Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, by Richard Rothwell. © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1235.
ary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on 30 August 1797, the daughter of eminent parents. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the foremost feminist thinker of her generation, remembered today for her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a passionate plea for state- regulated education for girls. She laid the utmost stress on female independence. Mary's father, William Godwin, was a radical political philosopher and novelist (he wrote both Political Justice and Caleb Williams). Mary's parents adhered to revolutionary principles both in politics and in their private lives, but in spite of despising the institution of marriage they took the step after all to facilitate Mary's entrance into society. However, Mary Wollstonecraft died ten days after the birth of her daughter from puerperal fever. Her daughter from an affair with Gerald Imlay, Fanny, lived with William Godwin and his new-born child.
Before her marriage to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, despite the fact that she had grown up without ever knowing her birth mother Mary always referred to herself as "Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin." After her marriage, she dropped the "Godwin," but hung on to her mother's name, signing her letters "MWS."
William Godwin courted various women looking for a new mother for the two girls until he finally met Mary Jane Vial (better known as Clairmont) and married her on 21 December 1801. Mary Jane had two children, Charles and Jane, who later called herself Claire. Her stepmother did not encourage Mary Godwin's intellectual curiosity and did not bring her up according to her mother's principles. Mary never went to school, but was taught to read and write at home. Her father encouraged her to use her imagination, so she started "scribbling" at a very young age. He also gave her access to his extensive library of English authors. He allowed her to sit quietly in a corner and listen to his political, philosophical, scientific or literary discussions with his friends, among them the literary lions William Wordsworth, Charles and Mary Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt. The only formal training Mary received came from a music master.
The family lived at Somers Town, where William Godwin and his wife opened a publishing firm (M. Godwin and Co.) and a shop retailing children's books. In 1810, the Godwin Juvenile Library published the first work by Mary Godwin: Mounseer Nongtongpaw, a verse poem which extended the five-stanza song of the same name that Charles Dibdin had published in 1808. It is a humorous account in an iambic pentameter ballad of John Bull's trip to Paris and the resulting linguistic misunderstandings.
Outwardly Mrs Godwin was a good mother and took sufficient bodily care of her stepchildren. Nevertheless, Mary hated her because she saw in her stepmother everything her mother had not been: a philistine, a devious and manipulative conservative. She also blamed her stepmother for alienating her father from her, as William Godwin withdrew almost entirely into his study and left the running of the household to his second wife.
By 1812 things between Mary and Mrs Godwin had come to such a head that William Godwin sent Mary to board with an acquaintance, William Baxter, and his family in Dundee for several months. Mary took to the Baxters at once. They showed her a different kind of family: closely knit and fond of each other. "Mary Godwin came to idealize the bourgeois family as the source both of emotional sustenance and of ethical value. They inspired her later fictional representations of the nuclear family as a community of mutually dependent, equally respected, and equally self-sacrificing individuals" ( see Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley, Routledge: New York and London, 1989).
When Mary returned from Scotland for a visit to London, Percy Bysshe Shelley, heir to a man of fortune in Sussex, had introduced himself as a disciple to her father. In 1811 Shelley had been expelled from Oxford after publishing a pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism. His family were aghast, especially when he, barely nineteen, married Harrier Westbrook, and took her and her sister Eliza to Ireland with him, where he distributed his pamphlet. He went on to Wales to support William Madock's socialist community development, then fled to London. His marriage started to go wrong after the birth of their daughter, when Harriet lost interest in spiritual pursuits. Shelley turned increasingly to other women for comfort and intellectual sympathy.
Shelley, then 20, met Mary, then 15, at her father's house when he dined there with his wife and sister-in-law. By the time Mary returned to London for good nine months later, her father had become financially dependent on Shelley. When Shelley and Mary met again on 5 May 1814, he became immediately attracted to her beauty, her intellectual interests and her evident sympathy for him. They began to go on daily walks to the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft at St Pancras churchyard, and here they declared their love for each other on 26 June 1814. When Godwin found out on 8 July, he immediately wrote to Shelley and forbade Mary to see Shelley again.
On 18 July 1814, Mary fled with Shelley to France, after he had threatened to commit suicide. They took Jane Clairmont with them. Mrs Godwin followed them to Calais, but failed to win Jane back. William Godwin broke off contact with his daughter for the next 3 ¸ years. Shelley, Mary and Jane proceeded to Paris. Mary had taken a box containing juvenile writings and letters to Paris, which Shelley had promised to read, but didn't. When they travelled on to Switzerland, the box was left behind, and Mary never saw it again. Thus she was unable to establish her own literary credentials, like her mother had done. Shelley always encouraged Mary to write, but neither he nor she ever saw her as his literary equal. Shelley set himself up as her literary mentor. Nevertheless she was the more literary prolific during these first weeks of living together. Her journal and her letters home became the basis for her History of A Six Weeks Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, with Letters descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni, published in 1817. She modelled the book on her mother's Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), which had first attracted her father's attention to Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Godwin enthused about the natural scenery, seeking out not sublimity, but beautiful tranquillity. She kept her distance from the people she met on their travels.
