Each week during the month of October, I am featuring wild women of the Regency era. This week is the tragic tale of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851).
(from Wikipedia.com/painting in the public domain)
Mary was not born into a conventional household. She was the daughter of William Godwin, a philosopher and professed atheist, and Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist. Godwin and Wollstonecraft were philosophically opposed to marriage, but they chose to formalize their relationship in order to offer a veneer of respectability for their children.
Her mother died when she was very young, and William remarried when Mary was four years old. Mary and her stepmother didn’t get along. She was never formally educated but learned to read under the eye of her father’s tutelage and was instructed in his liberal political and social theories.
She met Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1812 when he was her father’s protégé. Shelley’s family was wealthy and he had attended Eton and Oxford before being asked to leave because of his atheistic views.
In June of 1814, when Shelley was dissatisfied with his marriage, he began dining with the Godwins every day until he finally declared his love for Mary near the end of the month.
When William Godwin discovered the truth about his daughter’s relationship, he forbade contact between the two. Initially, Mary agreed to stay away from Shelley, but when he tried to commit suicide, she was sure this was proof of his love for her.
Although Shelley was still married, on the 28th of July 1814, Shelley and Mary eloped to France accompanied by her half-sister, Claire Clairmont. Her decision separated and estranged her from her father and relegated her to a penniless, disgraced, and ostracized state in England.
They were together eight years—each one of them marked by tragedy and loss.
Mary gave birth to four children, all except one died before adulthood. She suffered a terrible miscarriage late in her fifth pregnancy which nearly killed her.
Shelley’s wife committed suicide by jumping into the Serpentine Lake in 1816 and following this news, Mary and Percy were finally married.
Due to an eruption of Mt. Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, the weather during the summer of 1816 was horrible. It was known as “the year without a summer.” Unseasonably cold and stormy, many crops failed all throughout Europe. It was that summer that the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont were joined by Lord Byron in Geneva, Switzerland where they set up house on the lake. As legend has it, people living across the lake used binoculars to spy on the wicked quartet and their licentious behavior.
It was here, over the course of several stormy nights, that Byron encouraged them all to come up with ghost stories. Mary wrote Frankenstein—a terrifying tale of a Dr. Victor Frankenstein, his God complex, and the disastrous monster that he created through heretical and morbid means. No doubt the story was spurred by a preoccupation with death, since Mary found herself surrounded by it, as well as the burgeoning industrial revolution happening all around them. Throw in the mixture of her own insecurities and grief, her philosophies on human nature, and Byron and Shelley with their sexual free-form and the tensions radiating within the house collided to produce The Modern Prometheus.
Percy Shelley drowned in 1822.
Despite other marriage offers in years to come, Mary Shelley never remarried. Often given to psychological turmoil and depression during her life, she went on to write other novellas and writings that reflected her grief and the darkness within her. She died of what was probably a brain tumor in 1851.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is often touted as a woman ahead of her time living in the restrictive Regency era, with free-thinking philosophies and early feminist leanings—an ingenious writer of the classic novel that is still so widely read and beloved. Even so, it strikes me that her tale of a creature so tragically formed through human hands is a reflection of Mary herself. Her life was constructed through the whims and experimentation of others’ decisions and indoctrination, and the result was tragedy, sadness, and death. Much like Victor Frankenstein’s poor creature.
Have you read Frankenstein?
Mary Shelley: A Biography. The National Theatre (documentary).
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Wikipedia.com
Andreas Teuber, “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” Brandeis.edu