top of page

Mary Shelley - Mother of Science Fiction

Mary Shelley was a pioneering mind in the realm of both horror and science fiction writing. Her novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, is credited with spawning creating the science fiction genre. Life was not kind to Mary Shelley, she was an intellectual woman in a time when gender equality was less than a dream. This is how she became the titan of Gothic literature we know today.

Born into Tragedy

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on August 30, 1797, in London, England. Her parents were both already famous before she was conceived. Her mother, also named Mary, was a famous writer, philosopher and advocate for women's rights. Mary Wollstonecraft is one of the founding feminist philosophers. William Godwin, the younger Mary's father, was a political journalist and social philosopher.

Unfortunately for the baby Mary, her mother was not long for this world. Due to a complication from the birth, mother dearest died after a month of suffering. Her death would be the first in a parade of loss that would follow Mary through her life. The elder Mary's death was due to a postpartum infection brought on by her doctor's insistence that washing his hands before performing medical procedures was preposterous.

William Godwin loved his wife, and upon her death he wrote and published the Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The book went into great detail on her life, including her affairs and illegitimate child. Godwin hadn't intended the book to create a scandal, but he overestimated his peers. Young Mary was allowed to read the book, along with any other book she chose, and she grew up admiring her mother's philosophy and lifestyle.

When Mary was four, her father married a woman named Mary Jane Clairmont. It seems that big Will had gotten stuck on the name Mary at some point. Mary Jane brought along her two children, Charles and Claire. Claire "Clara" Mary Jane Clairmont would become the closest friend Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin would ever have.

Little Mary Godwin hated her new step-mother. William Godwin's friends also didn't take to her, as she was allegedly short-tempered and loved to argue. Their family struggled financially. Godwin often had to take out loans that he would never be able to repay, just to keep his, and Mary Jane's, business afloat. William relied heavily on the charity of others to keep him out of prison.

Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont didn't receive a formal education, but William did tutor them in a wide range of subjects. He worked hard to develop their minds and gave them unfettered access to his personal library. They were also influenced by the many visiting intellectuals who frequented their home. Among these visitors were famous writers like, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

William Godwin admitted that he didn't raise Mary according to the guidelines outlined in her mother's book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. He did get her daily tutors, a governess and even sent her to boarding school for six months in 1811. This was all quite out of the ordinary for girls at the time. Godwin had this to say about his daughter:

"Singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible."

Eventually, the tension between Mary Godwin and her step-mother came to a head. The younger Mary was sent to live with the family of radical thinker, William Baxter, in Scotland. This was one year after the whole Ramsgate boarding school thing didn't work out, but it seems as though Mary-Jane was pressuring William Godwin to send his daughter away. Teenagers can be tough.

Mary Godwin loved it in Scotland. She got along famously with Baxter's four daughters and reveled in the wide open spaces around their property. Mary even went back the following year for another 10 month visit. Spending her time writing under the boughs of trees and taking in the fresh air. Not having her combative step-mother around was likely a bonus.

Percy Bysshe Shelley - The Sweetest Thing She's Ever Seen

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born five years before Mary. That age gap may not seem like much, but at the time that they met, Percy was 22 and Mary was 16.

Another key problem that was emblematic of Percy's morality was that he was married to another teenager at the time that he met Mary. This other teenager, Harriet Shelley, was also pregnant at the time with Percy's son.

You'll recall that William Godwin was in the habit of receiving famous and wealthy guests. Percy was one of these wealthy guests. The young man came to learn from the senior poet, and as a result he met Mary Godwin.

William Godwin had agreed to mentor Percy on the basis that Percy would pay off William's considerable debt. Percy was himself in debt, so the whole debt relief scheme seemed doomed to failure.

This is said to have first happened between her two visits to Scotland, in 1814. Percy was at this time regularly visiting William, who had become his mentor. You see, Percy was having a spot of financial trouble as his wealthy father was practicing 'tough love'.

Percy Bisshe Shelley met one of his sisters' school friends in 1810. Through correspondence with her, Shelley groomed her to feel like she was being oppressed by her father and her school. After only a year of this, Harriet was pleading with Shelley to save her from her fate. 18-year-old Percy took 16-year-old Harriet to Edinburgh and the two got married on June 28. This all despite Percy's philosophical objections to the institution of marriage.

The young couple spent the next three years drifting around England, before a friend of Percy's, the poet Robert Southey, informed him that William Godwin was still alive. Percy wrote to Godwin and offered himself as the older man's disciple. Godwin advised Shelley to repair his relationship with his father first.

