Forgotten women in history: Mary Shelley
This is a new series that will remind you about some cool women who you should acknowledge. Allocate some of that brain space which is reserved for TikToks and impress your feminist friends with a CliffsNotes story of… Mary Shelley.
If you know anything about Mary Shelley, it’s probably that she wrote Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley was born into a very cool family. Mary’s mother (also named Mary) was a writer and feminist icon. She is best known for a novel titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The novel argues that women actually aren’t inferior to men and are only treated as being inferior because they aren’t educated equally. She wrote that men and women should be treated as people and their social position be judged on their person. Some crazy ideas for 1792.
Her father, William Godwin, was a pretty radical philosopher. Godwin wrote some revolutionary pieces which were against marriage, political institutions and a novel with strong themes against class privilege. When mum Mary died, William remarried a woman with three kids from a previous marriage.
Young Mary grew up to be quite lonely and became the goth she was destined to be. Her favourite pastime was reading at her mum’s grave.
Enter a Mr Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was into William Godwin’s radical thoughts and writings even though he was a rich boy who went to Eton. Percy started hanging out at the Godwin house and met Mary when she was fourteen, and then they got together when she was about sixteen and he was twenty two. Rumour has it that their first time being ~intimate~ was on her mother’s grave. Percy Shelley was actually married at this time and his wife was pregnant with their second child, however he conveniently didn’t believe in marriage (must not have realised that when they got married) and ran away with Mary to Europe. This caused Percy’s conservative family to cut him off.
The couple spent time with equally brilliant friends, including famous poet Lord Byron. Mary’s step-sister Claire ran away to Europe with the couple (romantic) and had a fling with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, himself.
Diaries of Mary Shelley’s show that she started writing Frankenstein in about 1816. She seemed to feel like she was cursed and the cause of the death that seemed to follow her. It makes sense that she was drawn to the idea of creating life.
The story of how Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein in that she, Percy and Byron were hanging out and telling ghost stories. Byron said that they should all write a ghost story. Mary couldn’t think of anything for a while, but one night said “perhaps a corpse would be reanimated”.
The novel was published in 1819, initially without her name and marked with ‘anonymous’. Mary faced a lot of bad luck and had a very sad life as a young adult. When Mary was 24, her half-sister died by suicide and, only three weeks later, Percy’s wife also died by suicide. Three of Mary’s children died when they were very young and Mary suffered with depression. Their only surviving son, Percy Florence, was born in 1919 - but by this point Mary and Percy were drifting apart.
Mary and Percy moved to Italy with step-sister Claire and their close couple friends Jane and Edward Williams. Percy decides that Mary suffering from depression is just too hard...for him. He has an affair with Jane Williams. One night, Percy and Edward are on a fun boat trip of the coast and there was an accident during a giant storm. Their bodies wash up to the coast ten days after the storm. Another urban legend is that Mary keeps some of Percy’s ashes and the petrified remains of his heart wrapped in a silk scarf.
Mary Shelley and her son Percy Florence move back to England. She finds it difficult to make money, but the Shelley family say they will contribute money - only if Mary keeps the Shelley name out of the print. After Percy Florence grew up, Mary moved to live closer to Jane Williams. Some people think she was in love with Jane, but….we aren’t sure.
Later on, an American actor, John Howard Payne, falls in love with Mary and proposes to her. In a hilarious rebuke, Mary says that she was married to a genius, and could only marry another genius.
In 1827, Mary helped her two friends, Isabel and Mary Diana, to disguise as a hetero couple, get fake passports and run away to France. This time Claire doesn’t go with the happy couple.
Mary dies at the age of fifty two, from what was believed to be a brain tumour.
If any of us remember her, it is likely as the author of Frankenstein. However, she had quite a long career as a writer. Some of her other works focus on the education and gender roles put on women, and failings of patriarchal society.
Frankenstein is acknowledged by some as the first science fiction story of all time. Mary Shelley wrote an entirely new genre and also lived an incredible life. She has been unfairly overshadowed by the men who lived around her and she deserves better.