Americans know her as the wife of British-born poet Percy Shelley.
More associate her with the creation of the perennial lead-footed monster
the book, Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus. Mary Shelley
was 21 years old when the book was published. She had written it on a
she was 19. She went on to become one of the most adventurous of
English Romantic novelists, biographers, and editors.
Shelley's Frankenstein story deals with an ambitious young scientist who creates life from
death before turning against his monster.
"But success shall crown my endeavours. Wherefore not? Thus
far I have gone, tracking a secure way over the pathless seas: the very
stars themselves being witnesses and testimonies of my triumph. Why
not still proceed over the untamed yet obedient element? What can
stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?" - from
Shelley was born in London on Aug. 30, 1797, to writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who died of
puerperal fever 10 days after the birth. Mary felt guilty for her
mother's death and spent a good deal of time at her grave, trying to communicate with her spirit. Shelley's father, writer and political journalist William Godwin, became famous for his work,
An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). He encouraged
his daughter to be an intellectual, as her mother had been. Godwin,
himself, maintained revolutionary attitudes toward most social institutions,
Among Godwin's other books, he wrote, Things as They
Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794). He encouraged his
daughter to read anything she wanted from his library and to associate with
his intellectual friends, who included the critic William Hazlitt, essayist
Charles Lamb, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who joined Godwin's
circle in 1812. Mary Shelley often sat in on conversations that her father had
with friends such as William Wordsworth. One night in 1806, she hid
behind the parlor sofa to hear Coleridge recite his famous poem The Rime
of the Ancient Mariner.
young Mary was only 15 years old, she met Percy Shelley on his first visit
to the Godwin home. The poet was married at the time, but after dining at the house for
several months, he and Mary fell in love. They went for walks every
day and often stopped at her mother's grave. When her father found out about
the relationship, he forbade Shelley ever to come to his house again.
When Shelley recovered from attempted suicide, Mary ran away with him to
The couple married in 1816 after Shelley's first wife committed suicide by
drowning. Their first child, a daughter, died in Venice a few years later. In History of Six Weeks Tour (1817),
the Shelleys jointly recorded this period of their life. Shortly after, they returned
to England, where Mary gave birth to a son, William.
The story of Frankenstein started one summer in 1816 when Mary joined Percy, Claire Clairmont,
and Lord Byron near Geneva. On a bet, she accepted the challenge of
writing the most frightening ghost
story possible. With her husband's encouragement, she completed the
novel within a year.
The story had been influenced by a discussion about the
scientific phenomenon of galvanism. Godwin had first learned of Luigi Calvani's experiments with electric shocks to make dead frogs' muscles
twitch while attending Eton College. James Lind may have demonstrated
the technique to Shelley while visiting Godwin. In her Introduction to
the 1831 edition of her novel, Mary revealed that she got the story from a
dream, in which she 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 a uneasy, half vital motion."
The first edition of the book contained an unsigned preface by Percy
Shelley. Many thought that it was his novel, refusing to believe that a
19-year-old woman could write such a horrifying story. When the book was
published in 1818, it became an instant success.
same year, the Shelleys left England for Italy, where they remained until
Percy's death. He was drowned in 1822 in the Bay of Spezia near
Livorno. The following year, Mary suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of
her son,William, from malaria at the age of 3. In 1822, she had a
dangerous miscarriage and believed that she would die. She
wrote to her friend Maria Gisborne about this loss and her husband's death,
concluding in the letter:
"Well here is my story - the last story I shall have to tell - all that
might have been bright in my life is now despoiled - I shall live to
improve myself, to take care of my child, & render myself worthy to join
him. Soon my weary pilgrimage will begin - I rest now - but soon I
must leave Italy."
Of their children, only one, Percy Florence, survived infancy.
1823, Shelley returned with her son to England, determined not to remarry.
She devoted herself to her child's welfare and education while continuing her career as
a writer. True to her word, she never remarried, although she flirted
with the young French writer Prosper Merimee for years.
Although Shelley wrote later works that included Lodore (1835) and
Faulkner (1837), both romantic pot-boilers, and the uncompleted Mathilde (1819, published 1959), which draws on her relations with Godwin
and Shelley, her first book remained her most popular and her best.
Other Shelley works include Valperga (1823), a romance set in the
14th-century, and The Last Man (1826), depicting the end of human
civilization, set in the 21st century republican England.
Shelley gave up writing long fiction when literary realism began gaining
popularity, as in the works of Charles Dickens. She wrote numerous
short stories for popular periodicals, including The Keepsaker.
She also produced the first authoritative edition of her husband's poems
(1839, 4 vols.) and wrote the well-received travelogue Rambles in Germany
and Italy, which appeared in 1844. She attempted a biography on
Shelley but eventually abandoned the work.
simple story of Frankenstein's monster has inspired over 50
films, beginning with the very first, made by inventor Thomas Edison
in 1910. James Whale's version from 1931, starring Boris Karloff, is
considered a classic. In it, the monster kills a young child named
Maria and is hunted down and destroyed. Still, not all reviews of the
day were glowing:
"I regret to report that it is just another movie, so thoroughly mixed
with water as to have a horror content of about .0001 percent... The film
differs greatly from the book and soon turns into a sort of comic opera
with a range of cardboard mountains over which extras in French Revolution
costumes dash about with flaming torches." - Creighton Peet in Outlook
& Independent, December 9, 1931
Mel Brook's parody, Young Frankenstein
(1974), starring Gene Wilder in the role of the young Dr. Frankenstein, was
beautifully photographed. Brooks used many archaic optical devices,
including the old 1:85 aspect ratio for height and width of the frame. The
film received an Academy Award nomination for its script. Among its
highlights is the scene in which Peter Boyle as the monster visits bearded
blind recluse Gene Hackman, barely managing to survive Hackman's hospitality.
Kenneth's Branagh's film, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), was
faithful to the book. The director, himself, played Dr. Frankenstein,
De Niro played the monster under a heavy mask.
Mary Shelley died in 1851.
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