody the liberal principles he espoused, shunning political positions and earning a living by his writings. He freely shared what little wealth he possessed and expected others to do the same when he was in need. He expected people not only to share property but lovers as well. He had entered into an affair—his first romantic liaison—with Wollstonecraft, who at the time claimed to be married to Gilbert Imlay. In fact, she was Imlay's scorned lover and the mother of his child, Fanny Imlay. Despite their shared philosophical belief in marriage as a confining institution, Godwin and Wollstonecraft married once they learned she was pregnant. After his wife's death, Godwin published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, scandalizing the reading public with its revelations of Wollstonecraft's previous affairs. Their daughter's own romantic life would be shaped by their paradoxical example.

In death, Mary Wollstonecraft exerted perhaps more power over her daughter than she might have in life. Her grave in St. Pancras cemetery became a sacred spot of spiritual and intellectual pilgrimage to the young Mary. As a child, she learned to write her name by tracing the inscription on her mother's tombstone. Emily Sunstein argues, "Mary learned her mother's history in more intimate detail than if Wollstonecraft had lived, and worshiped her both as rational intellectual and romantic heroine who had defied injustice, custom, and prudence." In both her life and her art, Mary sought to realize Wollstonecraft's ideals. In A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790), Wollstonecraft defended the principles of the French Revolution against Edmund Burke's attack in Reflections on the Revolution in France. She tersely dismissed his "wild declamation" and reminded him: "There are rights which men inherit at their birth, as rational creatures, who were raised above the brute creation by their improvable faculties; and that, in receiving these, not from their forefathers but, from God, prescription can never undermine natural rights."

More influential for Mary was Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which extended her defense of human rights specifically to women. In this, one of the earliest feminist tracts, she examined the social system which limited women by encouraging them to nurture certain vanities and frivolities and preventing them from developing either their minds or their moral capacities. Marriage, she noted, cast women as property and doomed them to a childlike status. Essentially, she attempted to apply the broad strokes and ideals of the French Revolution to women and argued vehemently for their civil rights, most particularly their right to an education. Her reward for this exhaustive and well-reasoned social study is best characterized by the scurrilous remarks of Horace Walpole who referred to its author as "a hyena in petticoats."

Wollstonecraft's vision of a class of women liberated from oppressive social conditions was not lost on her daughter, however. Nor was it lost on the generation of poets and thinkers that followed. Admired and romanticized by Percy Shelley, Byron, Edward John Trelawny, and others, her writing drew some of the most notable English Romantics to her daughter and heir to her

ideas. Moreover, Mary Wollstonecraft's commitment to both human and women's rights became the mantra that guided Mary Shelley's own life.

Besides a keen sense of social justice, Mary Shelley inherited a sharp mind and nurtured a rich imagination. In the absence of her mother and a system of education for females, her father took a strong hand in guiding her education. He doted on his precocious and gifted daughter, and she, in turn, grew attached to him. She developed an eagerness to please him that followed her well into her adult years and frequently worked to her own disadvantage. Godwin's decision to marry Mary Jane Vial , then known as Mrs. Clairmont, shattered young Mary's insular world and distinctive claim to her father's guidance and affections.

Vial brought two children into the marriage, Charles and Jane Clairmont (later known as Claire Clairmont ). Godwin's expanding household (further enlarged by the birth of William), not only punctured the harmony between Mary and her father, but placed a wedge between Mary and her stepmother. Mary viewed the new Mrs. Godwin, a practical-minded, domestic woman, as a poor replacement for her mother. In some ways, Mary never recovered from the displacement she suffered upon Vial's taking up of her wifely duties.

If I have never written to vindicate the Rights of women, I have ever befriended women when oppressed…. I do not say aloud—behold my generosity & greatness of mind—for in truth it is simple justice.

