Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Biography
Born On: 30 August, 1797
Born In: Somers Town, London, England
Died On: 1 February, 1851
Career: Short story writer, novelist, dramatist, essayist, travel writer, and biographer
Mary Shelley, known as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin before her marriage to the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a woman most famous for her Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein’ and her other famous novel ‘The Modern Prometheus’(1818). Mary Shelley, throughout her career donned many hats and stepped into various shoes. She was a novelist, short story writer, dramatist, biographer, travel writer and essayist, all rolled into one. Her creative inclinations can be sourced to her father, the political philosopher William Godwin and her mother, feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley, apart from being all that she was, was even known to edit and promote the literary efforts of P.B. Shelly, her husband. In fact, until the 1970s, Mary was known only as the impresario of her husband’s works. It was only during the 1970s when she got recognition for her literary achievements. Mary was also a political radical who never really hesitated to challenge the individualistic Romanic ethos subscribed to by her husband and the ‘Enlightenment’ political theories expressed by her father. Mary Shelley’s works to this very day continue to create positive waves in the literary world and the world in general.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in Somers Town, London on 30 August, 1797. Mary was born to philosopher, journalist and novelist William Godwin and writer Mary Wollstonecraft. She was the first child of William Godwin and the second child of Mary Wollstonecraft. Unfortunately, for Mary Shelley, ten days after her birth, she lost her mother to a puerperal fever. This left William Godwin in the loop of taking care of Mary and her half-sister Fanny Imlay all by himself. A year after the death of Mary’s mother, William Godwin published his “Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, which was a tribute to the memory of his wife. However, this book did not have the desired effect, when it shocked people because of its mentioning of Wollstonecraft’s affairs and her illegitimate child. Mary Shelley however used this book to build and cherish fond memories about her mother.
Mary Shelley’s early years can be safely considered happy ones, except for when her father married for the second time. William Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont, a highly educated woman with two children of her own. The marriage was a success, although a lot of people thought of Mrs. Godwin as short-tempered and quarrelsome. Trouble began for Mary Shelley when she got into the bad books of her stepmother; she even began to nurture hatred towards her. This was mainly because Mrs. Godwin leaned more towards her children. Together, the Godwins’ started off a publishing firm which only had them swimming in a bottomless pool of debts.
Mary Shelley was tutored by her father, who never really sent her to a school or an institution for a formal education. Mary Shelley enjoyed an access to her father’s library and even shared an audience with his intellectual friends who included the likes of the former President of the United States of America Aaron Burr and the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Mary Shelley was lucky enough to receive education from her father, because back then, the education she received was well ahead of the times. She also attended a boarding school for six months in Ramsgate. Mary was thought of as ‘singularly bold’, imperious and persevering by her father. Mary, post-receiving education from her father was sent off to stay with the radical William Baxter in Dundee, Scotland in June 1812. The stay with Baxter, to a certain degree, greatly influenced what was going to be the beginning of Mary’s career.
Mary Shelly And Percy Bysshe Shelley
Mary met her to-be husband between her visits to Scotland when P.B. Shelley had volunteered to steer William Godwin out of his debts. Life however turned difficult for Shelley when he had become estranged from his wife. He visited William Godwin frequently during this period. Percy also ran into a spot of bother with his family when he played the role of a non-conformist, what with him wanting to donate large amounts of the family’s money to the underprivileged. It was the rebellion that made it difficult for Percy Shelley to get his hands on large sums of money. The relationship between Godwin and Percy turned sour when Percy declared that he couldn’t pay off Godwin’s debts.
Yet, with all the happenings in Percy’s life, he still had time to court Mary. They used to meet quite frequently at the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft in St. Pancras Churchyard and soon fell in love. This was when Mary Shelley was only seventeen-years-old and Percy twenty-two. The relationship did not sit down well with William Godwin. On 28th July 1814, the ‘young lovers’ left secretly for France, taking along with them Mary’s stepsister and leaving behind Percy’s pregnant wife.
The couple had hot-on-their heels an infuriated Mary Jane Godwin who caught up with them, only to leave after witnessing their resolution to stay together. At Lucerne, due to financial shortcomings, the couple had to make their way back to Gravesend, Kent. They arrived at Gravesend, Kent, on 13 September 1814. This was at a time when Mary Shelley was pregnant. This was also when both Percy and Mary realized that they were penniless. Mary was distraught when her father turned Percy and her down. It was like William Godwin wanted nothing to do with the couple. The couple soon found themselves surviving in the lodges of Somers Town, but still maintained their grueling schedules of writing and reading. Percy sometimes had to leave home for days on end only to escape from door-knocking creditors.
Life took an odd turn for Mary Shelley when Percy rejoiced at the birth of his son by Harriet Shelley, his first wife. It also seemed like he was spending more time than he should have with Claire Clairmont. Mary also found herself developing a fondness for Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Percy’s friend, however this did not escalate to a level more than harmless flirting.
On 22-February 1815, Mary Shelley gave birth to a two-month-old premature baby girl who did not live for too long post birth. The loss of her child catapulted Mary Shelly into a state of prolonged depression. She however managed to find her way out of her depression with the birth of her second child, William. This period was also marked with a remarkable improvement in Percy’s finances.
Mary Shelley developed ‘Frankenstein’ in the company of Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, the famous poet and a young physician known as William Polidori. Lord Byron rented the Villa Diodati, which was located close to Lake Geneva. Percy Shelley however rented a smaller building called Maison Chapuis. Here, the geniuses kept themselves occupied by reading, writing and talking late into the nights.
Post a German ghost story reading session, Lord Byron suggested that everyone writes a supernatural tale of their own. This prompted Mary Shelley, post a ‘waking dream’, to conceive the fearful idea for Frankenstein. She began writing on Frankenstein with the idea of limiting the character only to a short story, but with the encouragement of P.B. Shelley, Mary released her first novel ‘Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus’.
After a prolific career, Mary Shelley’s last few years was plagued with illness. From 1839, she had to deal with severe headaches and bouts of paralysis in parts of her body. Her illness was so severe that it sometimes prevented her from reading and writing. She died on 1 February 1851 at Chester Square at the age of fifty-three. Her physician believed her illness to be a brain-tumor. Mary Shelley had desired to be buried with her mother and father, but her family decided to bury her at St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth, near their home at Boscombe.
1797: Mary Shelley is born in Somers Town, London, England.
1812: Mary Shelley, post receiving education from her father is sent off to stay with William Baxter in Dundee, Scotland.
1814: Mary Shelley leaves to France with her lover P.B. Shelley. In same year they voyage back to Gravesend, Kent.
1815: Mary Shelley gives birth to a two-month-old premature baby who dies soon after, thus catapulting Mary Shelley into a state of depression.
1818: Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus’ is published.
1839: Mary Shelley begins to suffer from severe headaches and bouts of paralysis.
1851: Mary Shelley dies and is buried at St. Peter’s Church, Bournemouth.
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