Mother of Science Fiction
On August 30th 1797, Mary Shelley was born, and the world was never the same. The queen of goth, Mary wrote one of the most iconic books of the 19th century, changing the way we think of the macabre. This original piece was supposed to be a review of ‘Frankenstein’ however, Marys' personal back story is no less dramatic or compelling. I felt it would be a disservice to Mary to not at least try to tell her story. A pregnant teenage runaway, cast out by her family and isolated by society but Mary did not hide, she was not silenced and she fought against the cruelty of human nature by writing.
Mary Shelley is best known as the author of a Gothic tale of a man who creates a monster. And even within her lifetime (1797-1851), Frankenstein had a vivid life of its own: it achieved popular and scandalous success when adapted for the stage in 1823, and has been a favourite source ever since. But it is not only her fiction that has captured the imagination of successive generations, it's Shelley herself. The enduring fascination stems partly from the other lives with which Shelley's intersected. She was the daughter of famous radical intellectuals: her mother was the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and died giving birth to Mary; her father was William Godwin, whose Political Justice argued against institutions from monarchy to marriage.
When one of Godwin's admirers, the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, came to visit, he and Mary fell for each other. But Shelley already had a wife and Mary was only 16, so they eloped to France in 1814, taking her half-sister Claire Clairmont with them. They felt they were living out her parents' philosophical theories. Godwin, however, refused to see any of them for many years. The cost of such a Romantic gesture shouldn't be underestimated. "She was always a divided creature – half highly serious academic, the other half absolutely wild," says Miranda Seymour, who wrote a biography of Mary Shelley in 2000. "But there's no way she was let off the hook because she was Wollstonecraft's daughter. They were really exiled after their elopement."
By the fall of 1814, money had run out and they were forced to return home. To further complicate matters, Mary discovered that she was pregnant. Mary tried her best to maintain a normal lifestyle despite a sickly pregnancy but it is rumoured that during this time Percy began an affair with Claire. Little evidence supports the claim, however; several sections of Mary’s journals are missing from the period, Claire’s journal has disappeared, and Thomas Hogg, Percy’s friend and biographer does not include a history past 1815. In any case, Mary was frequently left alone while Shelley visited his wife or engaged in outings with Claire.
February of 1815 proved devastating for Mary, as her daughter was born two months premature and died two weeks later. Percy’s apathy towards the loss of their child compelled Mary to search elsewhere for comfort and she turned to Thomas Jefferson Hogg for companionship. It is often thought that Percy encouraged a relationship between Mary and Hogg, especially after his own alleged affair with Claire. Mary had no interest in a romantic relationship beyond Percy, however.
Once she was healthy enough to travel, the couple moved about in hopes of relieving Mary’s depression. Eventually their travels intersected with those of Lord Byron and they spent a summer together. The season proved rainy, forcing the friends to remain often indoors. There, they read old ghost stories and invented their own. Mary’s anxiety impaired her creativity. However, on an evening in mid-June, she imagined a corpse reanimating through galvanism—the contraction of muscles due to electric shock. Once the idea came to her, she could not let it go and began writing what she thought would be a short story. Instead, she composed Frankenstein, one of the greatest novels of all time.
‘She conceived me. I took shape like an infant, not in her body, but in her heart, growing from her imagination till I was bold enough to climb out of the page and into your mind, (Mary’s Monster, Lita Judge, 2018)
Mary completed the novel in the spring of 1817. Just 500 copies were printed the following January by a small publication house in London. She released the novel anonymously, but it was dedicated to William Godwin and included a preface by Percy Shelley. The novel was not well received, mainly due to the bold and horrifying subject matter. Its audience was further shocked upon learning that such an “atrocious” work was written by a woman. It was a fight for Mary Shelley, a woman who created a genre who had her book first published without her name on it with an introduction written for her by her husband.
Percy Shelley drowned in 1822, making Mary a widow at age 24. Although his body was cremated, his heart had been calcified and wouldn’t burn. When Mary’s only surviving child, a son, emptied his mother’s desk after she died in 1851, he found many interesting things tucked away, including hair from Mary’s children who had died and the remains of Percy’s heart, which was wrapped in one of his poems.
So, the next time someone tries to tell you science fiction isn't for girls, quiet them down with one name: Mary Shelley. Mary is a reminder to modern society that the genre of science-fiction was conjured up by an 18yr old woman. We thank you Mary and we remember you.
Words: Cheryl Gault
Images: Claire Miskimmin