Welcome to The FrankenPod. Today I want to give you a bit of a biography of the woman who created the science fiction genre. Apparently, there is a romantic movie that was screened last year to film festival audiences. I hope its good and does the woman justice because she is amazing.
Mary Godwin was the daughter of two highly regarded and critically acclaimed authors, who… SHOCK HORROR …. Were not married. Scandal!
Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a pivotal proto-feminist writer that I would love to cover one day if I can somehow shoehorn in it into the podcast. Her father was also a highly respected and controversial called William Godwin. Their relationship was devoted but was cut devastatingly short when Mary died from complications after giving birth to Our Lady of Science Fiction, Mary Godwin.
Thus the notion of birth and death would be forever fused in her psyche. She felt the weight of her mother’s life and unfulfilled potential, and would always strive to live up to her mother’s legacy and public expectations. She reflected that there was never any doubt in her mind that she would write.
As she grew up with her father, step-mother and half-sisters she was exposed to some of the most brilliant and creative thinkers of her time who were friends and associates of her father. As the daughter of academic royalty, she was a subject of some interest to one young writer that orbited the Godwin household, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Not Meaning to Yuck Anyone’s Yum but…
She was 16 and he was 22 when they started their affair. For the time this wasn’t a massive age gap, but he was married and had one soon to be two children. But Percy Shelley believed in free love, which does not seem to have extended to allowing his wife or girlfriend having other relationships. I could be wrong about that but I have found little evidence to support equality of free love in Shelley’s relationships.
They also met secretly at her mother’s grave, because romance.
Percy and Mary ran away together just months after hooking up and Mary’s half-sister Clare Claremont came along, possibly as a third wheel, possibly as a casual lover, (i hate that word) to Percy. Because free love? Clare, however, is far from a shy retiring flower, she was pursuing the famous poet Lord Byron, somewhat relentlessly.
There were a lot of people who were very unhappy with Mary and Percy’s relationship not least Percy’s wife and Mary’s father. Both parties demanded that they cut it out. And when they didn’t, they asked for money. I completely understand why Harriet, Percy’s wife needed financial support, but the payments to William Godwin are a little strange to me.
But then again a lot of the etiquette and social morality in Regency England baffles me.
Percy went entered into a lot of debt to meet these obligations and the trio travelled continuously to avoid his debts.
It was during this time of constant travel Clare convinces her companions to be unwitting accomplices in a romantic ambush of Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati where he is holidaying in Switzerland. I’m going to save the Villa Diodati for another episode, but from this holiday Mary Godwin found the inspiration for her sci-fi gothic novel.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
At the age of 18, she has given birth to 2 children one of which had not survived and the other, William, who would not survive a great deal longer. She gives birth to another daughter and names her Clara. Both Clara and William will be dead by the end of June 1819.
Frankenstein has published anonymously in 1818.
Her other half-sister, Fanny, and one of her strongest familial ties to her deceased mother commits suicide. Percy’s wife Harriet also killed herself, she was pregnant with their third child.
Percy and Mary get married and her dad, who didn’t care all that much about marriage in his own personal life decides that his daughter is a respectable woman and they reunite.
Mary Shelley nee Godwin gave birth to her only surviving child Percy Florence.
Three years later, while on a sailing holiday with a friend Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in Italy. Due to quarantine laws, it was impossible for his body to be transported back to England.
Absolutely devastated, and left with on her own with their young son, Mary would not be able to attend Percy’s funeral. One of his friends, Leigh Hunt, who was present at Percy’s beachside cremation saved what he believed to be Percy’s heart and smuggled it home to Mary. It is now thought that it would probably not have actually been his heart but some other organ or mound of sinew. But whatever it was, it helped to console Mary in a very dark time, and she wrapped it in silk and kept it in her writing case.
Life After Percy
But Mary’s writing career was by no means winding down. She threw herself into her work. She published Valperga in 1823 and began to the gradual publication of her late husband’s work, but her father-in-law threatened to stop financially supporting her if she released any more of Percy’s work during his father’s lifetime.
In 1826 she published the post-apocalyptic novel The Last Man and eleven years later she published her final novel, Falkner.
Her father, her half-brother and her friend Lord Byron had died. She finally managed to published those poems of Percy’s that she loved so much.
It feels like I’m just listing events at this point which is really sad because it seems as though many scholars lose interest in Mary Shelley when her life with Percy finishes. But she was a very interesting and eclectic writer in her own right.
However, Percy’s long shadow continued to stretch across Mary’s life. 23 years after Percy’s untimely death some dude showed up claiming to be Lord Byron’s love child, potentially one of many given the Lord’s raunchy reputation. This guy claimed to have some of Mary and Percy’s letters and tried to use them to blackmail Mary. But she shut that shit down and got a court injunction.
In 1851 at the age of 54, Mary Godwin Shelley succumbed to what could have been a brain tumour and was buried at St Peter’s in Bournemouth. between her two parents who were moved just for this purpose.
The Legacy of Mary Shelley
An unconventional woman who lead an incredible life filled with adventure, curiosity and sorrow, her legacy would be heavily censored according to her son Percy Florence’s more reserved Victorian sensibilities.
In the past 200 years, many have tried to give credit for Frankenstein to Byron or Percy. Or attribute her entire development as a writer to the men who surrounded her. But recently people have finally come to accept her authorship and view her texts as remarkable novels from a remarkable woman, many written at an alarmingly young age.
If you are looking for a more complete biography of Mary Shelley I would highly recommend Romantic Outlaws. It interweaves Mary Shelley’s story with the incredible life of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft.
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And please get in touch if you have additions suggestions and corrections.
Charlotte Sussman, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies Vol. 4, No. 1, Women Writers of the Eighteenth Century (Spring/Summer 2004), pp. 158-186 http://www.jstor.org/publisher/upenn
And I really will get better at resources I’m sorry, in my defence it is uni break.