On January 1, 1818, “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley was published. Aside from penning the widely read gothic novel, Shelley was also a prolific travel writer, biographer, essayist, and dramatist. However, for over a century after her 1851 death, Shelley was only associated with “Frankenstein” and for editing and promoting the work of her late husband, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Luckily, in the past decades, Shelley has finally been recognized for her multitude of literary achievements and strong radical political voice.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) was born on August 30, 1797, in London, England. Her parents were the famous political philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley’s mother, who wrote the classic 1792 feminist book, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” tragically died 11 days after giving birth to her. As a result, she was raised by her father and, eventually, a stepmother. As a child, Shelley felt like she had to compete against her stepmother and step-siblings for her father’s love. Although she was not formally educated as a child, Shelley made use of her father’s vast book collection and spent hours reading, sometimes by her late mother’s graveside.
Shelley’s life changed in 1814 when she began a romantic relationship with one of her father’s pupils, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although he was still married to his first wife, the lovers traveled around Europe together. In 1815, they had a child together, but the baby died a few days after birth. Then in the summer of 1816, Shelley and her poet boyfriend went on a fateful trip to Scotland with Jane Clairmont, Lord Byron and John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician. After they spent a rainy day telling German ghost stories, Lord Byron decided that they should all write their own supernatural tales.
This writing prompt was the inspiration for “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.” While crafting her story, Shelley remembered a trip that she and her now-husband had taken along the Rhine. The region is home to the Frankenstein Castle and the common folklore at the time was that a man named Konrad Dippel was accused of stealing corpses from the graveyards in order to inject them with a mixture of blood and bone to bring them back to life. As Shelley worked on Lord Byron’s assignment, she had the following vision that became the germ of her now famous novel: “I 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 an uneasy, half-vital motion.”
Shelley’s story, about a creator struggling with the monster that he made, had a universal appeal. Published anonymously in 1818, her husband wrote the introduction to the book, causing many readers to believe that he had also penned the novel itself. Only later did fans learn that the person who concocted the horrific tale was a woman.
Shelley continued to write and publish novels, biographies, travel books, and other essays until her death from brain cancer on February 1, 1851. Aside from the struggles during her formative years, she endured countless personal tragedies throughout the rest of her life. Although she birthed four children, only one child survived to adulthood. Furthermore, although she was able to marry Percy in 1816 after his first wife committed suicide, he died in a sailing accident in 1822. Shelley made it her mission to ensure that her late husband’s poetry was included in the literary canon along with his other Romantic poet contemporaries like William Wordsworth, John Keats and Lord Byron.
The details about Shelley’s other works, as well as her political philosophy, did not surface for over 100 years after she died. However, starting with the first full-length scholarly biography about her life in 1989, “Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality” by Emily Sunstein, Shelley is now ranked by scholars as one of the most important Romantic writers and philosophers of her time.