From the first time I read about Mary Shelley, and then on to the moments I’ve spent devouring the pages of her most famous work, Frankenstein… I’ve been fascinated by the story of Mary Shelley. It’s tragic–full of love, loss, and bitter disappointments–but also interspersed with the stuff from which legend is derived. She represents so many things to each of us. All in one, she was a daughter, wife, mother, writer, and controversial character. She was everything, and yet, there are parts of her that still remain in the shadows of ambiguity and lost time. How much of herself did she manage to hide? And how much will we still uncover about her life and works?
- Daughter, A Writer Destined: Mary Shelley’s mother was the famous feminist-philosopher-writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, who survived mere days after giving birth to her daughter. So, she was her mother’s namesake, but she was a motherless child. She was raised by her father, William Godwin (who was also a philosopher-writer). She inherited her writing talents from both sides of the family, but her raw skill was honed among some of the greatest writers of the time (including Samuel Taylor Coleridge). She was given unfettered access to a wide selection of books, along with the determined encouragement of her father for her to discover (and espouse) political and philosophical views.
- Wife, Breaking Away: Mary (Godwin) ran away with the young Percy Shelley when she was 16 (almost 17). In one sense, we can see her as simply following the philosophical views as her father had encouraged. There were several (somewhat monumental) issues to overcome: he was married (his wife, Harriet, was pregnant); Mary’s father didn’t approve of the relationship; and neither Percy nor Mary could gain access to enough money by which to support themselves. Breaking away was a romantic notion, as was their marriage (after Percy’s first wife committed suicide), but they faced financial difficulties.
- Mother, Loss Time-and-Again: Beyond the money troubles, Mary Shelley faced a tragedy of a far worse sort: the loss of three children. Only her last child, Percy, survived. Unfortunately, his survival was followed by his father’s death (purported to have occurred in a storm while sailing). She experienced the first loss of her mother before she could even remember, and then, she continued to deal with the loss of her dear loved ones… And she turned to her writing.
- Writer, Professional: She must have written from an early age (but none of her early writings still exist). Then, Percy encouraged her to “prove” herself worthy of her famous writer-parents. After Percy’s death, Mary took on the dual role of editor/curator of his works as she continued to write. Scholarly recognition (and appreciation) of her works was not immediate (or without reservation), and our perception (and understanding) of her true contribution to literary history is still evolving.
- Controversial Character: The story of Mary Shelley’s life and works has become a legend. As the creator of her monstrous creature, she’s larger-than-life. Then, the many tragedies of her life only enhance our fascination (and devotion) to the character of Mary Shelley. She’s one of those writers I’d like to go back in time to meet.
For all that she was and all that she has become–as we imagine and re-imagine her life and legacy–Mary Shelley continues to demand a prominent position in literary history.
Like the final words of Frankenstein, Shelley appears to be:
“… borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”