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Literary Birthdays: Mary Shelley

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Mary Godwin was born in England on August 30, 1797. She was the daughter of two rebellious thinkers of the 1790's, Mary Wollenstonecraft and William Godwin. Her mother Mary died when she was only ten days old, and she and her half sister, Fanny Imlay, were raised by her father to revere their mother. After a few years Godwin needed help with raising his children and remarried. Mary Jane Clairmont came to the family with two children of her own, and quickly became a fairy tale "evil stepmother." She was jealous both of young Mary, and of the reputation of her parents, Mary Wollenstonecraft and William Godwin, as the most radical intellectuals of the day. She treated Mary poorly, always favored her own children, and forced Mary and Fanny to do housework, while sending her own children to boarding schools for education.

Despite her stepmother's harshness, young Mary sought an education from the family housekeeper and her father, whose advice on learning to read was to read several books simultaneously. She was also privy to many intellectual gatherings of literary minds at her father's house, with visitors such as William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

By the time Mary was a young woman, the tension with her stepmother had grown. Godwin sent his daughter to Scotland to live with friends for a time, where Mary thrived; the period served as inspiration for some of her early writings.

Upon her return to London in 1812, Mary met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had become a follower of her father. Shelley was young, married, wealthy, and believed that those with money do great justice when they share it with those in need. Soon, Shelley was supporting Godwin financially. Percy and Mary fell in love, and though they were forbidden to see each other (because of Percy's marriage), in 1814 they ran off together to France.

The following eight years together were marked by poverty (due to a debate over Percy's inheritance), emotional drama, and much traveling around Europe. In the 1810's, Mary gave birth to four babies, only one of whom survived to adulthood. Mary miscarried a fifth time and nearly died. These experiences, along with her half sister Fanny's suicide, and the suicide of Percy's first wife Harriet (whom he left with two children) had Mary thinking endlessly about birth, creation, and death. In her journal, Mary wrote that she had a "dream that my little baby came to life again--that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived." Mary's life of ups and downs, death, and her own inability to create life may have spurred her to write the novel about the scientist who succeeds in creating a being by unnatural methods.

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, was published in 1818. While there was some debate over how much was written by Mary, and how much by Percy, by the 1831 edition, Mary had claimed full credit. In the introduction she wrote how she, "a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea."

Mary Godwin Shelley lived a dramatic and painful life. When Percy drowned in 1822, Mary returned to England to raise her one son and work on her writing. Until her death in 1851 she wrote many works, and was taken as a serious writer in her day.  Since her death however, she is chiefly remembered as the young girl who wrote the horrific story of Frankenstein.

"[Frankenstein] is the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years of age that I ever heard of. You are now five and twenty. And, most fortunately, you have pursued a course of reading, and cultivated your mind in a manner the most admirably adapted to make you a great and successful author. If you cannot be independent, who should be?" -William Godwin, in a letter to his daughter Mary.

Information on Mary Shelley is abundant on the Internet. Find out more on Wikipedia.

Amanda Jaros is a freelance writer living in Ithaca, NY. Her essay “Blood Mountain” won the 2017 Notes From the Field contest at Flyway Journal. Other work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines including, NewfoundLife in the Finger Lakes Magazine, Highlights for Children, and Cargo Literary. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University.

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