Frankenstein is an instantly recognizable icon. This week I tell you the story of the woman behind the monster. Mary Shelley achieved only moderate success in her lifetime, but since that time has been called the mother of science fiction, and also of horror, and even the wicked stepmother of genetic engineering.
This episode is part of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists.
Jane Austen’s first novel was published in 1811. Mary’s first came out only seven years later in 1818. Both were English. Both came from literary families. Both were wealthy enough to escape earning their keep by their own physical labor, but not wealthy enough to escape the constant threat of degrading poverty. And that is where the similarity ends.
Jane’s family was desperately clinging to the underside of upper-class respectability. Mary’s family never had any interest in respectability.
Her father was William Godwin. He had achieved notoriety in 1791 when he published a book called Political Justice in which he declared that all government was tyranny. Likewise religion. Likewise the institution of marriage. The book sold very well and made him the king of the radicals.
Her mother was even more infamous. Mary Wollstonecraft is still remembered to this day as the mother of feminism for writing Vindication of the Rights of Women. That was reason enough for some circles to scorn her, but she was also the mother of an illegitimate daughter at the time she met Godwin.
For two otherwise intelligent adults, it’s strange that they did not foresee certain consequences, but it seems that pregnancy caught them by surprise. Mary proudly declared her willingness to raise the child alone, but Godwin was a better man that that. He swallowed his principles and married her.
Their marriage was happy but brief. Germ theory had not yet been accepted or even proposed, so doctors and midwives had no idea that they were the cause of so many infections as they raced from one childbed to the next without washing their hands. All they knew was that 10 days after giving birth, the great Mary Wollstonecraft was dead. Her daughter, Mary Godwin, who would someday be Mary Shelley, lived, and she would spend her life under the burden of believing she had killed her mother.
Godwin was not shy about announcing how wonderful a saint his wife had been. Mary Jr had a lot to live up to. So too did any future Mrs. Godwin. For a man who didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, he was quite eager to find a replacement. He eventually settled on Mrs. Clairmont who had two children from a previous marriage.
Actually, she had never been married, but Godwin did not complain, and the families were joined making four siblings: Fanny, Mary, Charles, and Claire. Claire was called Jane at this time, but since she was later called Claire, I think it’s easier just to call her that from the beginning.
Mary was not pleased. The new Mrs.Godwin may not have been a wicked stepmother per se, but she did have a temper and she was an awfully poor substitute for a mother whom Mary idealized without any actual experience to bring the visions down to reality. Mary’s health was poor, possibly stress-induced, and a common doctor’s advice at the time was an extended holiday, preferably by the seaside. So Mary spent a significant portion of her childhood away from home recovering with this or that friend or family member. This was not uncommon for the time, but judging from Mary’s lifelong writing theme of the parent-child relationship, it does seem like she resented being sent away.
It was while she was in Scotland for two years that a certain gentleman made the Godwin family’s acquaintance. His name was Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was the oldest son and heir of a baronet in Sussex. Like most gentlemen’s sons he was sent to Oxford for his education, but he was also expelled for publishing a flamboyantly atheistic piece. He left without a diploma, but quite possibly with a case of syphilis, though that last part is hard to confirm. He topped this debacle by blithely informing his father that he didn’t want to inherit the estate. He’d take the money, thank you very much, but the actual responsibility for the land and the people who lived on it? No, no, responsibility was not for him. Percy rounded all this off by accusing his mother of having an affair with a local musician, so all in all, he was not very popular with his own family.
Percy read Political Justice, and he was entranced. He wrote to Godwin to tell him just how amazing he was, and yes let’s please do have death to government, religion, and marriage. Godwin was a trifle unsettled to have views from the first edition of his book fervently parroted back at him. His own views had softened considerably as proved not only by more recent editions of the book, but also the fact that he himself had married twice and was happy both times. Anarchy had sounded great before the French Revolution. Now they knew just how out of hand that could get.
However, Godwin was also deeply in debt, and he was in no position to argue with a charming young man who agreed to become his financial patron. Therefore young Shelley was a delight, an absolute delight to have around the house. So it was that Mary, age 16, with magnificent auburn hair, returned home from Scotland to find her father and stepmother pleased with their new friend, her half-sister Fanny in love with him, and her step-sister Claire also in love with him. It was only a matter of time before Mary fell for him too, making a perfect score of 3 for 3.
