Heads up, literature fans: today marks the birthday of Mary Shelley, creator of one of the most famous literary characters of all time and all-around tragic figure (seriously, her life was rough, right from the beginning).
Mary was born in London in 1797; the birth ended up costing her mother, early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, her life—she died just ten days after her daughter was born. Unable to cope for long on his own, Mary’s father, William Godwin, remarried (yet another Mary) in 1801. Though he was happy, Mary apparently loathed her stepmother.
Mary’s education was informal, to say the least, and mostly consisted of educational outings with her father and step- and half-siblings (one older half sister from her mother, and two stepbrothers). The children also had free run of Godwin’s library and to the many intellectuals who visited him, such as Aaron Burr and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Eventually, Mary was sent to a boarding school in Ramsgate, and later her father sent her to stay with the Baxter family near Dundee, where he hoped she would be brought up ‘like a philosopher, even like a cynic.’ Mary ended up loving her time with the Baxters.
Around 1814, Percy Bysshe Shelley entered Godwin’s orbit, and Mary met him around this time. He was alienated from both his wife and from his aristocratic family, which denied him access to the family money and left him seriously in debt. Godwin covered him, only to find out Shelley couldn’t pay him back. By that time, Shelley and Mary had fallen in love, and though her father tried to intervene, it was too late. They escaped to France, taking Mary’s stepsister Claire with them, in June, and travelled on to Switzerland, which 17-year-old Mary seems to have considered a very romantic venture (never mind that France was ravaged by war at the time.) Though hampered by a lack of funds, the trio travelled around for a while before returning to Kent in September 1814.
They did not receive a warm welcome. Mary was pregnant, and her father refused to have anything to do with her. Shelley was also still penniless. Somehow, the couple (plus Claire), managed to move into lodgings at Somers Town and, apparently not considering jobs to be necessary, continued on a course of intense reading and writing and entertaining friends. In February 1815, Mary gave birth to a baby girl prematurely. The child died, and though Mary was distraught, she quickly conceived again and gave birth to a son, William, in January 1816.
That same year, Mary, Shelley, and the baby travelled with Claire to Geneva, where they spent the summer with Lord Byron, who was currently having an affair with Claire (who was also pregnant with his child). The weather in Geneva was terrible, so the party decided to amuse itself by writing supernatural tales. Mary’s contribution was Frankenstein, which was published anonymously in 1818.
After returning to England, Mary and Percy moved with Claire to Bath. Not long after their arrival, Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, and Percy’s estranged wife, Harriet, committed suicide. Shortly after Harriet’s death, Mary and Percy finally married, with Mary’s father and stepmother present, thus ending the family rift. The following September Mary gave birth to a daughter, Clara, and started editing the journal of the threesome’s trip to the continent in 1814, which was published in 1817.
The Shelleys headed back to the Continent, only to find their lives blighted by sorrow. Two of their children, Clara and William, died in 1818 and 1819. Mary gave birth to another boy, Percy Florence, in late 1819, which helped heal the pain left by the loss of her children. She and Percy were incredibly prolific during their time in Italy—she wrote two novels and two plays, and he composed several major poems.
In 1822, the Shelleys moved to Villa Magni on the Bay of Lerici, where Percy took up sailing. While out on 8 July with a friend, he was caught in a storm, and everyone on the boat was drowned.
Mary found herself in a precarious financial situation. She returned to England and stayed with her father for a while, until Percy’s father gave her a small amount of money, which later became an annual allowance. Mary set about editing Percy’s poems and working on her own writing. An American actor, John Howard Payne, fell in love with her and proposed marriage, but Mary, a bit harshly, turned him down, saying that, as she had been married to one genius, she could only marry another. Less cruelly, she assisted a friend, Isabel Robinson, in escaping to France with her lover, Mary Diana Dods, so they could start a new life together.
In 1844, Mary’s son finally inherited the Shelley family estate from his parsimonious grandfather, and he and Mary, to whom he remained devoted, moved to the family’s ancestral home in Sussex. Mary began suffering from poor health starting in the late 1830s, and she died at the age of 53 in London, from what her doctor suspected was a brain tumour.