Mary Shelley, née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, was born on the 30th August 1797 in Somers Town, London, to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. She was Wollstonecraft’s second child, and Godwin’s first. Her parents were influential figures in feminism, philosophy and politics; Wollstonecraft was famed for her political and feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she challenges the status quo which accepted women to be intellectually inferior to men, while Godwin was known as an advocate of political radicalism, and introduced ideas of anarchism to the then staunchly conservative political landscape. Though Mary Godwin was born into this extraordinarily fertile intellectual household, the death of her mother as a result of puerperal fever some ten days after her birth meant that in her upbringing she only enjoyed the paternal half of it. She and her half-sister Fanny Imlay were left in the care of Godwin, who set to giving them a diverse, if informal, education in which he placed a significant emphasis on his own liberal political ideals. Mary read Godwin’s literary tribute to his wife, her mother, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published a year after her death and which, though intended and delivered in sincerity as a passionate tribute, had the effect of shocking its audience whose sensibilities were offended by the revelations of her affairs and her illegitimate child Fanny. Despite the negative public and critical reception of this work, Mary learnt from it to love her mother and respect her for her choices in life.
Godwin was in deep debt and, following the death of his wife, set about finding a new one having realised he could not raise his children by himself. Thus he married Mary Jane Clairmont in December 1801, a well-educated mother of two, Charles and Claire. Though most of Godwin’s friends disliked her for her quick temper, Godwin himself was devoted to her. Mary Godwin, though, did not share her father’s love for her stepmother although despite this her early years seem to have been happy ones, according to the letters of the nurse and housekeeper, Louisa Jones. Godwin’s debts were compounded when his publishing company failed to turn a substantial profit, and he was only kept from debtor’s prison by the kind donations of his philosophical allies.
This poor financial situation was instrumental in her education being so informal, for Godwin simply could not afford proper schooling. Instead he tutored her and Fanny himself, bringing them with him for intellectual outings, giving them access to his library and to the various intellectuals who came to visit, amongst whom were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Aaron Burr, a former Vice-President. Though Wollstonecraft had prescribed a correct education for young girls in her Vindication, Godwin ashamedly believed he was not following it closely enough. Despite this, Mary’s education was far in advance of the average girl’s education at the time, for she had, for example, access to Greek and Roman literature in manuscript. At fifteen Godwin considered her “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.” At this age she was sent to the home of William Baxter, a Dissenting radical, who lived near Dundee in Scotland. Godwin’s letter to Baxter explained his anxiousness that “she should be brought up […] like a philosopher, even like a cynic”. Here she thrived, enjoying the spaciousness of the land in which Baxter’s house was situated and the company of his four daughters. So much did she enjoy the experience that the following year she returned for a stay of ten months. Recorded in the introduction to her
most famous work, Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus is the suggestion that she began writing here, though “in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.”
It is conceivable, even likely, that Mary met the radical poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley for the first time between her two retreats to Scotland, for by the time of her second return on 30th March 1814, Shelley’s marriage was in disarray and he was regularly visiting William Godwin, another of Godwin’s financial saviours. Shelley had learnt his radical economic sensibilities from Godwin’s Political Justice, and this had alienated him from his aristocratic family background. Though Shelley promised Godwin he would donate large sums of his family’s estate to projects of political justice, his family denied him access and so he was unable to follow through on these promises, leaving Godwin feeling betrayed. Despite this, Shelley and Mary began to meet in secret at her mother’s grave, where they fell in love, she at seventeen and he at twenty-two. Mary was distraught to learn of the recent bad blood between Godwin and Shelley, and feared correctly that her father would attempt to sabotage their relationship. Their only recourse was to elope and so, on 28th July 1814, the couple left for France in secret. Though they brought Claire Clairmont with them, Shelley left his estranged, pregnant wife behind. Clairmont’s mother, Mary Jane Godwin, pursued them to Calais though she returned to England once convinced that the trio did not wish to return. They then embarked on a voyage through Paris to Switzerland, travelling through the country shortly after it had been torn apart by the Revolution. Having run out of money at Lucerne, they turned back and embarked on their return leg via the river Rhine, reaching Gravesend in Kent on 13th September 1814.