—Mary Shelley

Nevertheless, Mary continued to nurture her love of books and learning. In 1808, at age ten, she published her first juvenilia. While she thrived on the intellectual and literary stimulation of her father's circle, which included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, her unhappiness at home did not abate. The family sent her to a boarding school for a time during this turbulent pre-adolescent period and, eventually, to a family friend in Scotland. Besides meeting her first significant like-minded friend, Isabel Baxter (Robinson) , Mary found herself in an adventurous and exotic setting conducive to her imaginative yearnings. A turning point in her life, this sojourn in Scotland set the stage for her concern with the occult and the mystical that figure so prominently in her classic first novel, Frankenstein. In her introduction to Frankenstein, she characterizes the land and its effect on her:

… my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee. Blank and dreary on retrospection … they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy.

Returning to London in the spring of 1814, the 17-year-old Mary met her father's new disciple and her future lover, the 21-year-old poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Heir to his grandfather's fortune, Percy promised Mary financial support. Though married to Harriet Westbrook , he immediately attracted Mary with his radical beliefs and sensitive genius. She had praised Queen Mab, a poem celebrating republican government, with extensive notes on atheism, free love, and vegetarianism. For his part, Percy was drawn by her remarkable parentage: according to Sunstein, "she fulfilled his ideal of the daughter of Wollstonecraft, his goddess of freedom and love, sired by Godwin, his lawgiver." In his eyes, her delicate beauty was matched by her intelligence. Describing her to Jefferson Hogg, he gushed, "Then, how deeply did I not feel my inferiority, how willingly confess myself far surpassed in originality, in genuine elevation & magnificence of the intellectual nature." During their courtship, the pair took long walks in St. Pancras cemetery and may even have consummated their affair behind her mother's gravestone.

Percy and Mary believed that their affair embodied the ideas of her famous parents. Consequently, they were shocked to learn of Godwin's disapprobation. He forbade that Mary see Percy, and almost succeeded in convincing her to leave Percy to his wife, who claimed to be pregnant with their second child. Percy, however, according to Mary's stepsister Jane, "declared unless she joined him as Partner of his Life—he would destroy himself." Mary agreed to run away with him and, with Jane along as translator, the lovers fled for France and embarked on a European trek which would give rise in 1817 to her travel book, History of a Six Weeks' Tour.

As Mary herself noted, "It was acting a novel, being an incarnate romance." Their flight and their subsequent life together was Romanticism writ large: their acts embodied the intensity, enthusiasm and rebellion characteristic of the spirit of the age. Ironically, while they maintained that they were living out Godwin's philosophy, Godwin excommunicated his daughter on her return to London (though this did not prevent him from accepting Percy's money). She sought solace from her mother's memory, reading for hours at her grave.

In their life together, the lovers persisted in fulfilling their shared radical ideals. They established an ambitious work schedule, writing and studying in the mornings, engaging in some form of exercise in the afternoons, and then reading aloud in the evenings. Mary kept careful (but incomplete) records that attest to the formidable scope of their studies, from literature and philosophy to history and science. To prepare for their extensive European travels, Mary studied languages—she would master five: Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish—and took great pleasure in reading texts in their original languages and in the country of their origin. Despite her self-deprecating remarks to the contrary, Mary and Percy were intellectual equals, providing each other with the support essential for imaginative achievement. Some speculate that without Mary's encouragement Percy might have pursued philosophy rather than poetry.

"Our house is very political as well as poetical," Mary told a friend. Both were determined republicans, perceiving England's postwar policies as a threat to individual freedoms. Against the threat of Napoleon, the British government had suspended habeas corpus and routinely jailed those who published works critical of its rule. The Peterloo massacre—in which government forces killed 11 demonstrators for parliamentary reform—convinced her that England was taking a turn toward despotism and distanced her from her native land, leading her eventually to embrace exile in Italy. A committed republican, she saw hope for Europe in revolutionary movements in Spain, Italy, and, later, Greece.

Personally, as well as intellectually, they committed themselves to liberal principles drawn from Mary's ideas and from Percy's own works. While Mary persistently defended their cohabitation, she could not commit herself entirely to the ideal of free love. Percy had greater success in converting her stepsister Jane, who changed her name to the more elegant Claire, with whom he sustained an intimate friendship. Because of this, their côterie was unfairly and repeatedly labeled the "League of Incest."

