By Daphne Strasert
Mary Shelley is best known as the author of Frankenstein, a keystone work of the horror genre. Shelley’s legacy is a confused one, since her major work has been muddled by the reinterpretations of the monster in movies and television. However, her original novel remains popular in its own right and is still being critiqued and admired to this day.
But we aren’t here to talk about Frankenstein. We are here to talk about Mary Shelley.
Filled with passion, scandal, and devastating personal tragedy, Mary Shelley’s life reads like a gothic romance in its own right.
Mary Shelley was the daughter of prominent feminist and philosophical thinkers. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died soon after Mary’s birth, leaving her husband to raise Mary. He exposed Mary early on to radical political ideologies, setting Mary up for a lifetime of activism.
When she was 16, Mary met Percy Shelley, a married man of 21 with whom she began a romance. They met clandestinely in the same cemetery where her mother was buried and it is commonly said that she lost her virginity on her mother’s grave.
Despite her father’s disapproval, Mary left with Percy (along with her step sister, who was likely also one of Percy’s lovers) for France. When they finally returned, Mary was pregnant with his child. Unfortunately, their daughter was born prematurely and died soon after.
Mary and Percy continued their affair and were finally married a few years later after Percy’s wife committed suicide. Neither was particularly committed to the institution of marriage but married in a bid to show stability so Percy could have custody of his children (he was eventually deemed morally unfit).
The Shelleys believed in free love—something Percy seemed far more enthusiastic about practicing than Mary—and maintained an open marriage. The Shelleys were determined to live the free-spirited lives of artists, regardless of if they had the means. Percy found himself frequently hiding from creditors and the Shelley’s left the country multiple times to avoid debtors’ prison. Yet, with the uncanny ability of the generationally wealthy, they managed to avoid both destitution and respectable careers. Instead, they spent their married life traveling to the various rented villas of friends such as Lord Byron.
It was during one of these holidays that Mary conceived the idea for Frankenstein. Lord Byron proposed that each member of the party write a ghost story. After a few days of struggle, Mary was inspired by galvanism and the prospect of reanimating the dead to write Frankenstein. The manuscript was finished a few years later and published anonymously.
During this time, Mary’s tumultuous personal life continued. She had two more children, both of whom died in their early years. Her husband was caught in the middle of a scandal regarding the adoption of a girl who may have been his illegitimate child with Mary’s step-sister. Mary plunged into a deep depression, during which it seems writing was her only solace. She did eventually have another son, the only one of her children to survive to adulthood.
In 1822, Percy Shelley went sailing with friends. He never returned. His body washed up on a beach three days later. Mary Shelley was left a widow at 24. She had been with Percy for only 8 years. Still, she was devastated at the loss of her husband and mourned him the rest of her life.
She returned to England with her son and dedicated the rest of her days to her writing and the editing of her husband’s poems. She contributed her time and money to helping women, often those who were shunned by society. Mary never remarried despite her popularity with men and many offers. She claimed that she had already married a genius and could only marry another.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley died in 1851 at the age of 53. A woman who had lived her life by defying expectations had one more surprise for her family: in her desk drawer, her son found the calcified heart of Percy Shelley, which Mary had kept since his death.
Mary Shelley’s legacy lives on through the many interpretations of her work as well as the mystique of her personal history. A woman far ahead of her time, she lived true to herself in a way only she could.