Percy then travelled to Ireland, where he tried to stoke the fires of rebellion, before returning to England after an alleged attack he suffered at the hands of 'ruffians'. This event may or may not have been a hallucination.

Harriet gave birth to their first child, Eliza Ianthe Shelley, in 1813. After her birth, Percy and Harriet's relationship started deteriorating. Despite this, the pair remarried in 1814 because the legitimacy of their original marriage was in question. Around this time, Percy began his visits with Godwin, and as a result, met Mary. Harriet didn't take it too well.

Graveyard Romance

Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley were very taken with each other. William Godwin on the other hand was growing tired of waiting for Percy's monetary relief. The two men had a major falling out around the same time that Percy and Mary started secretly seeing each other.

Mary would go to the graveyard where her mother was buried along with her half-sister, Claire Clairmont, at night. Percy would meet them there, and the trio would talk the night away. Legend has it that Mary and Percy had their first sexual entanglement atop Mary's mother's gravestone. This event is speculative, but what is more interesting is what was Claire Clairmont doing while this was happening? Was she waiting by a tree? Skipping stones on the river?

Whatever happened in that graveyard remains unknown, except for one thing. Percy declared his passion for Mary, and she hers for him. They decided that they would elope to France, and Claire Clairmont would come too.

While it seems that this elopement was rash, it seemed entirely reasonable to the young lovers. William Godwin disapproved of the relationship, which confused Mary. She had grown up reading her parents' books, and in William Godwin's 1793 Political Justice, he had taken an anti-marriage stance, advocating for a kind of free love. Clearly he had changed his mind since then.

Two days after declaring their love for each other, the couple fled to Calais, France. Claire's mother, Mary Jane, followed the trio and tried to convince them to turn back.

They convinced Mary Jane to leave them be, and set off into war-torn Europe.

To The Dark Heart of Love

The trio left Calais and went to Paris. France had just suffered the fury of the War of the Sixth Coalition. Napoleon was a bit of a bastard, you see, and an alliance of seven countries decided to crush him. The war devastated the lives of the French people, Napoleon survived and was exiled.

Mary, Claire, and Percy didn't really enjoy what they found in France, so they endeavored to travel to Switzerland instead. Mary and Percy would spend their time reading together, and working on their writing. They kept a journal together, which became a sort of creative conversation where they would develop each other's ideas in a tiny hive mind.

Lucerne, Switzerland, was as far as they would make it. Percy had written to his wife, Harriet, and implored her to come and join him and his young lover, but to remember to bring along all of her money. She never replied. The trio was stuck with no money and mounting debts, so they turned back. They went down the Rhine river to the Dutch port of Maassluis, from where they traveled to Gravesend, Kent, in 1814.

As it turns out, and to Mary's great shock, William Godwin wanted nothing to do with the couple. They were set adrift in England to live in poverty, ostracized by high society for their immoral elopement. Mary was also pregnant with Percy's child, which was obviously another strike against their good name.

Claire stuck with them, and together they moved from lodging to lodging. Percy often had to leave to dodge his creditors. He was so deeply in debt that he ran the risk of debtor's prison. Mary and Percy kept up their intense reading and writing regimen.

They met with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a longtime friend of Percy's, who had at one time tried to seduce Harriet. Hogg and Mary would grow close and become fast friends. Percy wanted Mary and Hogg to engage in a carnal relationship, because of course he did. Mary entertained the idea, but doesn't seem to have ever gone further than flirting.

Meanwhile, Mary had taken ill. Her pregnancy wasn't going well, and she was frustrated by Percy and Claire's relationship. Her lover and half-sister were likely lovers. This frustration, coupled with Percy's rapturous joy at the birth of his son to Harriet, in November of 1814, wore on Mary. Early in 1815, Percy's grandfather died.

Percy and his father were locked in a battle over the £220,000 inheritence. The money could solve all of Percy's financial woes, but daddy dearest wanted very much for that not to happen. This dispute wouldn't be settled until more than a year later, April 1816.

Mary Godwin gave birth to a premature baby in February, 1815. It seems the stress of their lifestyle had taken its toll on her pregnancy. The baby was two months premature, and not long for this world. She wrote the following in a letter to Hogg in March, after her baby died:

"My dearest Hogg my baby is dead—will you come to see me as soon as you can. I wish to see you—It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions—Will you come—you are so calm a creature & Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk—for I am no longer a mother now"

Following the death of her daughter, Mary slipped into a deep depression. She was haunted by dreams of her dead baby, and began wulling over the idea of the reanimation of the dead.

