Mary, The Unknown Mother Of Frankenstein
The air has cooled, the wind has returned, and the leaves have started their enchanting show. It’s the beginning of our descent into the “holiday season”, begrudgingly or not. Lucky for us we get to start the festivities with great weather surrounded by friends and fun! It’s the season of pumpkins, apple cider and falling leaves, but it’s also the season of ghosts and all things ooky and spooky. There is no one better to mention during the month of Halloween and all things haunted, whether that be your attic or perhaps your conscience than…Mary Shelley!
“The beginning is always today”
Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in 1797 in London, England to feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin. Unfortunately, Mary’s life started with tragedy when her mother died shortly after she was born. This left Mary and her half-sister to be raised by their father and new step-mother, a woman that Mary did not like and never got a long with. Her step-mother can be envisioned as the typical “evil step-mother” as she favored her own children to Mary and even chose not to give Mary a formal education. Luckily Mary was strong of will and eager and she took to her father’s library and absorbed as much knowledge from there as she could, as well as rubbing elbows with some well-known people, including former Vice President Aaron Burr. When she was 15 her father described her as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.” Her father sent her north to Scotland in 1812 where Mary stayed with William Baxter and his four daughters, creating a family for Mary that she would continue to return to.
“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves”
In 1814 Mary began a relationship with poet Percy Shelley, a married student of her fathers. Percy was estranged from his wife but began meeting Mary secretly at her mother’s grave, they were soon in love and Percy whisked the young Mary off to Europe where they suffered hardship and heartache alike. They were not only broke, but they lost their first child together. Percy and Mary were never destined for a blissful marriage and had their share of doubts and likely infidelities and jealousies. It was May of 1816 that solidified Mary’s place in our cultures and hearts, it was not her husband and his works, it was not her father’s philosophies, it was one fateful event in a young woman’s life that has carried her to immortality. Mary, Percy, Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont and John Williams Polidori vacationed together at Lake Geneva, it proved to be a dreadfully wet summer and the group were often forced to stay cooped up. It was one such day everyone was sitting around a fire in Lord Byron’s rented villa reading and sharing ghost stories when the fateful contest was set.
“Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world”
Lord Byron suggested they each write their own ghost story and they immediately got to work with their ideas. Mary struggled though, she had been writing most of her life up to this point, but she could not settle on an idea, she was riddled with anxiety about it, “Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” She was soon struck with the electrifying thought “perhaps a corpse could be re-animated” and that spark ignited something within Mary. What she thought was going to be a short story soon turned into her first novel. In 1818 Mary published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and with that she changed the entire world of literature. She initially began her story as a gothic novel, but she soon created a creature of her very own in what we now call science fiction. Mary Shelley created such a unique and powerful story she created a new genre of writing as well a whole slew of philosophical debate. She created a story and set of characters that have endured to this very day in a plethora of platforms and media. The modern world is obsessed with Frankenstein and his Monster and we have the brilliant gothic mind of Mary Shelley to thank for that. She lived to be a rather successful novelist but unfortunately her husband was lost at sea and his legacy overshadowed her life. Mary was dedicated to making sure her late husband’s works were preserved and still read, and she soon became more known for her efforts to Percy and his memory than her own beautiful creations.
But it is now, during October we often let our monsters free and it’s during this time Mary’s Frankenstein is often invoked in celebration. So, it is during this spooky time we remember Mary and we hold her high into the night and thank her for giving us a whole new world to explore either through her writings, our own or that of others.
Written By: Alicia Whitcome