On 13 September 1814, the travellers returned to London. Here Harriet Shelley, by now six months pregnant, sued for custody of her children and for financial support. Percy's father had cut off his allowance, so Shelley was in dire straits. Shelley and Mary tried to keep up their daily routine of both writing in the mornings, Mary doing the housekeeping in the afternoons, visiting and reading, but at times Shelley had to hide from his creditors. Probably he and Jane became lovers during that winter. Shelley renewed his friendship with Thomas Hogg, who had always tried to share Shelley's women. He now started to pursue Mary, with Shelley's approval, but she was pregnant and would not accept him. Shelley probably sought to get even with her over his liaison with Jane, who changed her name to Claire early in 1815. Nine separate sections from Mary's journal are missing during that year, Claire's journal does not survive, Hogg's Life of Shelley breaks off in mid-1815,and from Shelley only a few notes to his solicitors survive, so documentation is scant.
Mary grew more and more irritated with Claire, who had a tendency towards hysteric fits. On 6 January, 1815, Shelley's grandfather died, leaving his estate entailed on Percy Bysshe Shelley and his oldest male heirs after the death of his father. Shelley now was able to negotiate and allowance from his father after he renounced a second landed estate. Shelley could also pay off his debts and settle an allowance on Harriet. Godwin broke his silence and demanded that Shelley lend him money, which he did. It was never repaid.
Mary gave premature birth to a daughter, Clara, on 22 February 1815. The infant died two weeks later. Shelley was indifferent to the fate of his female offspring, he went off with Claire and left Mary to be consoled by Hogg, who now joined the household. Mary grieved very much over the death of her daughter. Mary pressed for Claire to go, which she did, but only for a while. In 1816, she was back in London. Claire became Lord Byron's lover some time during that winter, despite his obvious lack of affection.
While Claire was away in 1815, Mary and Shelley took several trips together, yet Mary was unnerved by his restlessness. They set up house in Bishopsgate, and tried to settle into a routine of reading and writing. Mary studied Latin and Greek and read Locke and Bacon. On 24 January, 1816, she gave birth to a healthy son, William. Meanwhile, Percy Shelley's health deteriorated; as a warm climate was considered necessary for his weak heart, Claire persuaded Mary and Shelley to accompany her to Switzerland to meet Lord Byron at Lake Geneva. This meant an effective return of Claire to the Shelley household ö she did not leave it again until October 1820.
By June, the Shelley household had settled on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Lord Byron. Byron and Shelley immediately became friends and went sailing together. Mary was in an emotionally difficult situation. She had craved a mother's love all through her life and bitterly regretted being alienated from her father. The relationship between Shelley and Claire undermined her self-esteem. The powerful erotic attraction of both Shelley and Byron did more to distract her, so on 16 June, at the age of eighteen, she had a "waking nightmare". The story is well known: Mary herself told how she, Shelley, Lord Byron and Doctor Polidori, Byron's physician, after reading ghost stories to each other, agreed to each write an equally horrible story. She could not think of anything for a couple of hours (as Dr. Polidori remembers, she herself erroneously remembered a couple of days), then after a discussion of the powers of galvanism and some experiments by Erasmus Darwin, fell into a trance which showed her a student standing beside a corpse he had animated. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus was conceived. Mary had been having nightmares about the death of her daughter, and her anxiety obviously brought on the "waking dream". As she was writing the novel, Mary increasingly identified with the abandoned child. A child deprived of a loving family becomes a monster, as the Creature itself knows. The Creature's argument that lack of love has made him evil is partially derived from Jean Jacques Rousseau's seminal educational treatise in narrative form, Emile, in which the French philosophe argues that lack of a mother's love permanently damages a child. Mary felt ambivalent towards her creation and called it her "hideous progeny."
Mary Shelley consolidated the Gothic as a particularly female form of novel. She deviated from the tradition in so far as her central character is not a woman. Mary based her novel on the latest discoveries in the sciences of her day. She created the genre of science fiction. Before publishing the manuscript, Mary gave it to her husband to edit; he made numerous revisions. He is largely responsible for changing her simple Anglo-Saxon style into more Latinate, ornate wording, as the hand-written additions to the manuscript show. Certain alterations by Shelley serve to make the Creature less human, e.g. he names it "an abortion", and to soften Victor Frankenstein's errors. The fair copy that Mary sent to the printers no longer exists. The proofs, sent directly to Mary Shelley, were read by both the writer and her husband.