As a result of Claire's dogged pursuit of Lord Byron, wildly famous as much for his poetic as his sexual daring, Mary and Percy entered into a period that fused literary triumph and personal tragedy. Though the two male poets have been linked ever since, it was originally Mary, not Percy, whom Byron wanted to see, owing to her remarkable heritage. She became his favorite and their friendship became the stuff of legend—immortalized to this day in popular novels and films—for their association gave rise to Frankenstein.

In 1816, the group agreed to summer in Switzerland, renting neighboring houses. Along with Byron's physician, John Polidori, they gathered at the fireplace one stormy evening to read ghost stories. At evening's end, Byron launched a challenge: each would write a ghost story. Although Byron intended that he and Mary would publish a tale together, Mary produced the outline of her own novel, leaving Polidori to write "The Vampyre," based on Byron's idea.

Clairmont, Claire (1798–1879)

Stepsister of Mary Shelley. Born Clara Mary Jane Clairmont in 1798; died in 1879; daughter of Mary Jane Vial and an unknown father; stepdaughter of William Godwin; stepsister of Mary Shelley (1797–1851); children: (with Lord Byron) daughter Allegra (1817–1822).

The daughter of an unknown father and Mary Jane Vial (William Godwin's second wife), 18-year-old Claire Clairmont was briefly Lord Byron's mistress in Switzerland in 1816; she had their daughter Allegra in 1817. Though Byron refused to see her, Claire relentlessly continued her pursuit, a fatal attraction, and there was a great deal of contention between the couple as to who would bring up the child. Byron won out and installed Allegra in a convent at Bagnacavallo, 12 miles from Ravenna, Italy, where she caught typhus and died on April 19, 1822. Byron was frantic, and Claire never completely recovered. Except for a four-year sojourn alone as a governess in Russia, Clairmont lived with Mary Shelley periodically throughout the rest of her life, despite Mary's recurrent longing for "absentia Clariae." Though she was celebrated in Percy Shelley's poem "To Constantia Singing," Clairmont wrote in 1829: "I have trodden life alone, without a guide and without a companion and before I depart for ever I would willingly leave with another, what my tongue has never yet ventured to tell. I would willingly think that my memory may not be lost in oblivion as my life has been."

suggested reading:

Stocking, Marion Kingston, ed. The Clairmont Correspondence: Letters of Claire Clairmont, Charles Clairmont, and Fanny Imlay Godwin. Vol. I, 1808–1834, Vol. II, 1835–1879. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Westbrook, Harriet (1795–1816)

Wife of Percy Shelley. Name variations: Harriet Shelley. Born Harriet Westbrook in 1795; drowned herself in the Serpentine River in November 1816; daughter of a retired tavern keeper; married Percy Bysshe Shelley (the poet), in August 1811; children: daughter Ianthe Shelley (b. 1813); Charles Shelley (b. 1814).

The marriage of Harriet and Percy Shelley was always irregular. The poet had a preference for threesomes. First he set out to encourage a ménage that included his wife and schoolteacher Elizabeth Hitchener . He then promoted a three-way relationship with a friend from Oxford, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Harriet resisted. Abandoned by Percy Shelley, West-brook committed suicide when she discovered she was carrying the child of another man.

Returning to England, Mary Shelley composed her famous story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster when she was just 18. Her feat is all the more remarkable when viewed against the conditions of its composition. Feminist critics, such as Ellen Moers , have erroneously argued that Mary Shelley's tale of revivification owes its origins to fears of childbirth sparked by the death of her prematurely born first child (the oft-mentioned death of her son William did not occur until after she had completed the novel). Such readings diminish the enduring lesson of Frankenstein: man's Promethean daring and overreaching presents us with an irreducible paradox, for it is at once the source of human creation and the origin of disaster. Critics further diminish the impact of a series of events that transformed Mary and Percy's relationship from a novel of "incarnate romance" to a tragedy of epic proportions.

In quick succession, Mary learned that her half-sister Fanny had committed suicide by taking laudanum and that Percy's wife Harriet had drowned herself. Percy fought for custody of his children, marrying Mary to improve his chances. While the marriage restored Mary's favor, it did nothing to help Percy's case. Instead, Percy's dogged defense of his principles only added fuel to the League of Incest charges, and he lost his fight. Byron's break with Claire, who eventually had their illegitimate daughter Allegra , only added to Mary's worries, for she and her husband were forced to mediate between the two over custody. Adding to this indignity were rumors that Percy had fathered the child.

