Mary Shelley’s Biographical Notes



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Mary Shelley’s Biographical Notes


  • August 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) born in London

  • Daughter of two great intellectual rebels of the 1790s, William Godwin & Mary Wollstonecraft

  • Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), died of puerperal fever 11 days > Mary (Shelley!) born

  • Mary (Shelley!) would blame herself for her mother’s death – recite her mother’s books on her mother’s gravesite – yeah…troubling

  • William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) “raises” Mary (Shelley!) & half sister, Fanny Imlay

  • Godwin & Wollstonecraft (pregnant with Mary Shelley) married despite their ethical opposition to institution of marriage (scandalous!)

  • Day > Wollstonecraft’s funeral, Godwin sorts through Mary Wollstonecraft's papers & starts working on the story of her life

  • Godwin writes Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) – sees biography as loving tribute to Wollstonecraft

  • Public sees Memoirs as licentious “tell-all,” condemned Wollstonecraft

  • Tells of attempted suicides – public sees as lack of religious conviction

  • Tells of Wollstonecraft's infatuation w/ (gothic) painter Henry Fuseli (The Nightmare) – remind me to show the painting to you!

  • Tells of Wollstonecraft’s affair w/ American (former officer in American Revolutionary Army) Gilbert Imlay, poor Fanny’s father

  • Next 100 years the feminist cause suffers setback – association of sexual promiscuity w/ advocates for rights of women

  • Godwin becomes Mary (Shelley!)’s primary caretaker for the first 3 years of her life, adored Mary (Shelley!) – favoritism – poor Fanny!

  • Tried “progressive” educational methods of Jean-Jacques Rousseau & Mary Wollstonecraft's—so, it’s okay for girls to run wild in nature?

  • 1801 Godwin marries Mary Jane Clairmont – wicked stepmother? Mary (Shelley!) as Cinderella? Mary (Shelley!) can’t stand her

  • Blended family – Mary Jane Clairmont’s kids: Charles (6), Jane/Claire (4) + Godwin’s kids: poor Fanny and Mary (Shelley!) = a mess

  • Mary (Shelley!) never receives formal education, has access to Godwin’s library & political, philosophical, scientific, literary conversations

  • Finest minds of the day hung out in the Godwin house William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Payne, others – yeah

  • 1806: Mary & Jane/Claire hid under sofa to hear Coleridge recite "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" – poem haunts Frankenstein

  • Summer 1812: Godwin sends Mary to live w/ family in Dundee, Scotland - model of domestic affection surfaces in Frankenstein

  • Fall 1812: Mary returns to London, meets Godwin's wealthy disciple, Percy Bysshe Shelley, & his WIFE, Harriet Westbrook Shelley

  • Young WEALTHY Percy educated at Eton & Oxford < the age of 17, published two Gothic romances, Shelley supports Godwin financially

  • 1814: Mary (Shelley!) meets Percy again, views him as generous idealist & budding genius—uh oh, Percy, where’s Harriet, your WIFE?

  • Percy unhappy w/ Harriet, smitten with Mary' (Shelley!)’s beauty, interests, & her identity as daughter of Wollstonecraft and Godwin

  • June, 1814: Percy dining w/ the Godwins almost every day, stepsister, Jane/Claire (also 17!) chaperones visits to Wollstonecraft's grave

  • Percy & Mary (Shelley!) declare love for each other—how sweet! Percy, where’s Harriet, your WIFE during this lovefest?

  • Godwin forbids Percy’s visits, still accepts Percy’s $ - Percy attempts suicide, flees to France w/ Mary (Shelley!) + stepsister, Jane/Claire

  • Mary (Shelley!) had terrific difficulty in the “viable birth” department: a girl born in 1815, died > 11 days; William, born in 1816 and died in 1819; Clara, born in 1817 and died, 1818; Percy, born in 1819, died 1889; miscarried in 1822 and nearly died herself

  • Link btw themes of creation, birth, & death in Frankenstein & Mary (Shelley!)'s real preoccupation w/ pregnancy, labor, maternity, death?

  • >1st baby’s death: "Dreamed that my little baby came to life again--that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived."

  • Anxieties a/b motherhood & inability to give life + tale of the aspiring scientist who succeeds in creating a being by unnatural methods?

  • 1815: Percy still legally married to Harriet, living w/Jane/Claire (changed name 3 times, she’s not right at all) and Mary (Shelley!)

  • Unconventional domestic arrangement, Mary (Shelley!)’s beloved (hypocritical) father says she’s "guilty of a crime" (Harriet)

  • Mary (Shelley!) 17 years old! Not yet a wife, no longer a mother, insecure & increasingly dependent on Percy for emotional support

  • Percy wants live out his theory of "free love," encouraging stepsister, Jane/Claire's affections—yeah…theory, schmeery

  • 1815 Percy's friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg visits Mary, Percy, & Jane/Claire for 6 weeks, Percy urged reluctant Mary to sleep w/ Hogg

  • 1816 Jane/Claire (lives w/ Mary Shelley & Percy until 1820) affair w/ George Gordon, Lord Byron – extremely famous poet (and SADIST)

  • Percy & Mary (Shelley!) accompany Jane/Claire to Switzerland Byron’s chalet on the banks of Lake Geneva

  • Byron’s personal physician, Dr. John William Polidori, lived w/ him (Michael Jackson, anyone?) Byron & Percy became close friends

  • Oh, incidentally, Byron is LOADED – Hence the title, “Lord” and the estate in Geneva– Mary & Percy’s financial woes temporarily eased

  • Sailing, literary & philosophical discussions, Mary (Shelley!) & Percy find Byron fascinating, handsome, capricious, cynical, Byronic Hero

  • 1816: poor Fanny Imlay Godwin (Mary Shelley’s half sister) commits suicide after a really wretched life – OD laudanum?

  • 1816: Harriet Shelley (Percy’s wife) drowns herself in the Serpentine (a river in London’s Hyde Park) while pregnant – horrific, yeah…

  • Introduction to 1831 edition of Frankenstein explains how "a young girl, came to think of & to dilate upon so very hideous an idea"

  • June 1816: stormy night Byron, Mary (Shelley!), Percy, Jane/Claire, Polidori, read aloud a book of ghost stories by the fireside

  • Byron suggests they each write a horror story, everyone writes one (largely forgettable) except for Mary (Shelley!)

  • Weeks later, Mary (Shelley!), Byron, Polidori, & Percy discuss galvanism, Erasmus Darwin causes pasta to move “voluntarily” (electricity!)

  • Mary has “waking dream” sees "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together."

  • Terror for artist who "mock[s] the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world" by giving the "spark of life" to a "hideous corpse."

  • Next morning, Mary (Shelly!) wrote a chapter of Frankenstein, Percy “encouraged,” she finished novel May, 1817, published March, 1818

  • Mary (Shelley) & Percy stayed together for 8 years of drama-rama, moving constantly, livin’ on love b/c Percy’s dad cuts him off financially
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