Mary urged Claire to move out of their household in May of 1815. Her relationship with Percy had become too much for Mary to tolerate. While Mary was in principal an advocate of free love, she couldn't really deal with it in practice. She wanted Percy to herself, he was the only one that she really loved.

By the Summer of 1815, Mary had become pregnant again. Her deep melancholy seemed to be slowly lifting and the couple moved to Bishopsgate in August. There, Percy began work on a long poem titled Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude. This poem would be released the next year and be a commercial and critical flop.

This year in Bishopsgate would be one of Mary's happiest times. She had Percy to herself, another baby was on its way, and her step-sister wasn't sleeping with Percy. In Mary's second novel, she would envision Bishopsgate, and Windsor itself, as a Garden of Eden.

1816 - Storms of Death and Creation

January of 1816 brought with it the birth of Mary's son, William Shelley. The boy was named after Mary's father. Despite his rejection, she still admired him greatly. Little William would be nicknamed Willmouse.

Mary, Percy, and Willmouse travelled to Lake Geneva with Claire Clairmont in May. They were to meet up with Lord Byron. Claire wanted to introduce her half-sister to the man she was having an affair with, and who had gotten her pregnant. She was certain that her relationship with Lord Byron would lead to good fortune for her and her child.

This trip is also the when Mary began refering to herself as Mrs Shelley. Her family arrived 11 days before Lord Byron, and Percy rented a house on the waterfront in the village of Cologny.

Byron arrived with his physician, John William Polidori, thus bringing together two future pioneers of the horror genre. Polidori is credited as inventing the vampire genre of fiction with his 1819 story, The Vampyre.

The group spent their days on Lake Geneva reading, boating, discussing the art of writing, and being stuck indoors due to the constant rain. Mary Shelley wrote the following details in 1831:

"It proved a wet, ungenial summer and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house"

Lord Byron, as the most famous writer among them, seemed to lead the group through activities. They spent time reading and sharing tales from the Fantasmagoriana ( a collection of German ghost stories). Byron soon proposed that they each write their own ghost story. The man was nothing if not an engine of destiny.

At first, Mary struggled to come up with an idea for her story. Everyone else got to work merrily crafting their own tales, and yet, she struggled with a bad case of writer's block. Anyone who has ever been to a writer's retreat knows the feeling of keen disappointment one feels when you are asked how your story is going and yu have to admit you don't even have a concept yet.

One night, between 2-3 am, Mary was consumed by a waking nightmare. She could not sleep, and lying in the dark, her imagination took flight, bearing her away on dark wings:

"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world"

Inspiration had struck like a match in the dark of night. Mary started writing what would become known as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. What she had intended as a short story grew into a full novel. Percy encouraged her at every step of the way, and the level of his actual involvement is debatable, one could say the same for anything that he published. Their habit of keeping a journal together habitually spilled over into their manuscripts as well.

Mary Shelley had this to say:

"I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world."

Critics have argued for centuries over whether Percy should be given more credit for his participation in the writing of Frankenstein. Fiona Sampson, a literary scholar and poet, wrote this about the issue:

"Why hasn't Mary Shelley gotten the respect she deserves? In recent years Percy's corrections, visible in the Frankenstein notebooks held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, have been seized on as evidence that he must have at least co-authored the novel. In fact, when I examined the notebooks myself, I realized that Percy did rather less than any line editor working in publishing today."

1816 was more than a year of great creation. Mary, Percy, and Claire left Cologny in September of 1816. They moved to Bath, England, where Claire got a place near Mary and Percy's.

Mary received a letter from her half-sister, Fanny Imlay on 9 October. Fanny was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft from before she married William Godwin. Within this letter Fanny had essentially penned her farewell. It was in essence a suicide note.

Mary sent Percy off to rush to Fanny's aid, but when he arrived it was too late. She was found dead on 10 October in the Swansea Inn. Her suicide note and an empty bottle of laudanum lay near her body. The note was unadressed, but it read as follows:

“I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed”

Two months later, Harriet, Percy's estranged wife, was found floating in the Serpentine river. She walked in the night before and drowned herself. Some have claimed that she commited suicide after falling pregnant.

Just 20 days after his wife's suicide, Percy and Mary got married. Their wedding was in part an effort by Percy's lawyers to legitimise his, Percy's, claim to his two children left behind by Harriet. Understandably, Harriet's family wanted nothing more than to erase Percy from their life.

William and Mary-Jane Godwin attended the wedding, and with their blessing of the union, the feud was over. Mary Shelley got her soon-to-be famous name, and her father back.