The writing of the narrative of Frankenstein took almost exactly nine months, the nine months before the birth of the Shelleys' daughter Clara Everina (born 2 September, 1817). In September 1816, Mary, Percy Shelley, William, and Claire returned to England. On 10 December, the body of Harriet Shelley was found in London's Serpentine, into which she had jumped in order to commit suicide. Percy Shelley was denied custody of his and Harriet's two children in the following year. On 30 December, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin married Percy Bysshe Shelley at St Mildred's, London
Mary finished Frankenstein on 14 May. The novel was published in March 1818. In 1831, Mary revised Frankenstein for Colburn and Bentley's Standard Novel Series. By then, her philosophical convictions had radically changed; her personal tragedies, together with her financial straits and her despair over her feelings of guilt, had convinced her that material forces beyond any human — not free will or personal choice — control the course of events. Her organic conception of nature was now replaced by a conception of nature propelled by brutal, machine-like force. Human beings are reduced to puppets manipulated by external forces. Victor Frankenstein is presented in amore sympathetic way, he is held less responsible for his actions. He is the victim of circumstances, not the perpetrator of evil. The earlier ideology of the loving family has now turned into maternal love as a self-destructive force. Experience had taught Mary Shelley that her earlier Utopianism and her belief in a world without monsters were untenable.
In March 1818, the Shelleys, Claire and her and Byron's daughter Allegra Alba travelled to Italy to deliver the girl into Lord Byron's care. In August Shelley accompanied Claire to Venice to see her daughter, who was ill. He ordered Mary to follow him with the children, although Clara was ill herself. She died shortly after the arrival in Venice. Mary blamed Shelley for her death, as he had forced her to rush the sick child across Italy and had neglected to consult a doctor in Padua, as he did not want to interrupt his talks with Byron. On 7 June, 1819, Mary's second child William died of Malaria in Rome. She withdrew from her husband, whom she blamed for the death of both children. Shelley did not share her grief, but instead left her alone to stay in the company of Claire and Maria Gisborne. In her grief, Mary began writing Mathilda, a father-daughter incest fantasy, which was not published during her lifetime. It shows much of the hostility Mary felt both towards her father and her husband.
In October 1819, the Shelleys moved to Florence, where Percy Florence was born on 12 November. His birth brought Shelley and Mary closer again. She was depressed by claims, however, that Shelley had fathered a child on their nursemaid Elisa in December 1818. Elisa's husband kept asking for money.
On 27 January 1820, the Shelleys moved to Pisa, where Mary began writing Valperga in September. In January 1821, Edward and Jane Williams moved to Pisa and soon became close friends of the Shelleys. As Mary withdrew more and more from him, Shelley sought solace from Jane Williams and Emilia Viviani, for whom he wrote Epipsychidion, a celebration of erotic love. Mary had been suffering from depression since the summer of 1819. In June 1821, Mary finished the second volume of Valperga.
In May 1822, the Shelleys moved to La Spezia, where Mary miscarried on 16 June during her fifth pregnancy. On 8 July, Shelley and Edward Williams set sail in Shelley's sailboat Don Juan (named, of course, after his friend Lord Byron's best-seller) and were found drowned ten days later. Mary suffered from intense feelings of guilt towards her dead husband, particularly so as at times she had wished her husband were dead. Shelley's friends blamed her, as she did herself, for having made Shelley's last year unhappy. In reparation, she committed herself to the preservation of his memory. She was going to publish his poems, a biography and to idolize him. She overcompensated by turning him into a half-god. This prevented any normal relationship between herself and another man. Her desire to write a biography, however, was blocked by Shelley's father, who was ashamed of his renegade son. So she appended large biographical notes to her 1824 and 1839 editions of his poetry. She also painted an idealized portrait of him in her roman ‡ clef, The Last Man.
Mary and Percy Florence returned to London in August 1823. They found themselves impoverished. Mary immediately turned to writing articles, novels, encyclopaedia entries, stories and reviews. She turned away from Gothic and futurist novels to historical and sentimental ones, set in fourteenth-century Italy (Valperga), the Yorkist uprising in fifteenth-century England (Perkin Warbeck) or the fashionable world of early nineteenth-century society (Mathilda, Lodore, and Falkner), stressing her belief that a woman's fulfilment came from a loving relationship with another person and stable family relations. She saw herself as a follower, not as an active agent, and felt unable to take a stand on behalf of women's rights.
After Percy Shelley's death, Mary had expected that Lord Byron would become her protector and in that role would advance her the money to return to England, but he abruptly withdrew his initial support. Mary then turned increasingly to women friends for support. After her return to England in 1823, she assumed that she and Jane Williams would live together for ever. However, Jane went behind Mary's back to Leigh Hunt and Hogg, complaining about Mary's having mistreated Shelley in their last year together. Other female friends of Mary's later years could not fulfil her demands for a mother-like absolutely loyal loving companion either. Emotionally disappointed, Mary turned back to her first love, her father.
