The autumn season is often associated with Halloween. Spooky movies and decorations, fictional monster, and dressing up in costumes are common themes. One of the most popular spooky stories is the story of Frankenstein. If you are a true Frankenstein fan, you will know that Frankenstein is actually the scientist and not the monster. But what do you know about the author of this classic Halloween story?
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in Somers Town, London in 1797. Mary's Mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist philosopher. Her father, William Godwin, was a philosopher and author himself. While Mary Wollstonecraft had been influential in woman's rights and feminist philosophy, she unfortunately died not long after Mary Godwin was born. William had been left alone to raise his daughter Mary and her older half sister (Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter separate from William Godwin) on his own.
Overall, Mary enjoyed her time with her father. She had a relatively happy childhood. Her father did not believe on a conventional education system, so rather than sending her to school, he had Mary study privately with the materials he had gathered with his former wife.
While things had been happy for Mary and William, unfortunately William was not particularly good at handling his finances. Recognizing that he did not have the means to raise his daughters alone, William chose to take a second wife. In December of 1801, William married a woman named Mary Jane Clairmont. Being fairly well educated and having two children of her own, Mary Jane and William shared similar backgrounds. However, Mary Jane had a short fuse and Mary found herself detesting her new stepmother. Despite their troubles, William was absolutely devoted to his new wife.
Since William had been a fairly well known and respected philosopher and writer of his time, Mary found herself surrounded by many other well known and well respected individuals through her childhood. It was as though William had a following of sorts. So while Mary did not receive a formal proper education, she did find herself meeting many intelligent and intellectual people that would come to visit her father.
In addition to this, as William continued to mismanage his money, having a group of people who followed his work and supported his message, he found himself with people to loan him money. As things would get tight, William would borrow money from this person and that person to continue to keep himself and his family afloat.
In June of 1812, William sent Mary to stay with some of his relative William Baxter in Dundee, Scotland. Baxter was known for having more radical views. When writing to Baxter about the visit, Mary's father expressed his desire for his daughter to be around people with his outlook on life and the world. He wished for her to be brought up as a philosopher or even a cynic.
Some scholars have suggested that Mary's time with Baxter was due to her own personal health reasons or to remove her from her father's troubled business doings. Whatever the true reason for the visit was, the result was uniquely fruitful for Mary. Between that visit and one the following year, Mary's sense of imagination and expression through writing flourished. While still only just starting to write creatively, she would tuck herself away and let her imagination run wild.
It was around this same time that Mary met a man named Percy Bysshe Shelley for the first time. Percy was a follower of Mary's father William and had offered to help bail William out with his financial struggles. Percy at the time had been married, but was estranged from his wife. His wife, however, was not the only family that Percy had found himself estranged from. He had come from a wealthy aristocratic family. Due to Percy's radical views, however, hindered his relationship with them. They wanted him to follow their traditional path they had led. This caused Percy his own sort of financial struggles and could not always help out William as much as he may have liked.
It wasn't just William's company that Percy began to seek out, however. Mary and Percy began to secretly meet one another in the cemetery at Mary's mother's grave. The two found themselves in love with one another when she was just 16 years old and Percy was 21. On June 26, 1814, the two declared their love to one another and it was either that day or the following that the two consummated their relationship there in the cemetery together.
To Mary's surprise, her father was not pleased with the relationship and even tried unsuccessfully to get the two to end their relationship. It also seemed to be that it was around this same time that Percy stopped giving William money to help bail him out. This could have been a contributing factor to William's disapproval to the relationship. But ultimately Mary found his disapproval perplexing since this man had shared the same views and values that her parents held and raised her with.
On July 28, 1814, Mary and Percy secretly left together for France, only bringing Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, along with. At the time, Percy's wife had been pregnant with their child, but he left her behind. They traveled all through France, taking in everything that had been destroyed by war, and marveling at everything France had to offer to them. While on the trip, the two took time reading and studying the pieces that Mary's mother had written and began keeping a joint journal between the two.
When money began to dry up, the trio gradually made their way back. Upon their arrival back home, Mary found herself to be pregnant, the couple didn't have a penny to their name, and William had completely cut them out of his life. They found themselves moving to different lodgings where they continued their reading and writing that they had started on their travel abroad. However, due to their lack of money, Percy would often take off for short periods of time to try to evade creditors that would come looking for him.
In late 1814, Percy's wife Harriet Shelley gave birth to their son. While Mary herself found herself often feeling ill during pregnancy, Percy's joy over his new son made that time more difficult for her. In addition to that, Percy and Claire would often spend time alone together. Mary and Percy shared with one another that they did not agree with monogamous relationships and instead supported one another having additional partners. That said, while some say Percy's relationship with Claire was something they all agreed on, others say that Percy and Claire's relationship caused Mary to become jealous.
During this time, Mary found herself often being visited by a man named Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Percy had seemed to try to encourage Mary and Thomas to embark on their own romantic relationship, but the two only flirted with one another and simply considered the other a close friend. While Mary had truly believed in the concept of "free love," she found herself loving only Percy.
