Beyond Frankenstein—Mary Shelley’s Literary Successes

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The tragedy of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is that, despite having one of the most famous horror stories of all time, her other work is virtually unknown. Her other two novels, aside from Frankenstein, were actually strange and unique in their own way—keep reading to learn more about the roads Mary Shelley paved for the literary community.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818)

Shelley’s first and most notorious novel was started when she was still a teenager, in 1816, at age 18. Female writers around the world, myself included, are grateful for her contribution to literature, even though she published initial additions anonymously when she was twenty in London in 1818. Her name didn’t actually appear on the publication until the second edition was published in Paris in 1821.

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

What is incredible about this book is not just that it was written by a teenager, or that it was written by a woman, but that it was written by a woman from the perspective of a young male scientist. This story arose from her travels through Europe in 1815 while she traveled along the Rhine in Germany. Eleven miles away from what is considered Frankenstein Castle, where two centuries before her visit a mad alchemist conducted various experiments. She continued her travels across Geneva, Switzerland—which was also used as a setting for much of the novel. Shelley and her traveling companions had incredibly controversial conversations that ranged from the occult to galvanism—this of course was around the time that Luigi Galvani was conducting his experiments with his frog galvanoscope.

The legend of how Shelley came up with her idea of this particular novel tells us that Shelley and her traveling companions, most all of them writers, decided to have a contest amongst themselves. They wanted to challenge each other and see, who among them could create the most engaging, terrifying, and outrageous horror story. Initially stumped by the prompt, Shelly thought upon the topic for days until she finally had a dream that would inspire her to write the story of a scientist who created life, only to be horrified by his own creation.

The story of Victor Frankenstein was rather controversial due to the idea of Galvani’s technology and what his experiments meant for the scientific community at the time. So, Shelley portrays Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist as a man pursuing knowledge that lies in the unorthodox, blasphemous fields of secrets yet-to-be-told. Life and death are uncertainties in this story, when Victor creates a sapient creature, one constructed from the pilfered parts of those who have died.

Galvani’s experiments gave the scientific community a lot of ideas about reanimation after death and also launched experimental medical treatments using electricity to cure diseases that were incurable at the time. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the process that Luigi Galvani used to achieve this ground-breaking discovery about electrical impulses and the nerve system, there are a few YouTubers who decided to replicate the experiment. Enjoy!

The Last Man (1826)

Shelley’s novel The Last Man is an unusual topic for the time during which it arose; originally published in 1826, this book envisions a future Earth—set in the late twenty-first century—that is ravaged by plague and unknown pandemic. It harbors the eery scene of a planet in the throes of apocalypse, where society has degraded to a dystopian nightmare, amidst the ravages of an unchecked and unknowable plague that blankets the globe.

The Last Man

In order to write this particular novel, Shelley spent time sitting in meetings of the House of Commons in order to have a deeper understanding of the inner workings of a Romantic Era political system. As such, she created another first in literature—dystopian apocalyptic visions of the future within the writing community. Due to the insanely new concept of a dystopic world, her novel was suppressed by the literary community at large, as it was a wholly nightmarish idea at the time. It was almost considered prophecy and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the novel resurfaced to the public where it was clearly understood to be a work of fiction.

Mathilda (1959)

Mathilda is one of those books that, if it had been published during Shelley’s lifetime, it might have created another scandal for Mary Shelley—as such her second long work, despite having been written between August 1819 and February 1820, wasn’t published until 1959, well after Shelley’s death. While this isn’t a horror novel, it does provide some insight into the dark and depressed mind of Shelley following the death of two of her children. Their deaths in 1818 and 1819 respectively caused Mary Shelley to distance herself emotionally and sexually from her husband which was an incredible hardship on their marriage.

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The plot of this particular novel dealt with a common theme found in Romance Era novels—incest and suicide, this novel in particular was the narrative of a father’s incestuous love for his daughter. Now you may be thinking—that’s disgusting! And by today’s standards of familial relationships and romantic relationships, you would be correct.

Mathilda tells her story from her deathbed, having barely lived to her twenties, in order to tell the story of her darkest secrets that have led her to such a young demise. She confesses the truth of her isolated upbringing which leads to the ultimate begrudging truth of her emotional withdrawal and inevitable, secluded death. She never names her father, who confesses his incestuous love for her—his confession fuels his decision to commit suicide by drowning.

