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10 Facts About Mary Shelley

Michele Debczak
Portrait of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.
Portrait of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. / Culture Club/GettyImages
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Some readers were scandalized when Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818. The novel describes a young scientist who harnesses the power to create life by reanimating a corpse stitched together from scavenged body parts—and more than two centuries after its debut, some people still have trouble believing the story came from the mind of a teenage girl. 

To those who know Mary Shelley best, the flavor and quality of her writing comes as no surprise. The author was influenced by great artists and thinkers throughout her life, from her philosopher parents to her poet husband Percy Shelley. Beyond her novels, she displayed an interest in the darker side of life, having romantic trysts at her mother’s gravesite in her youth and carrying around an organ of her dead lover later in life. Here are more facts you should know about the mother of science fiction.

1. Mary Shelley’s mother was a feminist writer.

Mary Shelley wasn’t the first ambitious woman in her family. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering writer, thinker, and activist who published The Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. (William Godwin, Mary’s father, was a respected political thinker as well.) Wollstonecraft died from infection days after giving birth to Mary on August 30, 1797, but her influence on her daughter was profound. Mary wrote in 1827: “The memory of my mother has always been the pride and delight of my life.”

2. Her childhood home hosted some notable guests.

As the progeny of philosophers, Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) received a rich and unconventional education. William Godwin belonged to elite social circles and welcomed many notable artists, scientists, and politicians into his home. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, former U.S. vice President Aaron Burr, and Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin are a few of the intellectuals Shelley crossed paths with as a child.

3. Shelley may have lost her virginity on her mother’s grave.

Mary Wollstonecraft's grave at St. Pancras Old Church in London.
Mary Wollstonecraft's grave at St. Pancras Old Church in London. / Stephencdickson, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When Percy Bysshe Shelley became acquainted with a teenage Mary Godwin, the poet was married to a different woman—but that didn’t stop him from falling for Godwin. The pair began meeting in secret, and it didn’t take long for them to declare their love for one another. Many scholars endorse what has long been considered a rumor in the literary world: that the couple consummated their union on Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave. The gravestone behind St. Pancras Old Church in London was close to the Godwin home, and it’s where Mary went to write, read, and reflect. She paid frequent visits to the site while being courted by Percy, so it’s not a stretch to think she would feel comfortable being intimate with him there.

4. Just one of her children survived her.

By the time Shelley conceived the idea for Frankenstein at age 18, she had already given birth once. The first child she had with Percy Shelley—a daughter—died within weeks of her birth. In her journal, Shelley wrote that she had a “dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived—I awake & find no baby—I think about the little thing all day.” The possibility of reincarnation was an idea she would explore in greater depth in her first novel. Her two subsequent children—William and Clara—died when they were toddlers. Percy Florence was the fourth child of Percy and Mary Shelley and the only one who survived into adulthood [PDF].

5. Rumors of murder surrounded her marriage to Percy.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley. / Fototeca Storica Nazionale./GettyImages

When Percy Shelley ran off to be with Mary, he left behind a young child and his wife Harriet, who was pregnant with their second child. Harriet Shelley was distressed by her husband’s affair, and in December 1816 her body was discovered in the Serpentine, a lake in London’s Hyde Park. Before disappearing, she had written Percy a letter wishing him “that happiness which you have deprived me of.” Her death was ruled a suicide, and Mary and Percy Shelley were officially married less than a month later

The convenient timing of Harriet’s death led some to suspect foul play. If Harriet was indeed murdered, Mary’s father William Godwin would have had a strong motive. He was outraged to see his daughter sacrifice her honor to be with a married man, and he urged the couple to make their union official as soon as it was legal (despite him criticizing the institution of marriage in his political writings). The rumors add another macabre wrinkle to Mary’s life, but they’re dismissed by most scholars: There’s no proof that Harriet was murdered, whereas suicide was something she bought up often before her death.

6. Frankenstein originated with a ghost story contest.

The story of Frankenstein’s inception is nearly as famous as the book itself. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, poet Lord Byron, and physician John Polidori traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, for one of the most important vacations in literary history. There wasn’t much for them to do outdoors (a volcanic eruption in Southeast Asia had darkened skies around the world), but they managed to keep busy. After reading a book of spooky tales, the group decided to hold a ghost story competition. Mary famously came up with the concept for Frankenstein that summer, but hers wasn’t the only horror novel born in the house: Polidori was inspired to write The Vampyre, an influential work of pre-Dracula vampire fiction.

7. Shelley found inspiration for Frankenstein in a waking dream.

Frontispiece To Frankenstein By Mary Shelley
Illustration from early edition of Frankenstein. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Two hundred years later, it’s safe to say that Mary Shelley won the scary story contest, but the idea for Frankenstein didn’t come to her immediately. After struggling to think of something to write about, she claimed that the story struck her as she was trying to sleep. She described what she saw as her “imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me” in the introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel, writing [PDF]: 

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

According to Shelley, that vision became the seed for a novel. Frankenstein was published two years later, in 1818.

It’s a compelling story, but at least one historian argues that Shelley made it up. In 2018, Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker that Shelley’s account was her attempt to explain how she came up with, in her own words, “so very hideous an idea” as a young girl. By comparing her creative process to transcribing a dream, Shelley may have been joining the literary establishment at the time in erasing her contributions to her own book. This revisionist narrative around Shelley’s authorship continues to an extent even today.

8. People credited her husband for Frankenstein.

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Title page of Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley / Culture Club/GettyImages

Frankenstein was first published anonymously with a preface by Percy Shelley, leading many to assume that the poet was the true author. Even when new editions were released under Mary Shelley’s name several years later, this assumption persisted. Percy did influence the creative process—he encouraged her to expand her idea into a novel and edited parts of it—and this is still used as the basis for arguments that Mary didn’t really write Frankenstein. According to scholars, this theory is false. Any guidance Mary Shelley received from her husband was part of a standard writer-editor relationship, which is a process published novels still go through today. Shelley wasn’t the first or last writer to get editing help from a spouse, but historically, male authors are far less likely to be denied credit for their work.

9. Her second-most famous book is an apocalyptic pandemic novel.

Mary Shelley set a high bar for herself with Frankenstein. Her 1826 novel The Last Man also explores philosophical themes under the guise of a sci-fi premise. In the dystopian tale, the 21st-century world is at the mercy of a mysterious plague, and humanity teeters on the brink of extinction. Unlike Frankenstein, The Last Man wasn’t considered groundbreaking for its age. “End of humanity” novels were practically cliché by the time it was published, and critics rejected it; the book wouldn’t receive a reappraisal until the mid-20th century. Out of all of Shelley’s post-Frankenstein novels—which include Valperga, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Lodore, and FalknerThe Last Man is the most widely read and studied today.

10. She kept an unusual keepsake from her dead husband.

If you had any doubts that Mary Shelley was the original goth girl, her treatment of her late husband’s remains will convince you. Percy Shelley drowned in a sailing accident in 1822 at age 29, and when his body was cremated, an organ that was believed by some to be his heart refused to burn. Experts today suspect that it had calcified during an earlier case of tuberculosis. Mary ended up with the indestructible organ, and instead of using it to reanimate a corpse she carried it around as a keepsake. Following her death from a brain tumor in 1851, the heart was discovered in her desk wrapped in the pages of Percy Shelley’s poem Adonais.

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