As a prospective suitor, Percy obviously posed some difficulties. For one thing he didn’t believe in marriage, just the free and unfettered love of equals. But an even more serious objection was that he was already married.
Yes, soon after leaving Oxford he had “liberated” a 16-year-old girl named Harriet from the tyranny of her boarding school, whisked her up to Scotland, where marriage licenses were easier to get, and married her. She had already had one child and was pregnant with a second. He also had a mistress. named Cornelia.
Percy apparently did not consider any of this relevant when he decided that 16-year-old Mary was his true love. Mary, naturally enough, had questions, to which Percy responded that Harriet was unfaithful, that he was used and abused-mistreated in every way. This was a pack of lies, but it deeply impressed a girl who knew that her own mother had risked everything for the sake of true love. What could be more gloriously romantic than to follow her mother’s example and her father’s youthful principles?
Percy recorded “The sublime and rapturous moment when she confessed herself mine, who had so long been hers in secret cannot be painted to mortal imaginations.”
“So long” in this case should be taken with extreme skepticism. They had met on May 5th. He wrote those words on June 26th, so we’re talking six weeks of secrecy at the very most.
Godwin was informed that Percy could spare only half the money he had promised because Percy needed the other half so he could run away with Godwin’s own teenage daughter. Godwin gaped at this bombshell and records in his journal that he and Mary had a “talk.”
Harriet was informed and told that in time she’d appreciate Mary and all the suffering she had been through.
To complete this comedy, Cornelia showed up to complain too. One can only imagine what Fanny and Claire were thinking.
Mary, cowed by all the commotion, was persuaded to step aside, but Percy would not give up so easily. A few days later, he showed up at the house burst into her bedroom and urged her to overdose on laudanum before he shot himself like two star-crossed lovers in a Shakespearean tragedy. Mary calmed him down. But a few days after that he overdosed on laudanum himself and had to be revived.
And a few days after that Mr. and Mrs. Godwin found a letter of farewell informing them that Mary and Percy had run off to France. And they weren’t alone because they took Claire with them. Fanny, unloved and unwanted, was left behind.
The Godwins, of course, ran after them, and caught up. But not even Claire, the third wheel, could be persuaded to return.
The happy threesome found Paris disappointing. It turns out you need money there. In this era before credit cards, if you went abroad, you got a letter from your banker. If you presented that to banks along your way, they would give you money on the basis of that letter and then send to your home bank to be reimbursed. Percy hadn’t bothered to bring any such letter.
Short of funds, Percy decided they could still get to Switzerland as planned, but only if they walked. So they walked across France with a mule to carry their belongings until Percy sprained his ankle and then he rode and the girls walked. Mary was already pregnant when she walked the width of France.
And if that wasn’t enough, Percy also wrote to Harriet, urging her to come to Switzerland too, where they could all live happily together, and oh could she bring with her some legal documents he’d forgotten? It seems to not even have occurred to him that she might not want to share him with her supplanters, or that she had no money or that travel was difficult when you are both pregnant and have a baby. Really, his behavior is so intensely self-centered that it seems pathological, and more than one biographer has suggested he was literally crazy.
The slightly-less-than-happy threesome were duly impressed by the Alps. But less so by everything else. Turns out they use money in Switzerland too. And Swiss peasants were not as picturesque up close as they had been from a safe distance. So the pleasant dream of living in a hippie commune was abandoned while they had just barely enough money to get back to England.
This trip is of interest to us partly because it allows you to get the measure of Percy, but also because the Castle Frankenstein is on the Rhine river, which they traveled on on their way back to England. They would have seen at least its outline and if they bothered to ask, a local would have told them that its most famous inhabitant was Konrad Dippel, a fashionable physician of a previous century, who had been chased out of Strasbourg for grave robbing and experimenting with the corpses to see if he could bring them back to life by injecting blood and bone.
By Pascal Rehfeldt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=912241
But all this was just germinating in the background. For now, they were headed back to England. The money did indeed run out. Stepping foot on England’s shores, they were unable to pay for their passage. Percy ran off to ask for money from, of all people, Harriet.
