Mary Shelley is the British author behind the 1818 novel, Frankenstein (The Modern Prometheus), about a scientist with insane notions of building a man from leftover human body parts. It’s a novel written by a woman ahead of her time. It asks the same moral question we ask today when it comes to science and technology: “Just because it can be done, should it be done?” It also brings into the light our responsibility for such actions.
Shelley was only eighteen at the time she started writing Frankenstein. It was her first novel and is considered a masterpiece, which is rare for any woman. She wrote Frankenstein during the French and Industrial Revolution when science and technology were coming into their own; creating a myth reflective of the time she grew up in but still containing many aspects relevant to today.
Mary was surrounded by death so it is not surprising she would write a book about creating life and losing it.
Mary Shelley was born in London in 1797. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist pioneer and wrote one the first woman manifests. She died giving birth to Mary. Her father, William Godwin, was a novelist and founder of philosophical anarchism. When Mary was 3 or 4 her father married a woman named Claire who already had two children of her own. Mary never really developed a motherly bond with her.
After schooling Mary returned home to find Percy Shelley working with her father as a disciple. He was a great romantic poet and she fell in love with him easily despite the fact he was already married to another woman and had one child. Percy was into ‘free love’ and was often unfaithful. It was also rumored that he was a nudist, atheist and vegetarian. Of course, her relationship with Percy was not supported by her father; so she snuck off to be with him in Switzerland along with a bunch of his writing friends including Lord Byron who had his own scandalous behavior. Percy died in 1822 in a boating accident during a storm while they were living in Italy.
After many ill attempts, Mary had one surviving child with Percy. Percy Florence grew into a respected man who married, worked as a writer and cared for his mother. Mary was devastated by Percy’s death was forever worried that her son would die a horrendous death like his father.
When Mary moved back to England in 1823. She had lost everything so she stayed with her father and his family. She continued to be a writer and publish her husband’s works to help support herself and see to Percy Florence’s education. She had three more successful novels, poems and short stories. She also wrote about feminist figures for encyclopedias. It was not until Percy’s grandfather died and her son became a Baron that she was able to live in resemblance of comfort.
It is said that Mary Shelley never contributed to feminism like her mother had but I disagree. She is a perfect example that a woman can have a family and be an intelligent contributor to society. After her husband died Mary took care of her family by earning a living with further writing.
Mary understood science and technology and was able to create a world that everyone deemed possible and is still enjoyed decades after her death. She wrote what is considered one of the best novels of all time. A feat not many feminists (or not) can claim.
In 1851 Mary Shelley, the “creator of the modern myth of science” died in London at the age of 53 from a brain tumor, leaving behind a literary legacy she would never have fathomed in her short lifetime.
This piece was originally posted on 9/29/2007 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.