Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley will always be linked to the novel Frankenstein and those who know her name might think of her as having had her life defined by that single iconic work. But when the book was first published in 1818, Mary was a girl of twenty-one. Many other endeavors became important to her as she grew in maturity.
Frankenstein was merely the first major accomplishment. In her lifetime, she wrote six more novels, numerous short stories, two dramas, travelogues, biographies, and she compiled collections of poems by her late husband Percy Bysshe Shelley that brought him international attention.
She first met the young, then-unknown poet at one of her father’s salon dinners in 1812. He was there to obtain financial backing from the renowned author William Godwin, Mary’s father. In June of 1814, knowing that Percy had a wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley, Mary swore her love to him beside her mother’s grave. They ran off to France with Mary’s stepsister, Claire Claremont. It was Claire who, infatuated with the famous poet Lord Byron, led Percy and Mary to meet Byron in Geneva in May, 1816. It was that summer in Byron’s Villa Diodati that Mary thought up her immortal tale of a student of science creating a monster. In December, 1816—only after Percy’s estranged wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine—Mary became Percy’s bride.
“But lo and behold! I found myself famous!” Mary wrote to her friend Leigh Hunt on September 9, 1823. “Frankenstein had prodigious success as a drama. […] Wallack looked very well as Frankenstein—he is at the beginning full of hope and expectation. […] The story is not well managed—but Cooke played [the Creature’s] part extremely well—his seeking as it were for support—his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard—all indeed he does was well imagined and executed. I was much amused, and it appeared to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience.” (Ed. Frederick L. Jones, The Letters of Mary W. Shelley, 3 Vols., [Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1944], I, 259).
Mary was speaking of a stage play, Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, adapted by Richard Brinsley Peake. Watching this play with her father, Mary found it a pleasant diversion, but for Shelley, it was only a minor distraction from an immense crisis. She had recently returned to England from a sojourn in Italy where she had suffered the greatest loss of her young life.
While Mary and her friend Jane Williams were staying at Casa Magni in July of 1822, Edward Trelawny brought Mary terrible news. Percy Shelley’s body, along with the body of Jane’s husband, Ned Williams, had been washed ashore in Livorno, Italy after they had sailed into a bad storm on July 8th. Trelawny described the moment when Mary received the news: “Mrs. Shelley’s large grey eyes were fixed on my face. I turned away. Unable to bear this horrid silence, with a convulsive effort she exclaimed: ‘Is there no hope?’” (Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler, The Monsters: Mary Shelley & The Curse of Frankenstein, p. 270).
Mary’s direction in life was unalterably changed. She had been dependent on Percy for guidance in her writing career. More than that, of course, Mary loved him. On October 2, 1822, Mary wrote in her journal: “For eight years I communicated, with unlimited freedom, with one whose genius, far transcending mine, awakened and guided my thoughts. […] What a change! O my beloved Shelley! How often during those happy days—happy, though chequered (sic)—I thought how superiorly gifted I had been in being united to one to whom I could unveil myself, and who could understand me!” But after Percy’s death, she would have to make a successful literary life for herself—and do it on her own. She knew this, for her journal of Oct. 2nd continued: “[…] my imagination never flags. Literary labours (sic), the improvement of my mind, and the enlargement of my ideas, are the only occupations that elevate me from my lethargy.” (Florence A. Thomas Marshall, The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, [Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 2005: Reprinted from the 1889 edition], pp. 39-40).
Although Percy had helped Mary in the writing of the first edition of Frankenstein, Mary followed that with a book that was entirely her own. She wrote the novella Mathilda in August of 1819 and handed the manuscript to her father to edit. Godwin never sought a publisher for it; the novella described an incestuous relationship between a father and daughter.
While Percy worked on his poems and sought publication, Mary continued to write her own material. Around the time that her son, Percy Florence Shelley was born in Florence, Italy (November 12, 1819), Mary began work on an historical novel she called Castruccio, The Prince of Lucca, which William Godwin retitled Valperga. Mary had already begun researching this novel while she and Percy were staying in Lucca, Italy in 1818 and she was writing it in earnest in 1820. It was published after Percy’s death in the autumn of 1823. This second novel was a pivotal work in that Percy had little to do with overseeing and revising its writing, as he had done with Frankenstein.
With Percy’s death in 1822, Mary faced the reality that every professional writer must face: to make money one has to publish. The Bohemian life that she and Percy had enjoyed was made possible because he was the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, who held the title Second Baronet of Castle Goring. As such, Percy was heir to great wealth and was receiving a generous yearly allowance.
