The Life Of Mary Shelley Essay, Research Paper
The Life of Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley, born August 30, 1797, was a
prominent, though often overlooked, literary figure
during the Romantic Era of English Literature. She
was the only child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the
famous feminist, and William Godwin, a philosopher
and novelist. She was also the wife of the poet
Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary’s parents were shapers
of the Romantic sensibility and the revolutionary
ideas of the left wing. Mary, Shelley, Byron, and
Keats were principle figures in Romanticism’s
second generation. Whereas the poets died young
in the 1820’s, Mary lived through the Romantic era
into the Victorian.
Mary was born during the eighth year of the French
Revolution. “She entered the world like the heroine
of a Gothic tale: conceived in a secret amour, her
birth heralded by storms and portents, attended by
tragic drama, and known to thousands through
Godwin’s memoirs. Percy Shelley would elevate the
event to mythic status in his Dedication to The
Revolt of Islam”.( from pg. 21 of Romance and
Reality by Emily Sunstein.) From infancy, Mary was
treated as a unique individual with remarkable
parents. High expectations were placed on her
potential and she was treated as if she were born
beneath a lucky star. Godwin was convinced that
babies are born with a potential waiting to be
developed. From an early age she was surrounded
by famous philosophers, writers, and poets:
Coleridge made his first visit when Mary was two
years old. Charles Lamb was also a frequent visitor.
A peculiar sort of Gothicism was part of Mary’s
earliest existence. Most every day she would go for
a walk with her father to the St. Pancras churchyard
where her mother was buried. Godwin taught Mary
to read and spell her name by having her trace her
mother’s inscription on the stone.
At the age of sixteen Mary ran away to live with the
twenty-one year old Percy Shelley, the unhappily
married radical heir to a wealthy baronetcy. To
Mary, Shelley personified the genius and
dedication to human betterment that she had
admired her entire life. Although she was cast out
of society, even by her father, this inspirational
liaison produced her masterpiece, Frankenstein.
She conceived of Frankenstein during one of the
most famous house parties in literary history when
staying at Lake Geneva in Switzerland with Byron
and Shelley. Interestingly enough, she was only
nineteen at the time. She wrote the novel while
being overwhelmed by a series of calamities in her
life. The worst of these were the suicides of her
half-sister, Fanny Imlay, and Shelly’s wife, Harriet.
After the suicides, Mary and Shelley, reluctantly
married. Fierce public hostility toward the couple
drove them to Italy. Initially, they were happy in
Italy, but their two young children died there. Mary
never fully recovered from this trauma. (Their first
child had died shortly after birth early in their
relationship.) Nevertheless, Shelley empowered
Mary to live as she most desired: to enjoy
intellectual and artistic growth, love, and freedom.
When Mary was only twenty-four Percy drowned,
leaving her penniless with a two year old son.
For her remaining twenty-nine years she engaged in
a struggle with the societal disapproval of her
relationship with Shelley. Poverty forced her to live
in England which she despised because of the
morality and social system. She was shunned by
conventional circles and worked as a professional
writer to support her father and her son. Her circle,
however, included literary and theatrical figures,
artists, and politicians.
She eventually came to more traditional views of
women’s dependence and differences, like her
mother before her. This not a reflection of her
courage and integrity but derived from socialization
and the conventions placed on her by society.
Mary became an invalid at the age of forty-eight.
She died in 1851 of a brain tumor with poetic timing.
The Great Exhibition, which was a showcase of
technological progress, was opened. This was the
same scientific technology that she had warned
against in her most famous book, Frankenstein.