Mary Shelley: How The Queen of Goth Lived a Dark Fairy Tale


In the summer of 1816, 19-year-old Mary Godwin—soon to be Mary Shelley—conceived the tale that would become the biggest Gothic masterpiece of all time, Frankenstein.The wildly dark book shocked and titillated the literary world when it was first published in 1818, but the most surprising element was how Mary’s life itself played out like a dark fairy tale. She was a fiercely unconventional woman who suffered many heartbreaks and tragedies, lived several years in an untraditional relationship, drifted from place to place, and generally rebelled against the world she saw as limited and sexist.


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the only daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Born in London in 1797, she lost her mother just 11 days after her birth due to complications. She grew up with her eldest sister Fanny, who was the product of an affair her mother had with an American before marrying. The family tree became even more complicated when Mary’s father remarried Mary Jane Clairmont, assumed two more children named Charles and Claire, and then fathered another son with his name. Literary blood seemed to flow through the family of five, as they ventured successfully as book publishers for young readers.


Although unhappy at times, Mary always loved writing, officially printing her first poem through her father’s publishing business when she was just ten years old. Having been home schooled with no regard for gender, she received an education of considerable breadth, one that few girls her age were allowed to have. She was often exposed to the London intelligentsia through visits from poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who read his famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in her living room, and other eccentric resistors and experimenters of the time.


Mary did not particularly like her step-mother, who often seemed to compete with her. To avoid further problems, Mary was sent away to Dundee, Scotland where she studied for two years and met Isabel who would become her must beloved and trusted friend. Her time in the heady, romantic backdrop of Scotland would later inspire some of the settings in her most famous novel.

When Mary returned to the family home in England, she soon met one of her father’s youthful admirers, Percy Bysshe Shelley who would become a frequent visitor to the Godwin household. Although Shelley was, in fact, already married at the time and Mary was only 16 years old, the two fell in love and eloped, despite the warnings of both families. Mary’s sister Claire decided to join them, however and became a constant companion in their future years.

While Shelley did descend from a wealthy family, his inheritance did not pay all the bills, and they soon found themselves in debt and on the run from creditors. To complicate matters, Mary soon found herself pregnant at just 17 without any familial support or even a marriage license. Her dearest friend Isabel was also forced to terminate their friendship based on the negative opinion of proper society, and Mary became the object of scorn for her blatant transgressions. But Shelley loved her and just as things began to look up financially, Mary suffered an unfortunate miscarriage.


Despite their love, Shelley was not a faithful husband and struck up a friendship with Lord Byron who was a poet, wealthy eccentric, and a known philanderer. The cultural climate within this group was one of “free love” that knew no restriction, but even though Mary was raised in a radical household, she remained conservative on the subject and refused to be “shared” by Shelley and his friends. Through her efforts to become a writer in her own right and begin a family, Mary suffered greatly behind the masculine-chauvinist heartlessness of both men. Predictably, this situation became even more tenuous when Mary’s sister Claire began an affair with Lord Byron who was a constant companion and unfavorable influence on Shelley.


Mary’s years at this point were some of the most ideal in her life, but it was not to last. She finally gave birth to a son whom she named Percy, the only child who would live to see her death. Back in England, Mary began to lament her situation as Shelley marauded about with Lord Byron, abandoning their domicile often and not returning for long periods. Mary who was once a left-wing Romantic was quickly becoming a Victorian, a woman tired of the self-satisfying ways of the “liberals.” Although once the child of glamorous bohemian anarchy, she now found herself a conventional, loyal, middle-class, working single mother.


Villa Diodati, near Geneva, Switzerland was owned by Lord Byron and served as a backdrop for one of the most infamous literary summers in history. Mary’s sister Claire had recently discovered she was pregnant with Lord Byron’s child, so although the affair had already ended, Mary and Percy insisted she accompany them for a stay at the Villa, mostly to ensure the child’s paternity. What Claire received instead was Byron’s demand to assume the child’s protection without her participation, stipulating that she must relinquish all rights. It was during this rainy, morose summer that Percy, Byron, and Mary decided to see who could write the best ghost story, eventually giving birth to the great Frankenstein.


After returning home to England in 1818, Mary continued to work on Frankenstein, committed to having it completed that year. During this time, Mary’s half-sister Fanny unexpectedly died and before they were able to properly mourn, it was discovered that Percy’s pregnant wife had committed suicide. The doubly disturbing news made a profound impact on the couple, although it allowed them to finally marry. Mary found some momentary happiness in the fact that Frankenstein is to be published, but her joy is short-lived as she loses yet another infant son to sickness.

To this point, Percy and Mary had endured much tragedy, heartbreak, and unrest, realizing they must leave England for good. Along with Claire and their children, they moved to a rented house in Italy, taking up residence in a wild and remote area next to the sea. Mary was not fond of the landscape—having already lost three children as infants and fighting through a shaky marriage, she felt the place would bring about something horrible. This soon came true when Percy’s boat disappeared during foul weather, and his body eventually washed up on the shore. He was burned on a beachside pyre, witnessed by his loyal friend Lord Byron. The only part of the body that would not burn was Percy’s heart which was fished out of the ashes and given to Mary as a keepsake, something that was kept in a silk purse within her writing case until her death 30 years later.


And the rest is history.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Scarborough Art Fair and commented:
    Mary Shelly lived a life that would be considered radical, and unstable now. I’ve read a few things on how Frankenstein came to be, and I am always interested in new information about that summer, and Shelly’s life in general.
    I have been reading and I’m very much enjoying Frankenstein. It’s so much different than the film adaptions I’ve seen, and all the details and such in the actual novel are really holding my attention.


  2. Stephen Branch says:

    Beautiful read!


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