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Mary Shelley: How a Teenager Changed the Literary World

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Growing Up in a Literary Household

Born in London, England on August 30, 1797, as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin–Mary was the daughter of famed feminist Wollstonecraft as well as the philosopher and political writer William Godwin. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft authored The Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, but she died shortly after Shelley was born, and consequently, they were never able to develop a relationship.

There is some warrant for seeing Mary Shelley as a reflection of her parents, for both mother and father were extraordinary. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, published the classic manifesto of sexual equality, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Her father, William Godwin, established his preeminence in radical British political thought with his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and won a permanent place in literary history with his novel Caleb Williams (1794), often considered the first English detective novel. The toast of radical social circles, the two were bound to meet. When they did, in the summer of 1796, an immediate mutual attraction began, and they were married on 29 March 1797. On 30 August of that year Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born. Complications from her birth resulted in her mother’s death 10 September.

Shelley and her older, half-sister Fanny Imlay (a child her mother had through an affair with a soldier), were raised by Shelley’s father William Godwin until he remarried in 1801. Shelley’s stepmother brought two of her own children into the marriage and she and Godwin would later have a son together. Although she provided Shelley with a mother figure, they were never exactly fond of each other–Mary Jane Clairmont would end up sending her own two daughters away to school, but decided that Shelley had no need of a formal education. Despite Mary Shelley’s lack of a true formal education, she educated herself through her father’s own extensive library and she could often be found reading by her mother’s grave.

As a child, I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories’.

Mary Shelly in The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft

Her First Publication

The Godwin household was no stranger to many distinguished people of the time, their household visitors included Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth; it’s no surprise that Shelley found a creative outlet in writing, as her escape from her often overtly challenging life at home was being able to delve into her imagination through daydreaming. Her first publication was a poem called, Mounseer Nongtongpaw; or The Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris which was made official through her father’s publishing company in 1807–stunningly showing her prowess as a writer at the young age of ten.

Mounseer Nongtongpaw; or The Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris

Illustration for Shelley's Poem
Illustration for Shelley’s Poem

John Bull, from England’s happy Isle,
Too Bold to dread mischance,
Resolv’d to leave his friends awhile,
And take a peep at France.

He nothing knew of French indeed,
And deem’d it jabb’ring stuff,
For English he could write and read,
And thought it quite enough.

Shrewd John to see, and not to prate,
To foreign parts would roam,
That he their wonders might relate,
When snug again at home.

Arriv’d at Paris with his dog,
Which he for safety muzzled,
The French flock’d round him, all agog,
And much poor John was puzzled.

The rest of the poem can be found at wikisource.org, as it is a work within the public domain.
Mounseer Nongtongpaw; or, The Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris

How a Teenager Changed the Literary World

Just five years after she published her first poem, during the summer of 1812, Mary blossomed into a young woman–one who resembled her late mother far too much for her step-mother to bear. It was for this reason that Mary Jane Godwin, Shelley’s step-mother, forced her to travel to Scotland to stay with an acquaintance of her father–William Baxter and his family. It was during this stay with Baxter’s family, that she found a sort of serenity in the daily domestic lifestyle and she returned the following year to recapture the bliss she had captured the year before. The two years in Scotland may have nurtured Mary’s literary imagination, but it also further isolated her from her much-loved father.

They were my eyry of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy. I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.

Preface to the single-volume, Standard Novels edition of Frankenstein in 1831

A Scandalous Affair & the Birth of a Monster

In 1814, Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet under the tutelage of Mary’s father, but soon focused his attentions solely on Mary. She soon began a relationship with the still-married Percy Shelley; when she was nearly seventeen years old, the two ran off to England together, along with Mary’s stepsister Jane. Despite the close relationship she had with her father, Mary’s actions alienated her from them, who would go a long time before speaking to her again. The couple traveled through Europe for quite a time, struggling financially and facing the loss of their first child–a baby girl, who lived only for a few days–in 1815.

The summer of 1816, Mary and Percy were in Switzerland with Jane Clairmont, Lord Byron, and John Polidori–the story goes that the group were entertaining themselves on a tumultuously rainy day by reading ghost stories. It was this day that Lord Byron suggested that they make a game out of each creating their own horror story and see who could come up with the best one. This is how Mary began her work on what would become her most renowned novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus–so in many ways, when Mary began to write this infamous tale, she was showing off to what she considered her peers in the literary community.