The honeymoon was now over and the realities of life began to set in. To Mary’s dismay, nobody seemed to view her grand, romantic adventure as a grand, romantic adventure. They had other words for it. She and Percy were banished from the Godwin’s house. Claire was welcome back only if she would renounce Mary and Percy, which she refused to do. Fanny cautiously tried to stay friends with everyone, which meant she was criticized by everyone.
Mary spent her pregnancy literally on the run from creditors. There wasn’t enough to eat. When the baby was born, she died. Mary felt that having killed her mother, she had now killed her child as well. Claire was increasingly hysterical and Mary couldn’t stand her. She left them but didn’t go home. Percy put her up in her own house, which didn’t help anyone’s suspicions that Claire might not actually be a third wheel so much as she was just a second young woman for Percy’s gratification in every sense of the word.
Mary was soon pregnant again. In 1816, she gave birth to William, who lived. Sir Timothy Shelley relented slightly. Not out of any generous spirit, but because his legal attempts to break the entail on his estate had failed. He was stuck with Percy, and Percy was stuck inheriting an estate. Grudgingly, Sir Timothy paid off many of the debts and agreed to continue Percy’s allowance of £1000 per year. Now let’s pause and talk about the realities of £1000 per year. As we discussed in the Jane Austen episode, the minimum income for a pretense of gentility was £500. Mr. Austen at the height of his career earned £1000, which was here being handed to Percy. I have no doubt in saying that the careful and meticulous Jane could have lived very well on £1000 a year. But Percy was always on the run from his creditors, and I mean that quite literally. £200 went automatically to Harriet, and I’m glad she got something, but it wasn’t enough. Then there were the philanthropy projects. Unbelievably, Godwin still expected Percy to support him financially, even as he refused to allow him or Mary into the house, then Percy was keeping Claire too. And they weren’t the only ones. There were friends to help, revolutionary causes to support, large houses to rent before realizing you couldn’t afford them, etc. Percy had already more or less maxed out his other obvious source of money. As a short-sighted young gentleman, all he had to do was tell a moneylender he was the heir to his father’s estate, and he could borrow large sums with the promise of paying them back at ruinous interest rates when he was forced to inherit.
I have painted Percy very black here, to the extent that you have to wonder what Mary saw in him. But it is true that he had a showy way of being extremely kind. He would give shoes away off his own feet and walk home barefoot. He was a passionate vegetarian, to the extent of buying crawfish in the market for the purpose of releasing them back into the river. He and Mary refused to eat sugar because it came from West Indian slave labor.
It’s just interesting that while injustice to the working poor, animals, or slaves filled him with fiery and eloquent indignation, he was absolutely deaf to the injustice of consuming goods for which he never paid. But for all the constant talk of poverty, Mary always had servants and never did her own cooking or washing. Some women would have called her very rich.
In 1816, Fanny, the unloved, unwanted sister, killed herself with laudanum. Mary and Percy both felt guilty over their treatment of her. And just a couple of months later, Harriet drowned herself. And if Mary had felt guilty before, now she really had reason to feel guilty. Even so, within days, she and Percy were officially married, and she became at last Mary Shelley. The constant moving to avoid creditors brought them to Geneva in 1817, where Mary wrote and finished her novel Frankenstein. She was 19 years old and pregnant for the 3rd time.
Frankenstein was published in 1818 in a run of 500 copies. By convention of the times, the authorship was anonymous. Percy wrote the introduction, and many assumed he had written the novel too. It was a reasonable, though not universal success. Some conventional types were appalled at a story in which a man usurped the creative powers of God above, stitching together a new being and giving it life. But the famous Sir Walter Scott liked it. Her father loved it, and that was a blessing. Mary had been caught between the many financial and moral high-ground battles between him and Percy.
But trouble was never far away. Claire successfully pursued and seduced the famous Lord Byron and the speed with which she got pregnant is the only reason I can see for thinking she had not been sleeping with Percy all this while. At any rate, most people assumed the baby was Percy’s. Byron, who had tired of Claire, was not much interested in taking any responsibility. Meanwhile, Mary lost her second daughter, and the thought of Harriet was beginning to haunt her. It had now dawned on her that the ease with which Percy had abandoned his first wife could easily be repeated. She was terrified and hysterical every time he was gone for even a short while
The Shelley’s, plus Claire, followed Lord Byron to Italy, hoping to convince him to support Claire and their daughter Allegra. Byron took Allegra, but not Claire. Mary’s son William died of malaria in Rome, and Mary began to wonder if she was being punished for Harriet’s death.
