Mary Shelley was born into a family of free thinkers in 1797, a time of intellectual renaissance. Her father, William Godwin, was a highly respected philosopher, one of many who preached free love and equality in the early 1800’s. His book about justice was vital to the British Radicals. Not long after France had begun it’s revolution, the many Brits started hankering for their own. It was a time of great political unrest. Her father, however, wasn’t the only famous mind in her family. Mary was named after her mother, the renowned Mary Wolstoncraft, considered the mother of feminism and a visionary in women’s rights. Her mother would shape her future, but not just through her teachings. When Mary gave birth to her daughter, she was described as being too weak to feed the howling infant. Her placenta had broken apart and become infected, resulting in puerperal fever, one of the most common causes of women’s death in her time. She died a few days later, and the knowledge that her mother had died for her would forever haunt Mary Shelly.
Years later a man named Percy Bysshe Shelley would begin writing letters to her father. The revolutionary ideology was spreading and William Godwin was practically worshiped as the intellectual face of the would-be revolution. Percy Shelley was, for all intents and purposes, a fanboy bent on interacting with his idol, writing countless letters requesting friendship and even showing up to Godwin’s bookshop in hopes of seeing his senpai. Now, Godwin had read Shelley’s letters aloud to his family, for demonstration of his intellectual prowess or for a good laugh, we’re not sure. What is certain is that Mary knew of Shelley long before they ever actually met. When they did meet in Godwin’s bookshop she, just 16, fell in love.
Their relationship was rough from the start. Godwin, for all his preachings on free love, disapproved. His daughter was only 16, and there was another problem; Percy was already married. His was was pregnant with his first child, but whether Mary knew or cared, we don’t know. What we do know is that, one night in a fit of despair, the two made a suicide pact. Mary held a gun to her temple, but backed out at the last minute. Percy, slightly more serious, took an overdose of laudanum (a potent mixture of opiates), but survived. His survival inspired him to make the most of life – with Mary. They eloped in the dead of night, but they weren’t alone. Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister joined them. See, Percy was pretty sold on the idea of free love. So much so that he’s rumored to have intended to start a commune not unlike the hippies of the 60’s, with as many women as he could handle. Mary, though taught the same ideas as Percy, found sharing her man with her stepsister uncomfortable, and the relationships between all three would always be strained.
From birth, Mary heard stories of doctors attempting to bring back the dead. Medicine wasn’t the prestigious career it is today, and was generally regarded as being a shady practice. Medicine and science were still emerging from the dark ages. In ancient times, the most sought after goal of alchemy was to turn something not gold, into gold. In Mary’s time, the most sought after goal of medicine was to turn something not alive, into a living being once again. Shortly after arriving in Switzerland with Claire and Percy, Mary heard of Condrad Dippel, a man who was rumored to have stolen bodies from graves and injected them with substances supposed to bring them back to life. Condrad Dippel was supposedly born in Rocafor Franks castle, also known as Burg Frankenstein.
May became pregnant, but lost her first child shortly after she was born. Her daughter’s death hurt Mary deeply, and began a lifelong connection with the concepts of death and rebirth. Mary wrote once that she had dreamed her daughter was cold, yet they brought her near the fire and rubbed her vigorously and low, she returned to life! Yet upon waking, the darkness and heaviness would sink over Mary again. Shortly after, she gave birth to a son, William who would survive infancy. It was around this time the three romantics would take a trip up to a Lord Byron’s estate. Claire, pregnant with Percy’s child at the time, was enamored with Byron. They would read aloud to each other in the candlelight in the evenings, wine (and stronger substances) coursing through their veins. It was on one of those nights that it was suggested they come up with ghost stories. Mary took this light hearted suggestion quite seriously, wracking her brain for inspiration. It came to her when she had no control over it. After an intense nightmare Mary writes “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.”
She began what she thought would be a short story. As she wrote, a series of personal tragedies struck her. Just a few months after she put pen (or quill) to paper, her half sister, Fanny committed suicide, succeeding where Percy had failed, after overdosing on laudanum. After having had almost no contact with her beloved sister since her elopement, Mary was devastated, and it’s believed that this feeling of remorse and isolation inspired much of her novel. Yet hardship wasn’t through with the 19 year old Mary. Two months later, Percy’s wife committed suicide by throwing herself in a river, heavily pregnant with what was rumored to be Percy’s child. Just a few days later, Mary married Percy, and finally made peace with her own family.
This would lead to a brief period of happiness for Mary. She gave birth to a daughter, Clara, and finally published Frankenstein’s Monster. The novel was a hit, but Mary didn’t have time to relish in her success. Less than a year later, Clara died of dysentery. William contracted malaria and followed Clara out of life just 8 months later. Mary never recovered from her loss, growing more and more bitter towards Percy, who she felt had moved on too quickly. Nonetheless, she gave birth to another son, Percy Florence, who would be the only child to survive to adulthood and outlive his parents. One of the final blows to Mary’s psyche struck three years later. The unhappy couple had visited the gulf of Spezia, and Percy had decided to go for a sail. A sudden storm rolled in and drowned Percy less than a month before his 30th birthday. Mary was overcome with grief and guilt for having allowed her husband to sail. She would never be the same. Friends commented that she became cold and withdrawn, a far cry from the startlingly vivacious intellectual of her youth. She spent much of the rest of her life fighting not for her own recognition as an author, but for her husband’s. Were it not for her, much of his work would be lost in obscurity.