Two Suicides & A Wedding

Late in 1816, Mary’s half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide and a short time later, Percy Shelley’s first wife also committed suicide by drowning herself. Instead of taking this time to mourn, Mary and Percy Shelley seized the opportunity to officially marry one another in December 1816. During their escapades in Europe, Mary Shelley published a travelogue entitled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817), while continuing to work on the monster tale that she had begun in Switzerland.

When she finished her famous monster story, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, she did so anonymously in 1818. Since Percy Shelley wrote the introduction to the book, it was mistakenly believed that he was the author of the book, but as the novel continued to be a huge success, the Shelleys moved to Italy and Mary devoted herself heavily to her marriage which was rife with infidelity and heartache. Two more of the children that Mary birthed died and the only child they bore that survived to adulthood, Percy Florence Shelley, came about in 1819.

Later Years

The most devastating tragedy that affected Mary was when her husband drowned in a boating accident with a friend in the Gulf of Spezia, in 1822. She was made a widow at the young age of 24, but she continued to work diligently to support herself and her son. Despite having lived a full, scandalous and tragic life before she was even a quarter of a century old, Mary didn’t give up. After her husband died, she wrote several more novels, including Valperga (1823), as well as another science fiction tale The Last Man (1826). A devoted wife, even after her husband passed, she continued to promote his poetry to preserve his place in literary history, despite facing opposition from Percy’s father who had always disapproved of his son’s unorthodox lifestyle.

Death

Shelley continued to live until the age of 53–she passed away on February 1, 1851 from aggressive brain cancer and was buried at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth with the remains of her late husband’s cremated remains. Shortly after her death, her son Percy and daughter-in-law Jane had Shelley’s parents exhumed from St. Pancras Cemetery in London and had them place next to Mary Shelley within their family tomb.

Fact or Fiction?

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, but considering the traditions we maintain to this day–keeping cremated remains in urns on our mantles, as one example–what we know about what Mary did is actually not all that strange! After Percy Shelley’s remains were recovered from his boating accident, his remains were cremated–oddly enough, his heart refused to burn and it is speculated that this was due to a disease which slowly calcified his heart. Instead of burying Percy’s heart along with the rest of his cremated remains, she kept it as a valuable possession in a silken shroud and carried it with her wherever she went. It wasn’t until a year after her death that Percy’s petrified heart was found wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems Adonais. It was eventually buried in the family vault with their son, Percy Florence Shelley when he died in 1889. It was wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems, Adonais. The heart was eventually buried in the family vault with their son, Percy Florence Shelley, when he died in 1889.

Mary Shelley (2017)

Mary Shelley (2017)
Mary Shelley (2017)

With the recent trend of classical authors having their tales told, it was about damn time that Shelley got the credit she deserved. Somehow it still took well over a century and a half for Shelley to be recognized on the big screen in a biographical sense, although the movie is rife with inconsistencies comparatively with how she has been historically represented. If taken at face value, however, it is an excellent movie–we highly recommend it if you’re a fan of Shelley at all–it is not at all within the genre of horror, despite her status as the famed mother of sci-fi horror fiction.

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The Morbid Feminist Voice Behind the First Sci-Fi and Dystopian Apocalyptic Horror Novels

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Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Why on earth would a delicate woman of your stature write about such awful, disturbing, and blasphemous things?

As the daughter of the brilliant feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as the reformist writer and philosopher William Godwin, Shelley is famously noted for her 1831 introduction to a reprint of Frankenstein. Her explanation that, “it is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing…” shows exactly how significant they were to her self-image.

The Liberating Feminine Voice of Horror

It is genuinely not surprising that the daughter of the renowned mother of the modern feminist movement was a feminist herself. Mary Shelley’s life reflected by the inspiration she took from her mother’s radically forward-thinking when it came to equality on the basis of sex. Her mother’s best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, lived on through Shelley’s own lifestyle and unstoppable life-force, but how did that translate into her own voice as an author? There is a lot of dialog between scholars as far as interpretations of her motivations behind the wonderfully disturbing work she created in her lifetime. Some suggest that Frankenstein is a horror story of maternity as much as it is about the perils of intellectual hubris.

From the time that Mary ran away with Percy Shelley all through the time she spent writing Frankenstein, Mary was going through maternal horror of her own—she was ceaselessly pregnant, confined, nursing, and then watching her first three children die at young ages. It doesn’t help matters that Shelley’s life was haunted by the fact that her mother died only ten days after Mary was born. Truth be told though, it was unsanitary practices by the attending physician, Dr. Poignand, and not through any fault of Shelley’s. It was Puerperal Fever, caused by doctors moving directly from autopsies to births without any means of sanitation, that took Shelley’s mother from her.