All this was in jeopardy after Percy’s death. Sir Timothy hated having the Shelley name “besmirched” before the public and threatened to stop supplying Mary with any money. However, Mary had something to bargain with: Percy’s six-year old son, Percy Florence Shelley. The boy would succeed Sir Timothy, becoming the third Baronet after his death. However, even with Lord Byron interceding for Mary, Sir Timothy still refused Mary any funds.
Depending on her own reputation and the support of writer friends like Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, Mary started grinding out pieces for the London magazines. She wrote both articles and short fiction in the popular magazines of the day: The Liberal, The London Magazine, Westminster Review, and, later, The Keepsake. The editors of these magazines forced a strict discipline on her: “When I write for them, I am worried to death to make my things shorter and shorter—till I fancy people think ideas can be conveyed by intuition” (Letter of June 11, 1835 to Maria Gisborne, a friend, as quoted by Charles E. Robinson in his “Introduction” to Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories [Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976], pp. xiii-xiv). Mary suffered the same indignities that short story writers face today—cutting down on words and “tightening up” the writing.
In June 1824, Mary published Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which quickly sold three hundred of the five hundred editions printed. An alarmed Sir Timothy made a deal with her: if she suppressed the remaining copies of the work and promised not to write any biographical material about Percy, at least during Sir Timothy’s lifetime, he would give her an allowance “sufficient to provide at least the bare necessities for herself and her young son” (Hugh J. Luke, Jr. editor, “Introduction,” The Last Man by Mary Shelley [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965], p. xi). Mary accepted his terms.
Mary’s third novel took on a subject that is today a staple of science fiction: the apocalyptic novel. She began writing The Last Man in early 1824 about a future earth suffering a gradually-spreading pandemic. She cared less about describing what that future might be like than about honoring her late husband, however: since her father-in-law had refused her wish to write a biography of Percy, so Mary disguised Percy and their circle of friends by giving them fictitious names and placing them in her novel.
The Last Man takes place in the year 2073—far-flung and impossibly distant from Mary’s point-of-view—but she was not concerned with showing a technically advanced future. There are no teleporters or food replicators or extraterrestrials in her novel. Instead, her vision was advanced for the 1820s: England transformed from a monarchy into a republic. That had been William Godwin’s hope and Percy Shelley’s dream. So Mary carried that simple concept into her 2073 world, marking the end of the last king of England. The scenes and events were all very familiar to Mary and readers of her time. Percy Shelley was idealized in the character of Adrian, Earl of Windsor, Lord Byron was represented by Lord Raymond, and Mary gave herself a male persona as the narrator and friend to Adrian, Lionel Verney.
As the novel progresses, a plague begins to manifest itself (in Volume 2 of the typically three-volume novel) during a war between Turkey and Greece that gradually spread throughout the world. It is ultimately Verney, watching as his friends died from war and sickness, who becomes the last man on earth.
Mary struggled against feelings of melancholy as she began work on the first draft of The Last Man. She had written in her journal on May 14, 1824: “Amidst all the depressing circumstances that weigh on me, none sinks deeper than the failure of my intellectual powers; nothing I write pleases me. . . . The last man! Yes! I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me” (from Mary Shelley’s Journal, edited by Frederick L. Jones, as quoted by Hugh J. Luke, Jr., “Introduction,” The Last Man, p. x).
The next day, May 15th, she received word of the death of another old friend and member of the Shelley circle. Lord Byron had died in April of a fever at Missolonghi in Greece. Lord Byron’s death, oddly enough, was a stimulus to Mary’s writing of the novel. Just as Byron had gone to fight for Greek independence, Mary gave the character of Raymond a fitting death in battle in the Greece of the late twenty-first century.As Prof. Luke quotes from Mary’s journal of June 8, 1824: “I feel my powers again . . . I shall feel again the enthusiastic glow of composition” (Luke, p. xi).
Mary wrote three more novels after The Last Man. As she published these more conventional novels, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837), she continued to explore the fantastic in a number of stories she wrote for the magazines. She made use of suspended animation (modern-day cryonics) in “Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman” (1826), inter-body transference in “Transformation” (1831), the resurrection of a living person from Limbo (or Purgatory) in “The Invisible Girl” (1832), and the effects of alchemist Cornelius Agrippa’s elixir of life in “The Mortal Immortal” (1833).