William Godwin welcomed Mary on her return to London in 1823. They lived close to each other and met almost daily. But his financial troubles prevented him from giving her the emotional and financial security she needed. She refused all offers of marriage, namely from John Howard Payne, an American actor-manager (1825), and the writer Prosper Mérimée. Edward John Trelawny suggested in 1831 that fate might have thrown him and Mary together, but she refused him, too, although she had retained his friendship since her husband's death.
Late in 1823 Valperga was published, a book sharply critical of military glory at the expense of family relationships and the suffering of the innocents. Mary also collected and edited Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley. She had to recall the unsold copies, though, at the insistence of Sir Timothy Shelley, who feared scandal. In February 1824, Mary began writing The Last Man, which can be read as her attempt at coming to terms with both Lord Byron and Shelley. The work is the first English example of an end- of-the-world novel, set in a far distant future. Mary tests her ideas of the egalitarian family against human egotism, temporal mutability and the brute forces of nature which annihilate individual achievement through chance, accident and death, thus contradicting the more optimistic stances of both her father and her husband and their utopian idealism. Instead of following the idea of Godwin and Burke, that history leads ultimately to perfection, Mary depicts a history that can abruptly stop. She also introduces the theme of shared marital love being lost love; trust is destroyed. She portrays the self-destructive side of motherhood, a mother who lives for her children only cannot acquire a life of her own. In this deeply pessimistic novel, women cannot find fulfilment within nor without the family.
In February 1826, The Last Man was published. In September of that year, Harriet Shelley's son Charles died, and Percy Florence became heir. Sir Timothy doubled Mary's allowance to 200 pounds per year, which still did not make her financially secure. In January 1828 Mary began writing The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, an adventure story set during the Yorkist rebellion in the fifteenth century (published in May 1830). She also wrote The Sisters of Albano, the first of fourteen stories she published in the journal The Keepsake. In January 1831, Mary began writing Lodore, part of which she had to re-write in 1834 after a section was lost either in the post or by her publishers. The novel was published in 1835.
The education of Mary's son Percy Florence at Harrow proved too costly when she boarded him there, so she left London and moved to Harrow herself to cut down on cost. Sir Timothy did little to help her and his heir.
In 1835, Volume I of the Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal was published for Dionysius Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia series. Mary contributed articles on the lives of Petrarch, Boccaccio and Machiavelli. When Volume II came out in October, Mary had contributed the lives of Metastasio, Goldoni, Alfieri, Monti and Foscolo.
On 7 April 1836, William Godwin died of catarrhal fever and was buried beside Mary Wollstonecraft in St. Pancras Churchyard. In the year following, Mary suffered greatly. In 1837, she published the novel Falkner, another book on the theme of the (foster) father- daughter relationship. Again Mary demonstrates that a woman's fulfilment lies within the family. Also in 1837, Volume III of the Lives was published, with Mary contributing essays on Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Calderón. In the same year, Percy Florence took up his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. July 1838 saw the publication of Volume I of the Lives of the most Eminent Men of France with essays by Mary on the lives of Montaigne, Rabelais, Corneille, Rochefoucauld, Molière, La Fontaine, Pascal, Mme. de Sévigné, Racine, Boileau, and Fénelon. In 1839, Mary contributed essays on Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet, Mirabeau, Mme Roland and Mme. de Staël for Volume II. In the same year, she also published Volumes I through IV of her husband's Poetical Works, complete with notes, at monthly intervals. In November, she published her edition of his Essays, Letters. During the following years, Mary spent much of her time travelling in mainland Europe with her son, who graduated from Cambridge in 1841. She was gathering material for a new book, Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843, published in 1844. In July 1843, Mary returned to England, stopping on the way to visit Claire in Paris.
In 1844, Sir Timothy died, leaving the baronetcy and his heavily indebted estate to Percy Florence. In 1849 Mary was able to move into Field Place, the Shelley country home at Bournemouth, with Percy Florence and his wife Jane. When she found that her son was financially secure, Mary lost her will to live. She suffered from various kinds of psychosomatic illnesses and nervous attacks. Finally, she died from a mysterious paralysis on 1 February 1851. She was buried between her mother and her father, whose remains had been transferred from St. Pancras, at St. Peter's churchyard in Bournemouth.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was a feminist only insofar as she followed her mother's ideas about unrestricted education for women and equality within a marriage. However, she endorsed the ideal of the bourgeois family, and could not envisage a place for herself outside it. By adhering to that ideal, she automatically accepted its intrinsic hierarchy, the claim to male superiority, and the unequal distribution of power between parents and children.
Last modified 30 December 2015