Mary Shelley’s contributions to literature are often understated. Her signature work, Frankenstein, is one of the most cherished horror novels of all time. It is often forgotten that the novel not only pioneered the modern horror genre, it also almost singlehandedly invented the science fiction genre as well. Take a look at the life of Mary Shelley and how her unique experiences shaped her contributions to modern literature.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin in London in 1797. She was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecroft. Mary’s father was a prominent, though divisive, philosopher who spoke out against autocratic privilege and was one of the first people to embrace anarchism as a social understanding. Mary Wollstonecroft was also a philosopher and is best remembered for her work concerning women’s rights.
Mary Wollstonecroft died just a month after Mary Shelley was born. Mary was raised by her father and her stepmother after her father remarried when Mary was four. While her father’s vast resources made homeschooling available to Mary, her stepmother did not have any interest in Mary receiving any formal schooling, so she did not. As a result, much of Mary’s more advanced understanding of science and literature was self-taught, coming from books she borrowed from her father’s library.
In 1812, Mary Shelley met her future husband, Percy Shelley, which sent her down the path that made her one of the great authors of the 19th century. When they met in 1812, Percy was already married, but the two began a romantic relationship in 1814 while they traveled through Europe together. By the time they came back to England, Mary was pregnant with Percy’s child.
The two started a life together, but Mary became estranged from her father, who did not approve of their illicit affair, and the two often lived in debt. Tragedy marked this period of young Mary’s life as well, as her first child died, and Percy’s wife committed suicide in 1916.
Origin of Frankenstein
The stage was set for her most famous work to develop that same year, however. Mary and Percy were summering at the Villa Diodata on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland with the famous poet and politician Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, and John Polidori, a physician and writer.
The summer of 1916 was remembered as the year without a summer because the year before, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted. The massive eruption sent a plume of sulfuric dust and ash into the atmosphere, reducing temperature around the globe in 1916. As a result, the group spent much more time indoors than initially expected.
On the night the story of Frankenstein originated, the group was discussing the work of Luigi Galvani, a physician who had successfully caused muscle spasms in dead bodies with electrical impulses. After this discussion, they decided to entertain one another by coming up with ghost stories. Mary Shelley came up with a story about a mad scientist who brought back to life a cadaver that he could not control.
Life after Frankenstein
Percy encouraged Mary to expand the story into a novel, and in 1818 they published the book anonymously under the title Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. However, even as the novel met with success, Mary Shelley was still followed by the specter of misfortune.
The couple moved to Italy to elude creditors, but while there, Mary’s second and third children died. At the time, Mary was pregnant with her fourth child, Percy Florence Shelley, the only one who survived to adulthood. They stayed in Italy until disaster struck once more, and Percy Shelly drowned while sailing near Viareggio.
After her husband’s death, Mary became committed to raising her son and her work as a writer. She returned to England and became well known as a travel writer, biographer, novelist, and short story author before her death from brain cancer in 1851.