On February 22, 1815, Mary gave birth to a baby girl two months premature. Sadly, the baby did not survive and Mary reached out to her friend Thomas for comfort following the baby's death. Mary fell into an acute depression and was tortured by visions of her lost child.
By summer, Mary's condition had improved and she found herself pregnant once again. Mary's son William, named after her father, was born on January 24, 1816. Soon after his birth, Mary nicknamed her son "Willmouse."
In May of 1816, Mary traveled to Geneva with her husband, her son, and of course her step sister Claire. In Geneva, they had met up with a man named Lord Byron. Not long before this trip. Claire had had an affair with Byron, leaving her pregnant. In addition, Byron had brought along his physician John William Polidori.
During this trip, the group had spent their time mostly writing and boating on the lake that they were vacationing near. A great deal of their days, however, were spent in the rain. The summer had been unusually rainy and during one period of time, they found themselves stuck inside for days on end due to the rain.
During this rainy period of time, the group found themselves telling one another ghost stories to entertain each other. This prompted Byron to come up with an idea. Each of them had to come up with their very own ghost stories. Mary found herself with complete writer's block and couldn't think of a single story to tell. Day after day they would ask if she had come up with a story yet and day after day she had to say that he hadn't.
One evening in June, the group began discussing the life. It sparked Mary's curiosity. What if a corpse could be brought back to life? The discovery of galvanism, which is the application of electric impulses to muscles or tissue and causing a contraction, was very new at the time. With this discovery, she wondered what else was possible? What was life? What could be done to create life? And was it something that could be manufactured?
That night, with her mind wandering, Mary found herself unable to sleep. She turned this idea over and over in her head, at times finding herself having terrifying visions about what this would look like. From there, Mary began writing. The result is the novel Frankenstein, otherwise known as The Modern Prometheus.
In September, they all returned to England and found a place to stay in Bath. Their plan was to try to keep Claire's pregnancy a secret while staying there. Around that same time, Mary received unsettling letters from her older half sister Fanny Imlay. In the letters, Fanny had hinted at being very unhappy and living an unhappy life. After the second, more alarming letter was written, Percy went to try to track Fanny down and check on her with no success. On October 10, Fanny was found dead in her room at an inn with a suicide note and a laudanum bottle.
Sadly, the tragedy did not end there. On December 10, Percy's wife Harriet's body was discovered in a lake in Hyde Park, London. It became evident that her drowning was suicide.
Following Harriet's death, Percy worked to regain custody of his two children that he had with Harriet. Her family, however, fought Percy along the way. Percy consulted a lawyer that encouraged him to remarry. They explained that he would have a better shot at his case if were married.
Up until that point, Percy and Mary hadn't had any interest in getting married. As far as they were concerned, their relationship was everything they needed. However, the case of the custody battle gave them a reason to get married. The two were wed on December 30, 1816. Mary's father and step mother were even in attendance to the wedding, seemingly moving past their past issues.
Sadly for Percy, however, the marriage wasn't enough. The Chancery Court ruled him morally unfit to have custody of his children. The two were later placed with a clergyman's family.
In January, Claire gave birth to a baby girl that she had initially named Alba, but later called her Allegra. And then later in the year on September 2, Mary gave birth to her third child, Clara.
In the autumn of 1817, Percy was once again leaving home for extended periods of time to hide away from creditors. This time around, however, the stakes were higher. Percy was in danger of being thrown into debtor's prison, their health wasn't the best, and there was a serious threat of having their children taken away from them. As a result, the family chose to move to Italy on March 12, 1818 bringing Clara and her daughter with them. This departure was intended to be a permanent one.
Upon their arrival, one of the first things the group did was go to meet with Lord Byron in Venice. He had agreed to raise Allegra so long as Claire was completely out of the picture, having nothing to do with her. Once that hand off took place, the group began their nomad style life, often moving from place to place without truly settling down anywhere. As they traveled to new places, they gradually met new people and made new friends. Through their moves, their group gradually began to grow as their new friends followed their lead.
This new free Italian life, however, wasn't all happy times. In fact, for Mary, these times were very difficult. In September of 1818, her daughter Clara died while they were in staying in Venice. Not even a year later in June of 1819, her son William died while they were in Rome. Not only was she struck by the pain of losing two of her children, but she also found that these losses strained her relationship with Percy. Mary fell into a deep depression and was essentially only comforted by her writing.
A short while after William's death, Mary gave birth to her fourth child on November 12, 1819. He was named Percy Florence. His birth brought her so much joy and happiness, but she continued to deal with the grief and heartache of the loss of her previous children for the rest of her life.
By the summer of 1822, Mary found herself pregnant once again. She, Percy, Claire, and their new friends and companions Edward and Jane Williams all moved together to the North Western coast of Italy, settling in Villa Magni. As soon as they settled in, Percy took Claire and explained that he had very troubling news for her. He explained that her daughter, Allegra, had died of typhus.
On June 16, Mary found herself having a miscarriage. Mary was losing blood very quickly and found that she would soon die if things continued the way they were going. Percy knew that if they waited for a doctor, it would be too late, so he instructed Mary to sit in a bath of ice in an attempt to stop the bleeding. The doctor that finally arrived explained that Percy's quick thinking to get Mary into the tub of ice ultimately saved her life.