The tragedy of her mother’s death so early on in her life influenced Shelley greatly and losing three of her own children just compounded upon her morbidity. She used this mindset to her advantage though and translated her message of what it felt like to be born without a right to history—for, “what is woman but man without a history…” as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar stated in The Madwoman in the Attic. We can see Mary Shelley in Frankenstein’s monster, as a creature born without a history, or at least without an unalterable or supported history. Both Shelley and Frankenstein’s creation shared the feeling of being born without a soul, “as a thing, an other, a creature of the second sex,”—for being a woman in the time that Mary Shelley lived was to be a second-class human being.

A Symbol for Early Equality

Shelley can be considered a symbol for both feminism and equality of sexual orientation; a less discussed topic than anything else of her life, there is evidence that shows that Mary sought the company of women after her husband’s death. This is an important topic to mention, as it is signifies the very secretive intimate history of homosexuality and how big of a part it actually played during the Romantic era.

Life From the Bed of a Grave

Writer Sandra Gilbert insists, that Mary Shelley’s, “only real mother was a tombstone,” but she didn’t mean it figuratively—when Mary was a child, her father brought her to the churchyard where her mother was buried and she would continue to visit on her own after that. This became especially true when her father married their next-door-neighbor Mary Jane Clairmont, a woman who could never replace her own mother and who made Shelley’s home life unbearable. In her earliest years, Shelley used, “reading … [as] an act of resurrection,” due to feeling excluded from her father’s household after his marriage. In a sense, it is said that she “read,” or knew her family then determined her sense of self through her mother and father’s literary works. She would endlessly study her mother’s works during her younger years while sitting at her mother’s graveside.

The burden of this type of childhood was also expressed through Mary’s first work when she included a scene wherein Victor Frankenstein visits the cemetery where his father, brother, and bride were buried before leaving Geneva to search for the monstrosity that he had created. “As night approached, I found myself at the entrance of the cemetery … I entered it and approached the tomb which marked their graves … The spirits of the departed seemed to flit around, and to cast a shadow, which was felt but seen not, around the head of the mourner,” where Victor ultimately calls for revenge against his creation, “O Night, and by the spirits that preside over thee, I swear to pursue the daemon … And I call on you, spirits of the dead; and on the wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work.” Godwin passed on his idealization of books being a sort of host for the dead, that to read a book by a departed author would be to know them entirely. Then again, Godwin was also fiercely interested in communicating with the dead, another trait that he passed to his daughter through that fateful visit to her mother’s grave.

[The dead] still have their place, where we may visit them, and where, if we dwell in a composed and a quiet spirit, we shall not fail to be conscious of their presence.

William Godwin, Literary Tourism, And the Work of Necromanticism

Necromantic Preoccupations of Her Father

Like father, like daughter; Shelley picked up her father’s proclivity for intrigue in the dead. Godwin often tried to connect his readers to the dead by encouraging the placement of illustrious graves. In his eyes, such a grave would honor them in their place of rest and give both the deceased and their mourners a way to stay on speaking terms, of sorts. He even expressed his desire to do so himself in quite an illustrated manner, when he said, “[he] would have [the dead] … around [his] path, and around [his] bed, and not allow [himself] to hold a more frequent intercourse with the living, than with the good departed.” He meant this of course as a means of conveying his desire to communicate with the dear ones he had lost in his lifetime and not in a sexual context.

The Morbidity of Her Truest Love

Mary may have strayed from that viewpoint in a way, after she was introduced to an impassioned devotee of her father’s, Percy Shelley. The two spent much of their time together at the grave of Mary’s mother, where her father likely believed they were conversing about their reformist ideals. The truth lay a bit beyond that, however, as it was by her mother’s grave that she lost her virginity and pledged herself at sixteen to a twenty-year-old Percy. While it may seem creepy, to Mary the cemetery was more than just a resting place for the dead, she saw it as a place where all of life converged for her.

Learning all of this about Shelley definitely brings us some clarity on how she possessed the wit and imagination to create two new genres within literature—that of Science-Fiction horror, along with the brilliance of the first Apocalyptic Dystopian styles.

Index of Sources