The Lead Up to Frankenstein 1817-1818

1817 started with the birth of Claire's daughter by Lord Byron, Allegra Byron. The baby girl would inevitably be taken away from her mother by Lord Byron. He believed that he knew best when he sent little Allegra to live in foster homes and finally in a Roman Catholic convent. Allegra would die of Typhus around the age of 5.

Percy's luck seems to have run out at this point, or it was all the bad karma coming home to roost. Either way, a court found him unfit to raise his children, and his children were sent to live with a priest and his family.

Around the same time as Percy's courtroom loss, the family moved to Buckinghamshire. There they entertained more famous writers and Mary toiled away at Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley finished Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, in the middle of 1817. The novel was wrapped up just in time for Mary to give birth to another little Shelley, Clara. There were now three children in the home (little Allegra was still with her mother at this time).

Mary edited and revised her and Percy's journals from 1816 and published them under the title, History of a Six Weeks' Tour. Frankenstein was published anonymously in January 1818. The preface had been written by Percy, and as a result, reviewers assumed that he was responsible for the work. This misconception has endured well into the modern era. It seems that many people simply refuse to believe that a woman is capable of writing a genre-defining masterpiece.

In the 2007 Guardian article by Germaine Greer, the idea that the novel was written by Percy is rebuffed. Her main point is that the book must have been written by Mary, on account of how poorly written it is.

"The driving impulse of this incoherent tale is a nameless female dread, the dread of gestating a monster. Monsters are not simply grossly deformed foetuses. Every mass murderer, every serial killer, the most sadistic paedophile has a mother, who cannot disown him. Percy was capable perhaps of imagining such a nightmare, but it is the novel's blindness to its underlying theme that provides the strongest evidence that the spinner of the tale is a woman. It is not until the end of the novel that the monster can describe himself as an abortion. If women's attraction to the gothic genre is explained by the opportunity it offers for the embodiment of the amoral female subconscious, Frankenstein is the ultimate expression of the female gothic."

-Germaine Greer

Moving to Italy - Where Creditor's Can't Follow

Mary, Percy, and Claire left England for Italy in March 1818. Their trip started with a visit to Venice to hand little Allegra over to her father, Lord Byron. Claire had been pressuring Byron to be involved in his child's life, and he agreed on the condition that Claire have nothing to do with her daughter ever again.

The agreement likely came about due to the Shelley household's financial woes. It is unlikely that Claire felt thrilled about the terms laid out by Byron. Whatever the case was, the visit to Venice would not end well for the Shelleys.

Baby Clara Shelley contracted Dysentery and died in Venice on 24 September 1818. Mary started sliding into a hideous depression that would only grow more profound when her beloved son, William died of cholera or Typhoid in Rome the next year, 1819.

Depression is a hell of a disease. Mary withdrew from those around her, especially Percy. Their codenpendency ran deep, and his distress can be clearly seen in the poem he wrote for Mary:

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
That leads to Sorrow's most obscure abode.
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
Do thou return for mine.

Mary was pregnant at the time that little William died. Once again the birth of a brand new baby seemed to lift her out of the clutches of melancholy. Percy Florence Shelley would be their only child to survive the trials of early nineteenth century childhood.

The tragedies that coincided with their arrival in Italy didn't dampen Mary's estimation of the place. Likely due to the political freedom that they could enjoy in Italy, and the lack of creditors, the couple experienced a creative boom.

Mary wrote the historical tale, Valperga, the novella Mathilda, the children's drama Porserpine, and the drama Midas during her time in Italy.

She was still prone to depression, as it is a creature that rarely releases those it gets a hold of. Adding to her troubles was Percy's constant love affairs. Not to be outdone, Mary formed a few relationships of her own, one of which was with a future prime-minister of Greece.

The Shelleys spent three months in Naples in 1818. Later, Percy was accused by his former servants of having falsified the registration of a child. On 27 February 1819, Percy registered a baby girl as his child by Mary. His accusers also claimed that the child's mother was actually Claire Clairmont. Historians have offered a range of explanations for the child's parentage, like it being Lord Byron's child by one of the servants accusing Percy. Whatever the truth was, the child died on 9 June 1820. Mary called Naples a paradise inahabited by devils.

Next they moved to Rome, where Mary started work on a novel she would never complete, Valerius the Reanimated Roman. The death of William put an end to all progress on that project.

Instead she wrote the novella, Mathilda, which is a feminist critique of partriarchal culture. In the novel, the young protagonist's beauty inspires incestuous feelings in her father. The man commits suicide rather than act on his perverted feelings, but it is still Mathilda who gets punished in the afterlife for the feelings that were not her own.