Finding herself pregnant on returning to England was just one of the problems Mary Godwin faced. Compounding the complication of an imminent child with Shelley was their dire financial situation, which followed having spent all of their money on their voyage. Worse, though, was that William Godwin wished nothing to do with either of them, and so the couple moved into basic lodgings in Somers Town. Despite the difficulties they were suffering, they took care to keep their steady regime of reading and writing afloat while entertaining several of Shelley’s friends, amongst whom were Thomas Jefferson Hogg and Thomas Love Peacock. Though Mary initially disliked Hogg, she would later count him among her close friends and be grateful for that friendship at times when, during her pregnancy, she had to contend with Shelley’s joy at the birth of his son by Harriet Shelley, his estranged wife, in late 1814. Moreover, he spent a large amount of time in affair with Claire Clairmont, regularly leaving Mary and Hogg together. Though Shelley hoped they would become lovers, and Mary’s belief in the principle of free love meant she was not dismissive of the idea, nothing became of it because she seems only to have ever really loved Shelley.
Her baby girl was born two months premature and with little hope for survival, on 22nd February 1815. By 6th March, she was dead. Mary wrote to Hogg for consolation, saying
My dearest Hogg my baby is dead—will you come to see me as soon as you can. I wish to see you—It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did
not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions—Will you come—you are so calm a creature & Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk—for I am no longer a mother now.
Though this tragic loss caused Mary severe depression, a second conception proved therapeutic and she was recovered by the summer. Meanwhile Shelley’s grandfather, Sir Bysshe Shelley, had died and this had had a restorative effect on Shelley’s finances. The couple took a holiday in Torquay and, on their return, rented a cottage near Windsor Great Park. The baby was born on 24th January, 1816, and named William in honour of her father.
An invitation to spend the summer with Lord Byron, who had recently had an affair with Claire Clairmont which saw her become pregnant, beckoned them to Switzerland, so they travelled with their son to Geneva and took a house called the Maison Chapuis on the edge of the lake. Their time was spent in literary discussion, in writing and on the lake. Mary’s description of the time as a “wet, ungenial summer” indicates why so much of their time was spent inside, discussing their writing, for they found themselves confined to the indoors for great periods of time. However, this proved a blessing in disguise for they took to amusing themselves with the recitation of ghost stories, prompting Byron to suggest that they each try their hand at writing a ghost story. In the company of the great Byron, Mary found herself crippled with writer’s block, reporting “‘Have you thought of a story?’ I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” However, a discussion of the principles and purpose of life led her to suggest the notion of corporal reanimation and, unable to sleep that night, she formulated the basic structure of her idea. Though it began as a simple short story, Shelley encouraged that she expand it into a full novel and so she embarked on the writing of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, her first work. She would later recall the summer as “when [she] first stepped out from childhood into life.”
Returning to England in September, Mary, Shelley and Claire moved to Bath, where Mary and Shelley lived together and Claire took nearby lodgings. They hoped to keep Claire’s pregnancy a secret. Shortly thereafter on 9th October a letter from Fanny Imlay, Mary’s half-sister, induced such alarm in Mary and Shelley that he set off to find her, though he was too late for she was found dead the following day with a suicide note and an empty bottle of laudanum. Only two months later, Harriet Shelley was found dead, having drowned herself in the Serpentine, a lake in Hyde Park. Mary, Shelley and Claire now had three things to keep secret, the pregnancy and these two suicides. Shelley’s endeavour to take custody of his two children was challenged by Harriet’s family and so, at the advice of his lawyers that it would improve his case, he married Mary on 30th December 1816. She was expecting another child. Mr and Mrs Godwin were both present at the ceremony and the acrimony between them was herein ended. Then, on 13th January, Claire gave birth to her child by Byron, a girl who was at first called Alba, and later Allegra.
By March, the Chancery Court had ruled that, despite Shelley’s marriage and the familial structure it would provide, he was not suitable to take custody of his children and so they were placed into care with the family of a clergyman. This bad news was tempered by the birth of Mary’s third child, who they named Clara, on 2nd September. The Shelleys, Claire and Alba moved to Buckinghamshire to a house called Albion House at Marlow, on the river
Thames, and they made friends with Marianne and Leigh Hunt. Here, they worked on their writing, and Mary set to work editing a journal compiled from their individual records of their journey to France and Germany, and including writing from their later trip to Switzerland. However, their financial situation remained poor, and on 12th March 1818 they all moved again, to Italy, in order to evade debtor’s prison.