Her family began to be seriously concerned. The great Mary Wollstonecraft had suffered severe depression and attempted suicide twice. Fanny had succeeded. Mary seemed to be heading in the same direction. Percy wrote poetry about her withdrawing and declared he could not follow her into that dark place. Mary was hurt that he did not seem to her to share her grief over their lost children. Claire’s presence was still irritating, and Percy seemed fundamentally incapable of understanding that a wife may not always want her step sister as a house guest even if he wasn’t sleeping with her. And then Mary did something unforgivable: she criticized one of Percy’s poems. That was a super huge offense.
Percy also resented the time she lavished on their one surviving child, Percy Jr., and Mary resented Percy for shutting her father out even though she knew her father’s continued demands for money were impossible to satisfy. Her novel Valperga was written so that her father could sell it and keep the money.
Percy was not sympathetic, nor had he discovered chastity or fidelity to be a virtue. In autumn of 1820, he was making plans to run away with Claire. It never happened, but the plans were there. Then there was Emilia, the daughter of the governor of Pisa, who had been “imprisoned” in a boarding school. Then there was Jane Williams, the wife of a friend, with whom they were actually sharing a house at the time. Percy composed love poems to these women, which were widely copied and dispersed. Sometimes it was even Mary who was asked to do the copying.
She was also pregnant again. She was neurotic and prone to outbursts. Percy got to tell all of their friends that he was a long-suffering husband burdened with a wife who did not really love him.
And then she miscarried. Badly. It was Percy who saved her, using his scant medical knowledge to stanch her bleeding when the doctor could not reach them. But then he went off on a sailing trip while she was recovering.
On the way home, bad weather came up, and the boat capsized. All three men washed up on shore, days later. Dead.
The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier (1889)
This depiction was famous, but highly imaginative. Among other inaccuracies, Mary is painted kneeling on the left, but in fact she wasn’t there.
Mary’s grief, though intense, was very private. And her outer calm convinced many friends that Percy was right: she hadn’t cared for him and felt nothing on his death. Her journal shows otherwise. “Have I a cold heart?” she wrote after one unpleasant conversation. “God knows! but none need envy the icy region this heart encircles.”
Cold heart or not, her situation was not enviable. She had lost her mother, her half-sister, and four out of five children. She lost her husband at what was probably the most psychologically damaging point, a time when she literally owed him her life, but was on seriously bad terms with him. All of it, she was sure, was somehow her fault. She now headed back to England to raise her one remaining son. She had neither a fortune, nor a job. Her father could not help her, and her father-in-law would not. At 24 years old, she was on her own.
When Mary stepped foot back in London, Frankenstein was on the stage, and she was surprised to find herself famous. But not rich. At this point, the notion of copyright was still very hazy. Taking a book and turning it into a play was fair game. Mary neither expected, nor received any compensation. But it did revive interest in the book so she could bring out a new edition, this time with her name attached.
Sir Timothy grudgingly allowed her £200 a year, but this was not a gift, it was a loan because Mary would have to repay it to the estate when Sir Timothy died. Where she was supposed to get the cash for that, I don’t know, but she needed it now, so she took it. There were conditions attached. She could not leave England. She would have no contact with the Shelley family. She would not bring the Shelley name back into the public eye. For the most part, Mary raised the additional money she needed writing short stories and articles for ladies’ magazines, without using the Shelley name. There was nothing in them so controversial as the idea of a scientist usurping God’s powers to create. These were a strictly business transaction. She wrote what the magazines wanted because she needed the money.
More personal was the publication of Shelley’s Posthumous Poems. Mary wrote the preface. And some effort was made to clean up Percy’s image. For example, where Shelley used a lady’s name, it was discreetly replaced with asterisks.
It sold well, which was gratifying. Sir Timothy was furious, which was not. Up until this point, Percy Bysshe Shelley was famous for his atheism and his scandalous behavior. His poetry was published, but not particularly well known. Not like Lord Byron, who was famous for both poetry and scandalous behavior. And speaking of Byron, he died too. Mary, still prone to depression, wrote, “Why am I doomed to live on seeing all expire before me? God grant I may die young.”