Mary was thus surprised when Frankenstein became a phenomenal success. Sir Walter Scott praised the novel's "supernatural" fiction and the author's "original genius." Owing to its anonymous publication (which Mary had rightly thought would improve its chances for publication), the novel was initially believed to have been written by Percy. He did assist Mary in revisions and added a preface, but the novel's conception and composition were her own. Once she admitted her authorship, Frankenstein's popularity only increased.

To recover from the crises that had marked its composition and to restore Percy Shelley's ailing health, the Shelleys moved to Italy in 1818 with their two children, Clara, who turned one during the trip, and William, who was three. When baby Clara died of dysentery, Mary was plunged into despair and took refuge in her work. She had begun research for the historical novel that would become Valperga, while Percy was experiencing his annus mirabilis, composing his poetic drama, Prometheus Unbound, and The Cenci. Both were fighting against the thought that Clara's death was punishment for making Harriet suffer, when William suddenly and unexpectedly died. Mary's inconsolable grief and guilt would drive an irretrievable wedge in her relationship with Percy. At 22, she felt that she should "have died" with her son "on the 7th of June."

Withdrawing into herself, incapable of seeking consolation from Percy, who desperately needed her comfort, both emotional and physical, she again turned to work as an outlet, beginning Matilda. This story of a girl's incestuous involvement with her father can be seen as Mary's attempt to release her guilt at having betrayed her own father by eloping with Percy.

At the end of 1819, Mary gave birth to her sole surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, and by 1820 had poured herself into the composition of Matilda while continuing her research for Valperga. Her coldness toward her husband meant that he sought love, in an ideal, Platonic sense, elsewhere, first with Emilia Viviani and then with Jane Williams , wife of their close friend Edward Williams. Mary appears to have silently tolerated these relationships, believing their own union to be transcendent and everlasting. The events of the coming year were to prove her wrong.

By 1822, the Shelleys had moved with Byron to Pisa, where Mary continued her studies and Percy composed Hellas and The Triumph of Life. He also developed a passion for boating, having purchased a yacht christened Don Juan by Byron. Their relationship with Byron soon soured, for Claire learned that their daughter Allegra had died of typhus in the convent school Byron had chosen for her. Another tragedy soon followed: Mary miscarried three months into another pregnancy, hemorrhaging so badly that Percy saved her from bleeding to death only by placing her in a tub of ice. She was still recovering when she learned Percy had died: his ship capsized during a storm. The bodies of the poet and his companion on the trip, Edward Williams, later came ashore at Leghorn, where they were burned, owing to quarantine regulations.

Byron best described Mary during this ordeal: "Terror impressed on her brow, a desperate sort of courage seemed to give her energy…. I have seen nothing in tragedy on the stage so powerful, or so affecting." After Percy's death, Mary saw her life as the remaining chapter of an epic tragedy, believing that she would die at 36 as her mother had (Wollstonecraft had actually died at 38). Instead, as Sunstein contends, until her death at age 54, "she remained remarkably productive, enduringly resilient, and true to herself."

Percy Shelley's premature death, which Mary had often presaged, left her guilty and emotionally devastated. Moreover, despite her legal claim to his grandfather's estate—through marriage and his surviving son Percy Florence—Sir Timothy, Percy Shelley's father, stood in the way. Virtually destitute at 24 with a two-year-old child in her care and her father constantly clamoring for more of the promised Shelley money, Mary sold Percy Bysshe's legacy to his father for a small allowance. She was also forced to leave Italy, the country she had come to call home.

Despite the numerous emotional setbacks and relentless financial concerns, Mary persisted in educating herself—in other languages, literature, and philosophy—and was determined, like her mother before her, to live by her pen. In addition to her own writing, Mary mapped out how she would bring Percy's genius to the world in the form of a biography and new editions of his poems. Although Sir Timothy continued to impede her, particularly with the biography, she succeeded. She edited Percy's works for a posthumous collection that would bring him the readership both she and he felt he had deserved in life. This enormous task was, in her mind, her greatest achievement. Contemporary editors of Percy Shelley's works owe much to her careful compilations of his original manuscripts: 26 workbooks in addition to numerous separate sheets of paper.