One of the first things the party did in Italy was to take Alba to Venice where she was to be reunited with her father, Byron, on the condition that Claire had nothing more to do with her. Over the next year, while roaming across the country from place to place, both of Mary’s children died, which cast her once again into a deep depression. Though she sought minor solace in her writing, it was the birth of her fourth child, Percy Florence, which finally raised her spirits, though she did not forget her lost children. While in Italy, Mary began work on some more of her major works, Matilda, Valperga, Prosperine and Midas. Valperga was written in aid of her father’s financial situation, and while she worked, she often had to contend with both ill health and Shelley’s interest in other women, such as Jane Williams. However, sharing Shelley’s belief in free love, she was able to form strong emotional bonds with men of her own circle, and even found some of her emotional solace in Jane’s husband, Edward.
Pregnant again in the summer of 1822, Mary, Shelley, Claire, Edward and Jane Williams moved to Villa Magni, an isolated area at the edge of the Bay of Lerici. Their time here was unhappy, and this unhappiness arguably began when Shelley broke the news of Allegra’s death of typhus to Claire. Mary came to consider the house more of a dungeon, and on 16th June she miscarried. Her blood loss was so severe that she came close to death, and since the doctor was so far away Shelley had to put her in a bath of ice to stop the bleeding. He was later told this likely saved her life. Shelley, however, chose to spend most of his time here with Jane Williams than with his wife, whose renewed depression at the loss of another child and physical debilitation meant she was unattractive to him as a companion. While not with Jane, Shelley spent most of the rest of his time with Edward Williams and their recently acquired sailing boat. They planned and embarked on a journey down the coast towards Livorno in the south, where at a meeting with Byron and Leigh Hunt they discussed an idea for a new radical magazine called The Liberal. Buoyed by the excitement of these conversations, Williams and Shelley set out on their return journey. Mary received a letter from Hunt to Shelley, dated eighth July, reading “pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say you had bad weather after you sailed monday & we are anxious.” Mary later told a friend “the paper fell from me […] I trembled all over.” Shelley and Williams had not returned. She rushed to Livorno and then Pisa with Jane Williams, desperately hoping to find their husbands alive, and it was ten days after the storm that their bodies were found washed up near Viareggio, roughly halfway between Livorno and Lerici. Shelley was cremated on the beach at Viareggio by Byron, Trelawny and Hunt.
Following her husband’s death, Mary spent a year living in Genoa with Leigh and Marianne Hunt, transcribing Byron’s poems. She decided that she would provide for her son by her writing, and set out for England on 23rd July 1823 to stay with her father and stepmother. A small advance came later from her father-in-law, which made it possible for her to take independent lodgings nearby. She set to editing her husband’s poems, though she was restricted from publishing a biography of him by the threat of the cessation of her allowance
by her father-in-law if she did so. A move to Kentish Town in the summer of 1824 meant she could be near Jane Williams, and at this time she had begun working on her new novel, The Last Man, which saw publication in 1826 and was well received. This success gave her confidence, and over the next thirteen years she busied herself with her writing and editing. Perkin Warbeck was published in 1830, and then Lodore in 1835 and Falkner in 1837, and between these major publications she wrote for ladies’ magazines and Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Her father’s death in 1836 had freed her of her financial obligation to him, and she now began to assemble his letters for publication as a memoir, though she abandoned work on this project two years later. Meanwhile, she was promoting Percy Shelley’s poetry, and by 1837 his work was enjoying new popularity and critical acclaim. Edward Moxon, who published Tennyson, approached Mary to edit a collection of Percy Shelley’s work for a sum of £500, and though she was instructed not to include a biography, she successfully told much of his story by the inclusion of fervently detailed biographical notes with each of the poems, arguing their contextual importance for the collection as a reason for their inclusion.
Mary and Percy Florence travelled together on the continent in the early 1840s, and Mary recorded these journeys in a similar fashion to the journal of her earlier expeditions there in Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. Percy Florence’s marriage to Jane Gibson St John in 1848 resulted in happy relationship between Mary, Percy and Jane, and they lived together at Field Place in Sussex, which was the Shelley’s ancestral home. From 1839 Mary had ben suffering from headaches and temporary paralysis in various parts of her body, and her health was in steady decline through the 1840s until her death on 1st February, 1851. She was fifty-three, and the attending physician supposed her death to be the result of a brain tumour. The year after her death, Percy Florence and Jane opened Mary’s locked desk, where they found a copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Adonaïs, a notebook they had shared, some of his ashes and the remains of his heart, and locks of her dead children’s hair. She is survived by a literary reputation utterly consistent with the intellectual capacity of women for which her mother had argued, living proof of her mother’s radical theories.