Mary also wrote herself into these fantasies. She was Guido in “Transformation” changed into a hideous dwarf who “longed to address some one, or to hear others discourse” (Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories, edited by Charles E. Robinson [Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976], p. 131); and she was the narrator of “The Mortal Immortal” who, while remaining youthful, spoke of burying a loved one, saying, “I wept to feel that I had lost all that really bound me to humanity” (Robinson, Collected Tales, p. 229). That was what mattered to Mary at that time in her life, using “the formation of castles in the air—the indulging in waking dreams” to express her feelings of separateness and deep loss (Mary Shelley, “Introduction” to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, edited by Johanna M. Smith).
When her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, died in 1822, Mary was an attractive young woman. Struggling with feelings of depression, she often kept to her home, believing herself a pariah in London society. In spite of this, she had several male admirers courting her quite publicly. Among them were the notables Edward Trelawney, John Howard Payne, and Washington Irving. She was a young mother raising a child under difficult circumstances. It was imperative that she bring in money to support the two of them. Why didn’t she make an easier life for herself by marrying any of her male admirers?
Trelawney had been a friend and correspondent with Mary for many years. She wrote a response to his ardent pleas not to give in to any other suitor’s proposal but his own in a letter dated June 14, 1831:
“You tell me not to marry—but I will—any one (sic) who will take me out of my present desolate & uncomfortable position—Any one—& with all this do you think that I shall marry? —Never—neither you, nor anybody else—Mary Shelley shall be written on my tomb—and why? I cannot tell—except that it is so pretty a name that though I were to preach to myself for years, I never should have the heart to get rid of it” (Marshall, pp. 219-220). To Mary, her married name was much more than a mere signature on paper. It signified a bond with the spirit and memory of the man she loved for time everlasting.
Mary’s last published work was Rambles in Germany and Italy. Published in 1844, it described the trips she took with her grown son Percy Florence Shelley and several of his friends from Trinity College, Cambridge. During their first trip in 1840, Mary suffered terrible head pains and remained in Milan, Italy while her son and his friends returned to England for final exams. Mary would continue to suffer these pains for the rest of her life.
In April, 1844, Sir Timothy Shelley died—at the age of ninety-two. Mary’s son became the third baronet of Castle Goring and inherited his wealth. Mary viewed the marriage of her son to Jane St. John in 1848 with joy. Lady Jane Shelley gave her the companionship she needed and sorely missed in all those years since Percy Bysshe’s death.
Sadly, Mary only spent three years with Sir Percy and Lady Jane. They were with her when she died of a brain tumor in her home on Chester Square in London on February 1, 1851 at the age of fifty-three. Her son sent a letter to Mary’s childhood friend, Isabella Baxter Booth, that read: “About a fortnight ago she had a succession of fits, which ended in a sort of stupor in which she remained for a week—without any sign of life but her breathing which gradually ceased without any pain. . . . And now she has left us most mournful and wretched” (Roseanne Montillo, The Lady and Her Monsters, [New York: HarperCollins, 2013], p. 284). Mary was devoted to her son Percy Florence Shelley, her only child to have lived to adulthood and marry. Ultimately, she found contentment in spending her final years with her grown son and her daughter-in-law.
Although the publishers of her subsequent novels attached “By the Author of Frankenstein” to her byline, Mary was not haunted by the ghost of Frankenstein. It was another spirit that visited her throughout her later years. She wrote of one visitation in her journal on February 2, 1823: “A storm has come across me. . . . I thought I heard my Shelley call me—not my Shelley in heaven, but my Shelley, my companion in my daily tasks” (Marshall, p. 65). He lived in her memory and in constant thought.
She is with him now.
Theodore Krulik is a distinguished scholar who completed his Master’s Thesis on a textual, critical, and biographical study of Frankenstein. At Readercon in July, 2012, Krulik moderated a panel entitled “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Expanding Our Knowledge.” In 2014, he wrote an appreciation of Mary Shelley’s life for the program book of that year’s Readercon. Other literary work includes essays on Richard Matheson in Critical Encounters II for Ungar, edited by Tom Staicar, and on James Gunn’s The Immortals in Death and the Serpent for Greenwood Press, edited by Carl Yoke and Donald Hassler. As a member of the Science Fiction Research Association, Krulik wrote a regular column for their newsletter in the 1980s and 90s entitled “The Shape of Films To Come.” Currently, he is writing a novel about a science fiction writer who gains remarkable powers to see into the minds of others. Krulik hopes to complete World Shaper by the end of 2017.