In some ways, this most difficult period of her life—the post-Percy Shelley era—was also her most productive. Deprived of his protection from the world, as well as his tutelage, she negotiated through an oftentimes hostile world—rumors about her and Percy abounded and British society had never forgiven their elopement and liaison—and wrote some of her most ambitious works, including The Last Man. A novel of science fiction like Frankenstein, it looks to the 21st century and the end of the human race. Its dark vision and republican leanings found an unsympathetic audience.

Biographers of Mary Shelley have noted her political conservatism as she moved into middle age and as England entered the Victorian era. An

established woman of letters, she nevertheless struggled for acceptance in a prudish and unforgiving British society. No longer the young, carefree radical, she grew less sure that revolution could answer contemporary social and political inequities. She also questioned its high cost. Her priorities changed as the post-Romantic world did. Ever anxious for the health and welfare of her surviving son Percy Florence Shelley, she concerned herself with his future. Moreover, regardless of her differences with Godwin and his wife, she was a dutiful daughter who continued to help support her aging parents.

True to her maternal legacy, however, Mary Shelley's most steadfast quality was her attentiveness to social injustice and, in particular, the oppression of women. Like Wollstonecraft, who had helped a sister Eliza Wollstonecraft escape from a possibly abusive husband, Mary frequently came to the aid of other women in distress: examples include her stepsister Claire, who shared her home periodically throughout her life; Jane Williams and her children whom Mary lived with, loved, and helped support (after both husbands drowned) until Jane married Jeff Hogg; Gee Paul , divorced by her husband for having an affair, and for whom Mary negotiated visiting privileges with her children; and childhood friend Isabel Baxter Robinson who later had a child out of wedlock and applied to Mary for protection. (Sunstein recounts how Mary arranged for her to escape from the country, escorted by a transvestite friend, Mary Diana Dods , posing as her husband.)

By 1830, Mary's publications saw her listed in the Athenaeum "at the top of its second rank of leading English authors" like Coleridge, Wordsworth and her own Percy Shelley. But Mary persisted in shunning any publicity. Fearful of prompting the ire of Percy's father on whom her son's future depended, and gun-shy of the kind of scandal elicited by her early years with Percy, Mary kept a low profile. She toured the continent and visited her beloved Italy, where she spent her famous youth, only once before dying of a brain tumor in Chester Square, England, in 1851 at the age of 53.

Mary Shelley left behind a rich legacy and resource in her notes and journals documenting not only her own life and work, but her husband's. Her novels, travel books, biographical essays and political writings are now receiving the critical attention and study they deserve.


Godwin, William. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. London: Penguin, 1976.

Philip, Mark. Godwin's Political Justice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.

St. Clair, William. The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family. NY: W.W. Norton, 1989.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Ed. by Johanna M. Smith. Boston, MA: Bedford Books, 1992.

Sunstein, Emily. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Wollstonecraft Anthology. Ed. by Janet Todd. NY: Columbia University Press, 1990.

suggested reading:

The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814–1844. Ed. by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. by Betty T. Bennett. 3 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 1983, 1988.


Papers of Mary Shelley and her family, owned by Lord Abinger, are on deposit at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

related media:

Frankenstein (film), starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke , and Boris Karloff, directed by James Whale, produced by Universal, 1931.

Gothic, starring Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Natasha Richardson , directed by Ken Russell, 1986.

Haunted Summer, starring Phillip Anglim, Laura Dern , and Eric Stoltz, directed by Ivan Passer, produced by Martin Poll and the Cannon Group, 1988 (based on the novel by Anne Edwards , the movie centered around Godwin, Shelley, Byron, and Clairmont during that 1816 summer in Switzerland).

Kate Waites Lamm , Associate Professor, and

Suzanne Ferriss , Assistant Professor, in the Liberal Arts department of Nova University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

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Shelley, Mary (1797–1851)

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