Terrified of losing her allowance, Mary did not write a biography of Percy as she had once thought of doing, she only worked behind the scenes, helping other biographers and compilers. It was not entirely her choice that they all conspired to sanitize Percy’s image. From atheist, he became a saint of nature. In some accounts, the dates were discreetly massaged to make it appear that Harriet died before Mary and Percy ran off together. References to love were gently reinterpreted to mean, not sexual love, but a more general benevolent goodwill in an almost Christian sense of the word. Percy would have been appalled. Mary was also sort of appalled, at least at some of the more blatant lies. Much like the Creature in Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley was being created from bits and pieces of an actual life.
In 1826, Percy’s son by Harriet died. Which meant Sir Timothy was forced by law to have Percy Jr., Mary’s son, as heir. He gritted his teeth and increased the allowance to a stingy £250 a year. Sometimes he sent it months late.
By 1830, Mary, once fiery and unconventional, had discovered her practical side. She had to live in the world as it was, not as Percy had wished it to be. She started going to church and refused to make public pronouncements on radical causes. Percy’s remaining radical friends saw her as a traitor, while those who had always been conventional could not forget her past. It was a difficult line to walk. She got Percy Jr into school, where he quickly showed that he would never be a literary genius. His passion was boats, and it is hard to imagine a hobby better calculated to stress Mary out.
But while she was not being a revolutionary in a grand gesture sort of way, she was often doing what she could to help in a smaller, more private way. She gave money away to friends when she couldn’t really afford it. She cared for the stepmother she’d never liked after her father died. She supported an elderly aunt. She was privy to a number of scandals and did her best to help. The most memorable example of that was when she procured fake passports so that a friend with an unexpected pregnancy could travel to France with a husband who was not a husband, but a woman who we would now call transgender. Mary had no scruples about helping as far as she could.
By 1838, Sir Timothy was still alive and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s reputation was soaring. So Mary went right ahead and sold the copyright to his work for £500. She wrote the bio that accompanied it. The reaction was universal in favor of Percy and universal in criticism for Mary. She had cut too much, glossed over too much, hidden too much. So the second edition included a bit more and the publisher was sued for blasphemous libel, the very last such case in England.
When Sir Timothy finally died in 1844, Percy Jr. became a baronet and inherited the estate his father did not want. It brought an income between three and four thousand pounds a year, every bit of which would be needed to pay off the debts. In fact, they had to mortgage the estate immediately in order to pay back all those creditors who had been waiting to collect on Percy Sr.’s debts now for decades longer than they had anticipated. The estate truly was more a burden to Mary than a blessing, and Percy Jr was still interested in nothing but boats. Like his father before him, he did little to help.
The strain began to take its toll. Mary grew ill and finally succumbed to a brain tumor on February 1, 1851.
Mary may have been gone, but her creation was only just beginning to grow. Frankenstein was the name she gave the scientist, but the world took it for the monster, the Creature, which had been born good, but turned to evil after mistreatment. The name was thrown around in politics whenever someone needed a bogeyman. This began in the 1830s and is still used today, by Nancy Pelosi among others. The book has never been out of print. In 1931 Boris Karloff made a classic film of it. A first edition of the book recently sold at auction for a record-breaking amount. Mary has been called the mother of science fiction and also of horror and even the wicked stepmother of genetic engineering. I think it is safe to say that more people know about Frankenstein than could name any poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
As you can no doubt tell, I don’t see the glamour in Mary’s decision to run away with a married and self-centered man. It strikes me as more stupid than romantic, but it does seem hard that she should have spent the rest of her life feeling guilty about the way she treated him. Mary had only a handful of years with Percy. She was still dealing with the consequences thirty-nine years later. Her rescue of his work and reputation was an act of devotion, trying to atone for not having been as devoted as she felt she should have been before his death. We can only wonder, if it had been she who died first, whether he would have done as much for her.
My major source this week was Miranda Seymour’s enormous biography called Mary Shelley. As always there’s a link and now a transcript on the website herhalfofhistory.com. Drop me a line on Twitter @her_half, where I post a lot more than I do on Facebook. If you think that should change, let me know. Reviews and ratings are delightful, and please come back next week for “Harriet Beecher Stowe Starts a War.” Thanks!
 Quoted in Seymour, 93.
 Quoted in Seymour, 312.
 Quoted in Seymour, 347.