The True Significance of Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)  has been more in our consciousness of late, thanks to the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein‘s publication (and the superlative exhibition about same at the Morgan Library), as well as Jody Christopherson’s smartly crafted one woman show, which happens to have been the last live theatre piece I saw before the pandemic shut-down. And there was that 2017 bio-pic with Elle Fanning. 

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) was one of the first works of grown-up literature I ever attempted to grapple with, at the age of ten or thereabouts, driven thither naturally by the classic films. Newcomers to the book are inevitably surprised by what they encounter. It is a challenging slog, the farthest thing from pulp of the Bram Stoker/ Edgar Rice Burroughs variety or even from pleasant well-made prose like that generated by Robert Louis Stevenson or H.G. Wells. It is philosophical LITERATURE. And that fact is but the most apparent indication of the larger truth that, while Mary Shelley’s name is widely known, the trivia most of the public knows about her are but fragments that do not adequately or truthfully represent her. Certainly, she is a founding mother of the horror genre  and what we now call Goth culture. But she is not reducible to “horror writer”. She wrote numerous other works which are only now coming to be appreciated by the critical community. As for the other best known things about her: her parentage, her husband — the truth would be ill-served to think her (as most people do, I believe) outclassed in that company, unequal to those around her. While it’s true that she is best known in the context of the intellectual circle she moved in, it must also be stressed that she BELONGED in that circle.

Shelley’s parents were a sort of political philosophy/literary power couple. I’m hard-pressed to think of a modern pair where both parties were similarly impactful to posterity. Her father, William Godwin (1756–1836) was a precursor to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and one of the first outspoken advocates and theorists of anarchism and libertarianism, thus influencing thinkers ranging from Herbert Spencer to Prince Kropotkin. His key work, influenced by Edmund Burke and prompted by the events of the French Revolution, was his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). Thomas Malthus’s famous Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) was written in response to a section of Political Justice. Godwin is also important in the development of children’s literature. In addition to his own adaptations of fairy stories, he was the publisher of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, as well as the first English edition of Swiss Family Robinson. Godwin was also a novelist, having written one of the first mystery thrillers, entitled Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794). Of his numerous other novels, St. Leon (1799) seems notable with his speculative science conceit of physical immortality, presaging later writers like Wells (Things to Come) and Shaw (Back to Methuselah). Some of his other nonfiction works include: Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1804), The Pantheon: Or, Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome (1814), Life of Lady Jane Grey, and of Lord Guildford Dudley, Her Husband (1824), History of the Commonwealth of England (1824–1828), Thoughts on Man, his Nature, Productions, and Discoveries, Interspersed with some particulars respecting the author (1831), and Lives of the Necromancers (1834).

Of Shelley’s two illustrious parents, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) is today by far the more widely known, due to her standing as one of the founders of modern feminism. But she, like both her husband and her daughter, could boast attainments far wider than a single subject, even one as important as that. Like Godwin, she wrote fiction as well as political philosophy, and she also cast a considerable shadow as a journalist. She was a major chronicler of the French Revolution, going so far as to travel to France to observe events, at a time when doing so was very dangerous. She wrote her Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) as a rebuttal to Burke’s conservative Reflection on the Revolution in France. Her best known work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was therefore a case of “the other shoe dropping” from her earlier work, though the implications from the second work were necessarily regarded as far more radical. An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution; and the Effect It Has produced in Europe (1794) is her other major book prompted by the Revolution. In addition, she wrote several compendiums for the education of girls and young women, as well as the novels Mary: A Fiction (1788) and The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (published posthumously) as well as a voluminous output of articles and a considerable amount of correspondence. It is a given that she would have continued to have been every bit as prolific as Godwin if her life had not been cut prematurely short — ironically, by childbirth.

