Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, born August 30, 1797, was a prominent, though often overlooked, literary figure during the Victorian Era of English Literature. She was the only child of, Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous feminist, and William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist. Young Mary grew up in a strange household. Her mother died only 10 days after Mary was born. From infancy, Mary was treated as a unique individual. High expectations were placed on her potential. She was treated as if she were born under a lucky star. Her father was convinced all babies are born with potential waiting to be developed. From an early age, famous poets, philosophers, and writers surrounded Mary.(www.desert-fairy.com) After her mother died, her father re-married. Mary’s stepmother hated her. Together her father and stepmother had two boys and two girls. Mary grew up poor. Her father was always in debt. (Bloom 376)
A peculiar sort of gothicism was part of Mary’s earliest existence. Most every day she would go for a walk with her father to the St. Pancras churchyard where her mother was buried. Mary’s father taught Mary to read and spell her name by having her trace her mother’s inscription on the stone.(www.desert-fairy.com)
At the age of sixteen, Mary ran away to live with twenty-one year old Percy Bysshe Shelley, the un-happily married poet. Percy’s wife Harriet drowned herself when she heard about her husband having feelings for Mary. Mary’s stepsister also committed suicide. After the suicides, Mary and Percy reluctantly married. Fierce public hostility toward the couple drove them to Italy. Initially, they were happy in Italy, but two of their young children died there. Mary never fully recovered from this trauma.(British Authors) Nevertheless, Percy empowered Mary to live as she most desired. She enjoyed intellectual and artistic growth, love, and freedom. When Mary was only twenty-four Percy drowned on a ship, leaving her penniless with a two year old son. After her husband’s death, poverty forced her to live in England, which she despised because of the morality and social system. She worked as a professional writer to support her father and her only son. Mary died at the age of forty-eight. She died in 1851 of a brain tumor.(www.desert-fairy.com)
These tragedies and hardships overshadowed her literary work. Mary’s most famous work, Frankenstein, proves this. One critic, Helen Moore, says, “Frankenstein alone was personal, it reflected Mrs. Shelley’s true self” (Lit. Criticism 554). The story was conceived in 1816 while Mary was staying at a friend’s villa in Geneva, Switzerland. (www.desert-fairy.com) The story remains Mary’s only novel to be been examined beyond its 19th century shelf life. William Magim says, “Frankenstein is the fearful and fantastic dream of a genius” (Reviews on Frankenstein). Critics consider Frankenstein as one of the best gothic novels written. Clara H. Whitmore says, “The narrative of Frankenstein is so powerful, so real, that, once read, it can never be forgotten” (Lit. Criticism 554). It was also considered as feminist work. Recent feminist critics, in particular, have found Mary and Frankenstein a rich source of study, as a manifestation of the author’s ambivalent feelings toward motherhood.(Reviews of Frankenstein) Edith Birkhead says, “She must be ranked as one of those literary woman whose province is to influence and stimulate others” (Lit. Criticism 554)
Mary wrote 17 works during her lifetime. Some of these novels being, Frankenstein , The Last Man , The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck , Lodone , and Falkner . Lodone and Falkner are thought to be autobiographical. Her later novels attracted little notice, and critics generally agree that they share faults of verbosity and awkward plotting.(British Authors) Clara H. Whitmore says, “The Last Man?the plot is clumsy; the characters are abstractions” (Lit. Criticism 554). Although, other critics praised the authors imagination and powers of description. Edith Birkhead says, “It is indeed remarkable that such a young and inexperienced writer as Mary Shelley, who was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, could write such a novel” (Lit. Criticism 555).
After the death of her husband, grief and trouble dimmed Shelley’s imagination. But, the pale, young student, Frankenstein, the monster she created, and the beautiful priestess, Beatrice, 3 strong conceptions, testify to the genius of Mary Shelley. (Lit. Criticism 554)
House Publication. 1998
Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. New York: Gale Research Company., 1987.
Patnaik, Sumeeta. Bibliographic Studies on the Work of Mary Shelley. 1996.