Mary Shelley: life and works

Dic 16, 2021

Mary Shelley was an English novelist active during the XIX century. She is best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein, but she wrote several other books, including Valperga and The Last Man. Her life intersected with some of the most famous writers and thinkers of the Romantic period

Life of Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin

Mary Shelley was born in 1797 as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She was the daughter of the philosopher and political writer William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). She never really knew her mother, who died shortly after her birth, so her father was left to care for Mary and her older half-sister Fanny Imlay born from an affair. Feeling that he could not raise the children by himself, he remarried to Mary Jane Clairmont in December 1801. Mary received an unusual and advanced education for a girl at that time: her father tutored her in a broad range of subjects and she had access to his vast library. She was also free to meet the many intellectuals who visited William Godwin, including the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

Percy B. Shelley

In 1814, Mary began a relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a devoted student of her father. Percy Shelley was still married to his first wife when he and the still teenager Mary fled England together that same year; they were accompanied by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. In February 1815, Mary gave premature birth to a baby girl who died ten days later, deepening her depression. They married in late 1816, after the suicide of Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. In the same year the couple and Claire spent a summer with Lord Byron and John William Polidori near Geneva, where Shelley conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein. Percy Shelley died in 1822, when his sailing boat sank during a storm near Viareggio.

Last years of Mary Shelley’s life

After her husband’s death, Shelley worked hard to support herself and her son, Percy Florence. She wrote several more novels, including Valperga and The Last Man. She also devoted herself to promoting her husband’s poetry and preserving his place in literary history. For several years, Shelley faced some opposition from her late husband’s father who had always disapproved of his son’s lifestyle. Mary Shelley’s primary concern during these years was the welfare of her son. Her last years were blighted by illness. She suffered from headaches and bouts of paralysis in parts of her body, which sometimes prevented her from reading and writing. In 1851 she died at the age of fifty-three from what is suspected was a brain tumour. 

Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s main work

Frankenstein; Or, the modern Prometheus was published in January 1818. It was issued anonymously, with a preface written for Mary by Percy Bysshe Shelley. In October 1831 a new edition was published: this edition was heavily revised by Mary Shelley and it included a lengthy new preface written by her. The story was written originally by Mary Shelley as a short story when the poet Lord Byron suggested that each member of a group of friends write a ghostly tale to keep themselves entertained during their stay in Geneva during the summer of 1816. 

Plot summary

Frankenstein is a frame story written in epistolary form and set in the XVIII century. The plot focuses on the story of the scientist Victor Frankenstein who succeeds in giving life to a being of his own creation. However, this is not the perfect “human” he imagines that it will be, but rather a hideous creature who is rejected by Victor and mankind in general. 

Main characters

  • Victor Frankenstein is the main narrator of the story and its doomed protagonist. He becomes fascinated with the “secret of life,” discovers it, and brings a hideous monster to life
  • The Monster (or the Creature) is intelligent and sensitive; it will attempt to integrate itself into human social patterns, but nobody will accept him. His feeling of abandonment compels him to seek revenge against his creator
  • Robert Walton is the Arctic explorer whose letters open and close the novel. Walton meets Victor Frankenstein during the expedition, helps nurse him back to health, and hears Victor’s story. He records the scientist’s tale in a series of letters addressed to his sister, in England.

Main themes

Frankenstein deals with some of the main issues of the XIX century:

  • The pursuit of knowledge animates both the character of Victor, who attempts to surge beyond accepted human limits, and that of Robert Walton’s attempt to surpass previous human explorations by endeavoring to reach the North Pole
  • The sublime is one of the main features of Romanticism and is often used in the novel to describe nature
  • Alienation is seen as the first cause of evil, the Creature itself will admit that alienation from mankind caused him to become a monster

Mary Shelley and the Scientific Revolution

In Frankenstein the pursuit of scientific discovery leads to chaos and tragedy for all of the novel’s characters. Because of this, the book can be read as a critical response to the Scientific Revolution. Some intellectuals saw the progress of science as limitless, raising fears about how far was too far. Shelley’s novel is not strictly opposed to scientific progress or discovery, but focuses on what happens when science is not paired with individual moral responsibility. Victor Frankenstein is so focused on the glory of achievement that he does not consider what it will mean to have a new species be dependent on him.

Other works by Mary Shelley

With the exception of Frankenstein, Shelley’s novels were written and published after the death of her husband and they appear to be attempting to work out the sense of desolation and abandonment that she felt after his death. 

Valperga, an historical novel by Mary Shelley

Valperga (1823), Shelley’s second novel, is a historical novel. It tells the adventures of the early XIV century despot Castruccio Castracani, a real historical figure who became the lord of Lucca and conquered Florence. The author opposes Castruccio’s greed for conquest with Euthanasia’s government of Valperga on the principles of reason and sensibility. The vision of the novel is that only pain and suffering can come from a world obsessed with power. 

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man: the first dystopian novel?

The Last Man (1826) is an apocalyptic and dystopian novel. It is the story of Lionel Verney, told by himself, the last man alive on earth after a rapacious plague accompanies ill-fated climate change and interminable armed conflicts at the end of the XXI century. This novel is one of the first pieces of dystopian fiction ever published.

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