Mary Shelley: in context

Mary Shelley was born in 1797 to anarchist writer William Godwin and feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Aged 16, her life changed course dramatically when she eloped with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Two years later in 1816, she began her first and most famous novel, Frankenstein. She and Shelley were married following the suicide of his first wife and lived mostly in Europe until 1822 when Percy drowned in a boating accident. A widow at 24, Mary returned to London with her one surviving son where she continued to write and edit novels, travelogues and poetry until her own death in 1851, aged 53.


Why did you want to write a new biography of Mary Shelley?

Just as Frankenstein is reinvented for every generation, so is Mary Shelley. In the past, she was primarily seen as her parents' daughter or Percy’s wife, and a tendency to think of her as a character rather than an actual person still remains. But of course she was all the things the rest of us are: inconsistent, nuanced and complex. The fact that she was mysterious and mixed is exactly what makes her so fascinating.

Mary also lived at a pivotal moment in time, when the Enlightenment had shifted fully into Romanticism, and she was surrounded by the people who were shaping the ideas and culture of her day. Her late mother, feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, was both famous and notorious. Meanwhile, her father William Godwin was the equivalent of a modern-day media don. All sorts of influential people came to the house, from William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to US vice president Aaron Burr. Later, when Mary had become one half of a literary power couple in her own right, she was friends with a whole host of famous figures, from Lord Byron to Alexandros Mavrokordatos, the first premier of independent Greece.

Aged 16, Mary eloped to Europe with Percy Bysshe Shelley. Do you think she realised how this decision would change her life unalterably?

I think she absolutely had no notion of the consequences. Mary had been brought up to be a good girl and she never could get her head around the fact that by running off with Percy she’d become the opposite. She was always striving to win approval from her father, and she thought that by entering into ‘bohemian’ society with Percy – a community that believed in free love – she was following his philosophical ideals, and those of her late mother.

When the couple returned to London after their money ran out on their elopement, they were both genuinely astonished that their friends, and Mary’s father in particular, didn’t welcome them back with open arms. To have affairs at the time was a privilege of the gentry, but to openly advocate free love as Percy did was truly radical – so radical, in fact, that after his first wife Harriet killed herself (in large part because he had abandoned her), Percy was refused custody of his children.

Because she had thrown off the rules of conventional society by running off with Percy, people around Mary could never quite understand that she wasn’t self-willed and spontaneous like many of those around her. She was a loyal friend, daughter and wife, and an excellent, doting, committed mother, – but all of these somewhat old-fashioned virtues were discounted and misread by those around her thanks to the lifestyle she had chosen. When Percy went on to have other affairs, people generally felt that, as Mary had elected to live by those rules, she didn’t deserve any sympathy.

Can you tell us about the unusual circumstances in which Mary came up with the idea for Frankenstein?

Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont was the cause of various crises, but this was one instance where her actions had a positive outcome. Claire had slept with Lord Byron, and wanted to try and capture the heart of the famous poet. Astonishingly, in 1816 she persuaded Mary and Percy to trek across Europe to Geneva, where Byron had rented the Villa Diodati on the shores of the lake.

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Due to a volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora in Indonesia, 1816 was called the year without a summer. It was extraordinarily cold, there were red skies and thousands across Europe were starving. Forced inside by this apocalyptic weather, the group joined Byron and his doctor John Polidori at the Villa Diodati. One evening, they began reading scary stories and Byron threw down a challenge to his friends: to write a horror story of their own. While both the poets – Byron and Percy – gave up fairly early, Polidori went on to write The Vampyre (generally considered to be the first vampire story) and Mary began writing Frankenstein. It became absorbing for her almost immediately and within nine months the book was finished.

Why was Frankenstein so significant?

It had a real shock of the new. Gothic tales were popular at the time, especially in Germany where they were called schauerroman or ‘shudder novels’, but Frankenstein was something different. In a literary sense, it was significant because it saw Mary invent two enduring archetypes. First, there’s the irresponsible mad scientist who goes for blue-sky thinking, regardless of the ethical consequences. And then there’s the consequence itself: Frankenstein’s creature, threatening because he is both nearly – and yet at the same time not quite – human.

Another thing that makes Frankenstein so fascinating is that Mary was so young when she started it – only 18. She was experimenting with form, essentially learning how to write a novel. How did she have the concentration and certainty to do it, particularly when the messages surrounding her were not supportive? She was constantly hearing how gifted Percy was, how famous Byron was, or that her father was so distinguished. Mary could so easily have just been the paste to hold this sandwich together, but somehow she managed to be so much more. I think that’s an extraordinary achievement.

Fiona Sampson
"Forget the image of a fey, floaty lady: Mary Shelley was practical and pragmatic. She rolled up her sleeves and got on with it," says Fiona Sampson. (Photographed by by Jeni Nott)

Mary was widowed at 24 when Percy drowned in a boating accident. What was early widowhood like for her?

When Mary returned to London in 1823, a year after Percy’s death, more than eight years had passed since their elopement but she was still socially ostracised. Even as a widow and member of the gentry, she wasn’t given a living. Her father-in-law wanted to take her surviving son away but Mary resisted and was loaned an allowance to keep him. Meanwhile, the fact that she was a woman, and – even worse – a scandalous woman, made it very difficult for her to get writing work.

I think that the loss of her husband and other children [only one of her four children, Percy Florence, survived childhood] had an enormous impact on Mary. Loss was pretty normal in those days, but she does seem to have missed out over and over again. Things seemed to fall apart in her hands. Yet despite everything, she kept going, which took courage. In London she led a very solid, quiet life. It seems she had no appetite for adventure any more. She did have offers of marriage, but didn’t pursue them – I think she’d had a bellyful.

Mary was intensely private, particularly after Percy’s death. Many people, including friends, criticised her for being cold, suggesting she didn’t seem to mourn Percy enough. However, her journals and letters reveal that she wasn’t cold at all, far from it. She really struggled with the fact that she was perceived to be this frosty ice maiden, when underneath she was “lava”, really burning up with grief.

Mary was writing and editing throughout her life, so why do you think she is often remembered only as the author of Frankenstein?

Many people view Mary as a one-hit wonder, but it’s important to remember that she wrote Frankenstein aged 18, but lived to be 53. In her widowhood, she spent a lot of time pitching books for her father, or editing Percy’s work, and she often wrote anonymously.

Part of the problem with her later novels is timing. The rehabilitation of Mary’s reputation as a female novelist who managed to have an interesting and substantial literary career happens to coincide with a time in which we’re not terribly interested in the kind of stuff she was writing. There’s not much of an appetite at the moment for big, realist, historical dramas. And then another passion of Mary’s was biography. She contributed to several volumes of biographical encyclopedias and seemed to have liked the steady thoroughness of that work.

What conclusions did you come to about Mary?

To forget the image of a fey, floaty lady. Mary was practical and pragmatic; she rolled up her sleeves and got on with it. It wasn’t as though many doors were open to her – she had to make a literary career for herself, frankly without much help. She wasn’t only extremely able, she also worked incredibly hard, and was conscientious above all. Her diaries and letters reveal that there were many sides to her – she was funny, scatty, charming, witty, loyal and steady. I came to the conclusion that I’d really like to have known her.

Fiona Sampson is a prize-winning poet and writer whose work has been published in more than 30 languages. She has received an MBE for services to literature, and is professor of poetry at the University of Roehampton.

Book: In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson (Profile, 320 pages, £18.99)


This article was first published in the January 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine