Mary Shelley

(1797-1851)

1797-1851

"It seems to me that in what I have hitherto written I have done nothing but prophecy what has arrived."

Birthplace

London, England

Education

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley never went to school. Her father, the political thinker and journalist William Godwin, thought each pupil should "proceed by a plan of his own invention", an education that was rounded out by the brilliant figures in her father's circle - Hazlitt, Lamb, Coleridge, and her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Other jobs

As the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, writing was the family business. She not only wrote novels, travelogues and journalism for the London Magazine and the Westminster Review, but also published the first authoritative edition of Shelley's poems after his death.

Did you know?

She published the satirical poem Mounseer Nongtongpaw, recounting an Englishman's uncomprehending journey to France, at the age of 10.

Critical verdict

Mary Shelley's reputation is almost entirely dominated by a novel begun when she was 18 and published when 21. The nightmare that she had at the Villa Diodati has become a universal myth, and the name of her earnest seeker after truth a shorthand for science gone mad. Contemporary reviewers praised her "original genius and happy power of expression" - though those who knew she was a woman attacked her for forgetting the "gentleness of her sex", or for "feeble imitation" of her father's work. William Beckford scrawled, "This is, perhaps, the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung from the reeking dunghill of present times" in the flyleaf of his copy. But this Toadstool was an enormous popular success, spawning 15 stage versions within a decade. It has been reinvented as a retelling of the fall of man, a parable of the romantic artist, a warning of the perils of science, and most recently as an exploration of the female experience in a patriarchal society, and is now firmly entrenched as part of the 19th century landscape.

Recommended works

There is nowhere else to start - Frankenstein is still fresh after all the B-movies and retains its power through a combination of earnestness and innocence. Nothing else quite stands up to the gigantic stature of her "hideous progeny". Try Valperga if you're looking for doomed romance, The Last Man for millennial angst or Mathilda for revealing semi-autobiographical elements. The journal of her elopement with Shelley at the age of 16 is a striking study in the unsaid, and short.

Influences

She wrote Frankenstein in answer to a challenge from her husband and Byron - Percy Shelley made extensive revisions to the first edition himself - and read Walter Scott as she worked on Valperga. Her parents were an influence, of course; Godwin's Caleb Williams is particularly worth reading.

Now read on

Try Harold Bloom's Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Modern Critical Views as a way into the huge and ever-growing mountain of academic literature, or Bram Stoker's Dracula for more 19th-century monstering.

Adaptations

The Frankenstein story has taken on a life of its own under the lights of stage and screen. The horror film begins with Thomas Edison's 1910 Frankenstein, and mutated via Boris Karloff and Mel Brooks to arrive at Robert De Niro and Kenneth Branagh wrestling half-naked in a pool of goo (despite the title, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein it was not).

Useful links and work online

Work online
· Valperga
· An extract from Mounseer Nongtongpaw
· The Last Man
· The Mortal Immortal

Background
· Web resources on Mary Shelley and her circle
· My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and Frankenstein
· About the novella, Matilda

The GuardianTramp

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