San Terenzo - The Last Summer of Percy Shelley

Mary was pregnant when the family moved to San Terenzo in the Bay of Lerici. It was the summer of 1822, and Percy had recently acquired a boat. This boat became his sole focus and fascination.

Percy decided this was the best time to inform Claire of her daughter's death. The stress of her sister's sorrow, coupled with her hatred for the 'dungeon' that was San Terenzo induced a miscarriage in Mary.

Mary's miscarriage went from bad to near-fatal in moments. She was bleeding a lot, too much. They sent for a doctor, but due to the remoteness of San Terenzo, it would take too long for one to arrive. Showing remarkable intuition, Percy put Mary in an ice-bath, which had the effect of constricting her veins and slowing the bleeding enough for Mary to survive.

Mary was slow to recover. The physical and emotional trauma of the miscarriage fed into her depression. Percy, had no time for his no-fun wife. He spent his days courting Jane Williams, the wife of his close friend Edward Williams.

Percy Shelley named his new boat the Don Juan, after Lord Byron's poem of the same name. The poem was doing well, skyrocketing in fact. Soon the boat would be doing the opposite.

On 1 July 1822, Percy, William, and Captain Daniel Roberts sailed to Livorno to meet with Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. Percy proposed the creation of a literary journal titled The Liberal. This project would never see the light of day.

On 8 July 1822, Percy, Edward and their boat-boy set sail for San Terenzo. They set off despite warnings about an approaching storm. Percy Shelley was undettered, and his folly cost not only his life, but the lives of his two companions as well.

Leigh Hunt sent a letter to the Shelley residence in San Terenzo asking for a confirmation of safe arrival by Percy's party, he was concerned because of the bad weather. Mary received the letter, with no husband to show for it.

Mary and Jane Williams traveled to Livorno, and then to Pisa, hoping to find their husbands merely drinking and carousing. Their efforts were in vain. 10 days after setting sail, Percy Shelley's decomposing corpse was found on the beach near Viareggio.

Back to England - Live by the Pen

Mary spent another year in Italy, living with Leigh Hunt's family before returning to England. She had been transcribing Lord Byron's poetry before she left Italy as a way to earn money for her and her son.

In 1823 she moved in with her father and step-mother, before her father-in-law sent her enough money to move out. This would be the last act of kindness she received from Percy's father. He would plague Mary for the rest of his days.

Percy's father, Sir Timothy Shelley, had initially agreed to help support his grandson. This was, of course, under the condition that the boy was taken from his mother and raised by a stranger. This tactic seems to have been a common one for men of the early nineteenth century. Luckily Mary wasn't about to bend in the storm of vitriol from Sir Timothy.

Despite Sir Timothy's hatred of Mary, she managed to squeeze an annual allowance out of the old badger. This allowance was to be repaid to the estate on the child's inheritance thereof. Sir Timothy never met Mary face-to-face. He regarded her with nothing but contempt, and in typical fashion, he attempted to use the allowance to exert control over her.

Mary spent her next few decades editing and publishing Percy's poetry. She wanted to cement his place in literary history. The biography she wrote about his life was blocked by Sir Timothy. He threatened to withdraw her allowance should she publish the details of his son's sordid lifestyle.

The spirit of the author didn't leave her after Frankenstein. She wrote four more novels as well as several short stories and a travelogue in the following two decades. Those books were, The Last Man (1826), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1930), Lodore (1835), and finally Falkner (1837).

Passing Beyond the Veil of Life

Mary Shelley spent her final decade suffering greatly. She often experienced bouts of paralysis and terrible headaches. Both of these maladies kept her from reading or writing, both of the things that had always given her the most joy.

The author, Mary Shelley, stepped through the dark curtain of death on 1 February, 1851. She was only 53 years old. Shelley's physician speculated that she had died of a brain tumor, which, considering the headaches and paralysis seems likely.

Mary's last wish was to be buried with her parents, but her children thought the soil at the family plot was "dreadful". They had her buried in Bournemouth. Years later her parents' bodies were exhumed and reburied in Bournemouth so that they could be with Mary.

One year after Mary Shelley's death, on the anniversary, Percy Florence Shelley opened her box-desk. Hidden within he found a notebook that his parent's had shared, locks of his dead siblings' hair, and wrapped up in a copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley's Adonaïs he found the charred remnants of his father's heart.

“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”

- Mary Shelley in Frankenstein



Never miss a new story

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page