At any rate, in 1793 Wollstonecraft put her theories of Free Love into practice by becoming the lover of Gilbert Imlay, who was the American representative to France, as well as an author and businessman of a rather unscrupulous sort. In 1794 she gave birth to their child Fanny Imlay, but by then Imlay had drifted away and taken up with an actress. Wollstonecraft was suicidal but eventually pulled herself back together and made her way back to London intellectual circles. It was at a dinner for Thomas Paine that she and Godwin first met. They, too, became lovers without benefit of the banns, but when Wollstonecraft became pregnant with Godwin’s child, the couple made concessions to conventionality and tied the knot. Ironically, scandal was the result, for her previous relationship with Imlay was revealed. The Godwins became ostracized. Sadly, Wollenstonecraft died less than two weeks after Mary was born in 1797. The following year, Godwin published his tribute to her,  Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which further scandalized the public by revealing details of their unconventional lives together. Godwin repented him of his previous bohemian ways, married a limited and conventional woman, and now became somewhat intolerant of behavior that he thought might reflect badly on him and further tarnish his reputation. This would adversely impact his relationship with his daughter. He gave her a terrific education, even to the point of making a free thinker of her. But he would not brook free BEHAVIOR. As the son of a Calvinist clergyman, and one who had originally studied for the ministry himself, Godwin was merely reverting to form.

I spend so much time on Mary Shelley’s parents because it is important to know what went into the MAKING of her. Both parents influenced her tremendously. She was a product of perfect intellectual breeding, benefiting from the advantages of both nature and nurture. I also feel compelled to write about Godwin and Wollstonecraft at some length because their works feel timely at present: Godwins’ in connection with such ideas as “Defund the Police” and Wollstonecraft’s in light of the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in the U.S, which we celebrated just a few days ago, along with the real possibility that, God willing, we may elect the first female Vice President in two months. There could not be a better time to revisit the writings of Mary Shelley’s parents.

At any rate, Mary grew up meeting people of the caliber of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Aaron Burr (who was a good friend of Bentham’s during his period of exile). Not to mention the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Best known for works like “Ozymandias”, “The Cenci”, “Queen Mab”, and “Prometheus Unbound”, Shelley was a great admirer of Godwin’s, and emulated his ideas in works like “The Masque of Anarchy”. And so he came around the house. Know’m sayin’? And though he was married at the time, he fell for Godwin’s precocious teenage daughter. They had clandestine meetings alongside Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, and it is a beloved Goth tradition that Mary lost her virginity right then and there, graveside. In 1814 they eloped, leaving Percy Shelley’s pregnant wife in the dust. Mary also became pregnant. Shelley was now a bigamist with two pregnant wives. More than this, they had also brought along one of Mary’s younger stepsisters, Claire Clairmont, whom Shelley was likely also boinking (he later passed her to Byron, whose child she bore). So this was a group of people who believed in Free Love, although they also certainly felt the sting of its consequences. Penniless and disgraced, they bummed around Europe. The Shelleys lost three children.

1816 was the famous summer near Geneva, where the Shelleys, Byron, Clairmont, and Polidori romped and had their little literary contest of which Frankenstein was the most famous fruit. But it’s not Mary Shelley’s only book! She also wrote the novels Valperga (1823), Perkin Warbeck (1830), the dystopian work The Last Man (1826 — about a deadly pandemic!), Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), as well as books of travel writing, and biographical essays for  Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. And naturally she edited and published many of her late husband’s works after he drowned while sailing in 1822. Her last major work was Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843 (1844). After this, health problems (blinding headaches) prevented her from working. A brain tumor finished her in 1851 — rather a different literary and political era from the one she began in. It would be well to explore her wider body of work. Frankenstein’s monster has cruelly hijacked her legacy.

By the way, greatness such as this family knew, troubled though it was, doesn’t last forever. Sir Percy Florence Shelley, Mary Shelley’s only child to survive to adulthood, appears to have inherited none of the family gifts. He was known chiefly for engaging in amateur theatricals, and for his love of yachting.