Mary Shelley was born in London on August 30th 1797. Her parents were both well known figures who featured prominently in the London literary scene. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist writer and women’s rights activist and her father, William Godwin, was a political philosopher. Both had achieved success in their fields at a relatively young age and were delighted by the birth of their daughter, Mary.
Unfortunately, all of this good luck was to come to an end. Mary Wollstonecraft died when baby Mary was just eleven days old, leaving father and daughter to cope with life alone. When Mary was four years old, William married his widowed neighbour Mary Jane Clairmont. The marriage was a happy one, although Mary never really got on with her new step-mother and the troubles in their relationship would rumble on for decades.
In 1814, when Mary Shelley was just seventeen years old, she started an affair with one of her father’s political followers, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The relationship was fraught with complications from the start, not least because Percy was already married. This inconvenient fact did not stop the young lovers from escaping to Europe with Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont. When they eventually returned to London, Mary was pregnant but their baby daughter was born prematurely and died.
The marriage between Mary and Percy Shelley eventually took place on 1816 after the suicide of Percy’s first wife, Harriet. It was the summer of this very year which has become infamous in literary circles. Mary and Percy, along with Claire Clairmont, spent the summer with Lord Byron and John Polidori on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Instead of long hot days spent swimming and sunbathing, storms raged throughout the summer. Huddled indoors, the five talented literary friends decided upon a light-hearted competition; a prize would be awarded to the person who wrote the most terrifying ghost story. Mary Shelley sat down and produced Frankenstein. She won the competition.
In 1818 the Shelleys moved to Italy and lost two more babies before the birth of their only son, Percy Shelley. In 1822 Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his sailing boat sunk in a storm near Viareggio. Mary Shelley never really recovered from the loss of three of her babies and her husband, in such a short space of time. She devoted the rest of her life to raising her son and her work as an author and political activist, but the grief never left her. A lot of time before her death in 1851 was spent preserving the works and reputation of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She edited and published his collection of poems, letters and essays, ensuring that his contribution to literature was never forgotten.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been one of the most popular horror novels ever written and has remained in print since its publication in 1818. Mary’s final years were spent in relative seclusion, but her literary achievements and intellectual contributions have continued to be recognised and celebrated long after her difficult life ended.