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Who Was Mary Shelley? Under What Circumstances Did She Write Frankenstein?

Mary Shelley at a younger ageFamily Legacy

legacy, it seemed inevitable that Mary Shelley was to make a significant contribution to Literature. Both her parents were influential authors and propagandists for their respective causes of feminism and radical liberalism. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a leader in the early feminist movement and wrote a classic entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), still read in women's studies classes today. Mary's father, William Godwin, published a political treatise entitled Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793. His goal was to translate the insights of the French Enlightenment into an English context.

Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were proponents of radical revolution both in politics and in lifestyle. Before her marriage to Godwin, Wollstonecraft had several affairs. Mary Shelley's stepsister, Fanny, was the progeny of a painful affair between Wollstonecraft and an already married American, Gilbert Imlay. Gilbert lost interest in her, resulting in severe depression despite her liberated views on women's emotional freedom from men. William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft met each other while translating for a publishing company. They kept separate households on the basis of the principle that women had the right of ownership. Godwin accepted Fanny as their daughter. The Godwin-Wollstonecraft relationship was very much one of intellectual peers. They resisted the institution of marriage until just before the birth of Mary Godwin on August 30, 1797.

The gap between the real and the ideal plagued the Wollstonecraft-Shelley union. Godwin's radicalism, once in vogue, fell into disrepute after the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. His views slowly transformed into more moderate reformism, a position which, after her infatuation with radical romanticism, came to typify the mature perspective of his daughter.

Life in this family of radicals was intense, meaningful, and yet very painful. Mary Wollstonecraft died on September 10, 1797 from childbirth complications after the delivery of Mary, her second daughter . Godwin remarried shortly after this to Mary Jane Clairmont, a practical housekeeper but not his intellectual equal. Perhaps due to a decided lack of equality, the stepmother established a conflictual relationship to Mary Godwin (later Shelley) whose only reprieve was to move to Scotland to be educated by a friend of her father's.

Melancholy took its toll on Mary's stepsister, Fanny Imlay, who under the pressure of financial problems and depression took her own life in October 1816. Her last words, hauntingly similar to the sentiments of Mary's fictional monster, were:

I have long determined that the best thing I could do was put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature existed as...(Fanny )

The death of Fanny's mother, the harshness of her stepmother, and the relative indifference of her father not only led to her depression and death but may have provided a significant theme concerning parental responsibility for Mary's novel. The Monster said that he was vicious because he was alone and abandoned by his creator. Perhaps Fanny took her life because she felt that sort of loneliness.

Mary Godwin & Percy Shelley's Romance

Mary Godwin (later Shelley), far more flamboyant than Fanny Imlay, escaped the family through rebellion. Upon returning home from Scotland in 1812 she encountered a young poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, accompanied by his wife, Harriet, visiting her father, William Godwin. Two years later she eloped to Europe with Shelley who had abandoned his estranged wife Harriet. Writing to a friend Hogg he said that his marriage was a calamity, a heartless union and a revolting duty.

"I felt as if a dead and living body had been linked together in loathsome and horrible communion" (Marilyn Gaull. English Romanticism: The Human Context, p. 197).

Harriet later committed suicide. While financially pressured and weather worn Mary, Percy and Claire Clairmont, Mary's stepsister, romped, read and borrowed their way through Europe. On their second visit to the continent, rest did not come until they arrived at Villa Diodati, the home of Lord Byron on Lake Léman near Geneva.

Ghost Writers' Contest

The inclimate summer of 1816 left the visitors ensconced in the Villa telling one another Gothic German ghost tales such as Fantasmagoriana: Collection of the Histories of Apparitions, Spectres, Ghosts. The talent in the Villa drawing room superseded the literature being read so Byron suggested that they individually write a supernatural tale. Other than Mary's classic, the only extant story from this occasion is John Polidori's reworking of Byron's tale entitled The Vampyre: A Tale.

The theme of Mary's book was not forthcoming. She admits that she was in the throes of writer's block when she had a vision, probably an image from the unconscious. In her final revision of Frankenstein in 1831, she describes the revelation:

I felt that blank incapacity of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. "Have you thought of a story?"

I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination unbidden, possessed and guided me.. I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, - the pale student of unhallowed arts standing before the thing he had put together, I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion... frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror stricken.... He (the artist) sleeps but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

Through this short account of the genesis of Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus we learn much. First, it was not a consciously constructed tale of an accomplished author. Second, coming from the Creative Unconscious, the tale prophetically foreshadows the dilemma of technology in terms of the perennial themes of mythology. Third, that the author, although the sole originator of the tale, has absorbed the creative atmosphere of Villa Diodori, and as we will see later, sublty critiqued her husband's and Lord Byron's Romantic philosophy.

History of Publication

Not unlike many classics of literature, Frankenstein went through a process of transmission. From the outline of a ghost story (1816) written only for friends, through a first edition (1818) touched by the editorial hand of Percy Shelley, to the final mature product (1831), we see how Mary Shelley crafted what she called her "hideous progeny". While the central themes are evident from the beginning, we can nonetheless detect with a critical eye how the edited novel was moulded to reflect the adult views of Mary Shelley. Life experience changed not only herself but also her novel.

It is telling of Mary's confidence as a writer that she originally did not take full credit for her classic. She simply published it anonymously. Part of the reason for this had to do with the sensibilities of the Nineteenth Century readers who may not have accepted the fact that a young woman could have conceived of such a gruesome plot. It did not improve the author's confidence that she was turned down by reputable publishers, at least twice, and that in the end, Frankenstein was published by Lackington, Allan and Company, a relatively obscure publisher of "shilling shockers": sensational and occultic books. The first edition obscured Mary's authorship even further. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote an introduction which all but announced that he had written Frankenstein. Due to the social themes, others thought William Godwin wrote the novel. The second edition, upon the occasion of the billing of Richard Brinsley Peake's play, Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, attributed authorship to Mary Shelley. Finally, years after her husband had died, Mary wrote her insightful introduction to the third, 1831 edition of Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus.

Critical acceptance of her work was initially mixed ranging from Beckworth's comment, informally inscribed on the fly leaf of his personal copy ("This is, perhaps, the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of present times") to Sir Walter Scott's admission that he preferred Frankenstein to any of his own romances.

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© Copyright 1996 by Arthur Paul Patterson, Winnipeg, Canada

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