July 1, 1822 was the last that Mary would see her husband. Percy, along with Edward Williams and Captain Daniel Roberts went out sailing down the coast. On July 8, the men began their return, but the men would never make it back. A terrible storm hit their boat and ten days after the storm, their bodies washed up on the coast near Viareggio.
Mary tried to stay in Italy, living with friend and writing critic Leigh Hunt in Genoa and often spent time with Byron. But her financial situation wasn't very stable. After a year, Mary and her son Percy left Italy on July 23, 1823 to live with her father and stepmother.
Once settled in, Mary found herself with a peculiar proposal. Sir Timothy Shelley, the father of her late husband, proposed to financially support her son Percy Florence. The only catch was that Percy Florence would be handed over to a guardian of his choosing. To no one's surprise, Mary rejected this proposal immediately. However, Mary managed to get him to agree to an annual allowance.
In an attempt to keep the spirit of her late husband alive, Mary devoted a lot of her time toward going over Percy's old pieces of writing. However, Sir Timothy made it perfectly clear that even though his son was dead, he still did not approve of Mary's relationship with him. He even threatened to take away the annual allowance of Mary published any sort of biography of Percy.
By the summer of 1824, Mary moved to north London to live near her friend Jane William. Jane's husband was one of the men that had also drowned with Percy during the storm while sailing in Italy. Some have suggested that Mary may have been "a little in love" with Jane. However, Jane seemed to be a bit antagonizing toward Mary by claiming that Percy preferred herself over Mary.
During this time, Mary worked on her own novel The Last Man while also working with Percy's friends to write memoirs of Byron and Percy. Mary was very passionate about memoirs and biographies about her late husband, hoping in a way to immortalize him.
She also found herself meeting American actor John Howad Payne who fell in love with her. In 1826, Payne asked Marry to marry him. However, she declined. She told him that after being married to one genius, she could only marry another. For such a harsh sort of rejection, Payne seemed to handle it relatively well.
Mary's belief in the concept of free love had not been exclusive to just open relationships. In 1827, Mary became a part of a group that worked together to help her friend Isabel Robinson and Isabel's lover Mary Diana Dods to find a way to marry and live together. Dods had been a writer that took on a male identity to aid in publishing her writing. Mary found her friend Payne to be helpful in getting the resources that she needed, but kept from sharing the details of what was going on with him. She managed the get the couple fake passports to go to France to live happily together as husband and wife.
As Mary went on later in life, she continued to write and took the money she made with from her writing to help others. While her father was alive, she made a point to help him financially. But her assistance went beyond just family. She also supported her friends Isabel Robinson and Mary Diana Dods. She also helped a woman named Georgianna Paul. Her husband had rejected her, claiming that she had committed adultery. It was situations such as these that Mary would help with. And it was never anything she did for recognition or boasting purposes. The way she saw it, those were the values she had been raised with from her parents and she was going to be sure to act on those values.
Above all, Mary's first priority was of her son Percy Florence. As he grew older, he did not seem to show the same set of talents that his parents had. However, just as Mary's first priority was to her son, Percy's first priority was to his mother. After he finished college, he lived with her and the two even took time traveling the continent together. In 1844, Percy Florence's grandfather Sir Timothy Shelley died at the age of ninety. As a result of his death, Percy Florence inherited what was left to him and the two found themselves finally able to live financially independent.
Four years later in 1848, Percy Florence married a woman named Jane Gibson St John. Mary and Jane seemed to bond and get along very well. Mary lived with the couple in London and even joined them during trips abroad.
Mary's final years had been difficult on her. Starting in 1839, Mary began to experience extreme headaches. They would be so severe that at times it would cause partial paralysis and sometimes prevented her from reading and writing. On February 1, 1851, Mary died at the age of 53. From everything she had been experiencing, her doctor suspected that Mary may have been suffering from a brain tumor that ultimately took her life.
Prior to Mary's death, she had requested to be buried with her mother and father. When Percy and Jane went to the graveyard, however, the two concluded that it was not in very good shape. They both felt very passionate that she deserved better than that. Instead, they chose a cemetery close to where they had been living that was in much better shape.
On the first anniversary of Mary's death, Percy Florence and Jane decided to go through her box desk. Once they opened it up, they found that Mary had kept locks of hair from the children that she had lost. There was also one of the notebooks that she had shared with her husband Percy. Finally, they found a copy of Mary's husband Percy's poem Adonais with one page folded around a silk parcel that contained some of his ashes from when he had been cremated and the remains of his heart. Mary loved her family very deeply and kept parts of them and their memory close to her until the day that she died.
Frankenstein is truly an iconic story that even if you haven't read it, nearly everyone is familiar with the story line. While I am one that has Frankenstein on my list of books I have yet to read, I am grateful I have taken the time to learn Mary Shelley's life story. The background of how her most well known piece has come to be has piqued my interest to not just read it soon, but also to look for her other lesser known pieces. And for such an incredible woman who overcame so much and stood up for so much and did not waver from standing up for what she believed in no matter the cost, she deserves far more recognition than she has gotten over the years.