Mary Shelley had a birthday last week (August 30, 1797). She had a hard life and I hope that right now she’s sitting on a heavenly cloud eating huge amounts of cake. Here’s a few things you might not know about Mary Shelley:
- You probably know that she wrote Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, as part of a ghost writing contest with Lord Byron, John William Polodori, Percy Shelley (her husband), and Claire Clairmont (her stepsister, who was madly in love with Lord Byron and who was pregnant with his baby). You probably don’t know that Mary re-wrote Frankenstein twice – once in 1823 and once in 1831. Later versions were more conservative, leaving out passages about women’s desire for independence and a passage about a miscarriage of justice. Later versions also put more emphasis on fate and destiny.
- Mary Shelly’s mother, Mary Wollenscraft Shelly, was an ardent feminist who died of an infection a few days after Mary’s birth. Mary was frequently reminded that her mother had brilliant and that Mary had better not let her mother’s death be in vain.
- At the time when she first wrote Frankenstein, the eighteen-year-old Mary had already given birth twice, once to a daughter who was premature and who died a few weeks after the birth.
- Mary ended up having five pregnancies and giving birth to four children, of which only one survived childhood.
- Mary’s book The Last Man, features fictionalized versions of the group of friends she told ghost stories with in Italy. By the time she wrote The Last Man, all but one of her children was dead, her husband and his best friend Lord Byron was dead, and many other members of Mary’s family and friends had also died young, tragic deaths. The Last Man is an apocalyptic science fiction novel in which the world is devastated by plague.
Mary’s most significant literary accomplishment was Frankenstein, but her greatest personal accomplishment was supporting herself and her son independently as a young widow in 19th Century England. She had a tempestuous relationship with her father and her in-laws and received little support from them. She was proposed to twice, but said “Having been married a genius, she could only marry another one”. She did things her way. Some things she did were clever and some were not but they were her own decisions. Cake for Mary Shelley!