OLL's August (Belated) Birthday: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (August 30, 1797 – February 1, 1851)
by Peter Mentzel
This month’s featured (belated) birthday anniversary is the English author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Best known for writing Frankenstein, she also wrote a number of plays, poems, and novels, all strongly embodying a philosophy of personal and political liberty.
Mary was the daughter of William Godwin (1752-1836) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), two of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century’s most famous British intellectuals. Her father, a well known radical philosopher, is probably best known as an early proponent of utilitarianism and especially for his anarchist and proto-anarchist ideas. Her mother Mary is famous as a pioneering feminist, whose most influential book is the Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Mary Wollstonecraft had an illegitimate child, Fanny Imlay (1794-1816), with an American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, who abandoned them a short while after her birth. Wollstonecraft subsequently began a relationship with Godwin in 1796, became pregnant with Mary in 1797 and married him in September that year. She died of medical complications eleven days after delivering her daughter in August.
Mary grew up together with her half-sister Fanny, with whom she had a good relationship, in Somers Town, a district in Northwest London. Godwin tried his best to take care of the two little girls despite his chronic money problems. He was remarried in 1801 to a neighbor, named Mary Jane Clairmont (1768-1841), who had two illegitimate children of her own, Charles and Claire (1798-1879). Together Godwin and Mary Jane set up a publishing house, The Juvenile Library, specializing in children’s literature. For many years, the publishing house kept the family (barely) afloat financially. In fact, William Godwin was deeply in debt for most of the rest of his life.
Godwin did not end up completely following his first wife’s advice on the rearing of young girls, but he nevertheless provided all of his children excellent educations. Mary, in particular, manifested a keen intelligence and curiosity from a very early age, which Godwin did everything he could to encourage and foster. Their homelife was tense, however, as Mary Jane doted on her own children, especially Claire, and Mary Godwin came to loathe her stepmother. She grew close, however, to her step-sister Claire, and remained so for the rest of her life.
Around 1814 she met the poet and radical Percy Bysshe Shelley during one of his visits to her father, whom he greatly admired. They soon fell in love, and while her father had liked and encouraged the young radical poet, he was deeply opposed to his relationship with his daughter. In the summer of 1814, accompanied by Claire Clairemont, Mary and Percy eloped and went to Europe. Eschewing marriage as a despotic cultural artifact (and also recognizing the fact that Shelley was, rather inconveniently, already married to one Harriet Westbrook), they remained in Europe for the rest of 1814, returning to England in 1815. Mary Godwin’s first daughter was born in February that year, only to die a month later, the first of many tragedies that were to befall her over the next several years. In January of 1816 she bore a son, William, and in the Spring she and Percy again traveled to Europe (at the urging of Claire, who in the meantime had begun an affair with Lord Byron), staying in Geneva near the residence of Byron and his doctor Polidori.
It was during this visit, during a particularly miserable, rainy summer, that Mary began her most famous work, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, which was finally published in January 1818. In the meantime, she and Percy finally married in 1816, after receiving news of the suicide of Shelley’s wife. The next year the couple had a daughter, Clara. For the rest of their married lives, they lived almost entirely in Italy, moving between various cities and towns. These years were filled with personal tragedies for Mary. Her daughter Clara died in 1818, and her son William died the following year.
In 1822, the Shelley household moved to a villa near San Terenzo, on the Bay of Lerici, on the Italian riviera. She was unhappy in the remote villa, not helped by the fact that her husband increasingly left her alone to go boating with his friends(including a family friend, Jane Williams, with whom he was infatuated). In June of 1822 she suffered a miscarriage, and the next month Percy Shelley died in a boating accident, leaving Mary alone with their only surviving child, a son, Percy Florence (born in November 1819).
After Percy Bysshe’s death, she moved in with friends in Genoa, but returned to England in 1823, eventually settling with her son in Kentish Town, north London. She was determined to support herself and her son as a writer, and received only a meager allowance (explicitly for the support of Percy Florence) from Percy Bysshe’s father. Furthermore, the money was explicitly linked to a promise from her that she would not write a biography of her late husband, as she had wanted to do.
Against all these odds, she succeeded not only in supporting herself and her son, but in becoming a well-known and highly regarded writer in her own right; not just the widow of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Frankenstein continued to be popular, and she published two new editions between 1823 and 1831. In 1824 she edited and published the Posthumous Poems of her late husband. She cleverly evaded her father-in-law’s ban on writing a biography of Percy by including biographical notes in her editorializing of the poems and in her preface to the collection, a tactic she would employ in the other published editions of his works that she edited. She wrote several more novels, including The Last Man (1826) about a plague that wipes out humanity in the 21st century--possibly the world’s first dystopian novel. She also earned money as an editor and as a contributor of newspaper and encyclopedia articles.
Her personal life during these years was precarious, and she often lived on the brink of poverty. She had many male friends, some of whom were apparently interested in romantic relationships or even marriage, but she never remarried or took any lovers (as far as we know). Her father-in-law died in 1844, leaving Percy Florence as the sole heir, and guaranteeing at last some degree of financial security. In 1848 Percy Florence married Jane Gibson St. John. It was a happy marriage and Mary and her daughter-in-law got on well together. All three subsequently moved to Field Place, Sussex, the Shelley’s ancestral home.
Despite the happy developments in her personal life, her health declined precipitously. It is currently believed that she developed a brain tumor that led, as early as 1839, to agonizing headaches and occasional paralysis. Her condition continued to deteriorate steadily over the years and she died on February 1, 1857, age 53. After his mother’s burial, Percy Florence found among her belongings, in a small box, locks of her dead childrens’ hair and a silk pouch containing some of Percy Bysshe’s ashes.