Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was the only child born to two famous writers and philosophers of the 18th century: William Godwin (1756-1836) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Her parents were known for unconventional ideas, and criticism of traditional marriage. They married anyway in order to legitimize their upcoming child. Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Mary Godwin. The widowed William Godwin initially raised Mary alone, and also took care of Mary's older, maternal half-sister Fanny Imlay (1794-1816).
In 1801, William Godwin married his second wife Mary Jane Clairmont. He became stepfather to Mary Jane's children from a previous relationship, Charles Clairmont and Claire Clairmont (1798-1879). The marriage was reportedly a happy one, but Mary Godwin grew to resent her quick-tempered stepmother. William Godwin and his family were regularly in contact with several writers and intellectuals of their time. Mary was primarily educated by her father, and had access to his library and the libraries of several of his friends.
By 1814, William Godwin had befriended a younger and wealthier writer, the poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Percy promised to bail William Godwin out of heavy debt. Percy and Mary soon fell in love, but there were two complications. First, Percy was already married to Harriet Westbrook. He was estranged from his wife, but they were not divorced. Second, William Godwin disapproved of his teenaged daughter's relationship with a married man. The young couple eloped to France, and took Claire Clairmont with them.
Within months, Mary was pregnant and had to return to England. Percy had exhausted his personal wealth and his family refused to finance his affair. William Godwin severed all ties with his wayward daughter. Mary's first daughter was born prematurely and died by March, 1815. Mary then had her second pregnancy, which resulted in the birth of her son William "Willmouse" Shelley (1816-1819).
Later in 1816, Percy and Mary vacationed in Switzerland, with their friend George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788-1824) and Byron's personal physician John William Polidori (1795-1821). They rented Villa Diodati, a mansion near Lake Geneva. The group spend some time reading Fantasmagoriana (1812), a then-recently published collection of ghost stories. As a challenge, Byron suggested that each member of the group should work on writing a ghost story of their own. Mary begun work on a story involving re-animated corpses, misuse of science, and galvanism used to create to life. She worked on the story for two years, and this became her first published novel: Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).
Following their return to England, Percy and Mary moved in with Mary's beloved stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was expecting an illegitimate child of her over own at the time. Meanwhile, Mary's half-sister Fanny Imlay wrote to her about feeling depressed and neglected. Fanny committed suicide in October. Harriet Shelley, Percy's wife, was also feeling depressed and abandoned. Harriet committed suicide in December. Percy and Mary took advantage of Harriet's death, marrying each other 20 days later.
In 1817, Mary gave birth to her third child, Clara Shelley. Meanwhile, Claire Clairmont gave birth to her illegitimate Allegra Byron (1817-1822). The father of the child was the Baron Byron. The two newborn girls were imitially raised together. In 1818, Percy and Mary were in debt. They left England for Italy to escape their creditors, taking Claire and Allegra with them. In Italy, the Shelleys handed custody of Allegra to Byron, and agreed on his terms to severe ties with their niece. Claire had to agree to not see her daughter again.
Their move to Italy turned out to be disastrous for the health of Mary's children. Clara Shelley died of dysentery in September, 1818, and William Shelley died of malaria in June, 1819. Mary found herself with no living children and grew depressed. She then gave birth to her fourth child, Percy Florence Shelley (1819-1889). This son was the only child of Mary who survived to adulthood.
Mary continued to write, producing the novels Mathilda (1819) and Valperga (1823), and the theatrical plays Proserpine (completed in 1820, first published in 1832) and Midas (completed in 1820, first published in 1922). Percy was still an advocate of free love and Mary tolerated his affairs with other women. Mary formed her own emotional ties with other men, although it is not clear if she slept with them. In February, 1819, Percy tried to register a newborn girl as his own daughter, naming her Elena Adelaide Shelley (1819-1820). Mary was clearly not the mother of the girl, and the attempted registration caused a scandal in Italy. Both the maternity and paternity of Elena are still unknown. Elena died the next year.
In 1822, the Shelleys learned that their niece Allegra Byron died in a convent, supposedly of typhus. They informed Claire Clairmont that her daughter had died. In the summer of 1822, Mary miscarried a child and almost died due to excessive bleeding. Percy improvised on ways to stop the bleeding and rescued her life. However, Mary was left in ill-health and depressed. Percy spend more time with Jane Williams (1798-1884) than Mary, and grew increasingly infatuated with Jane. Also in the summer of 1822, Percy became co-owner of a sailing boat and spend part of his time traveling. In June, the sailing boat sunk in a storm and Percy drowned. Mary was then a widow.
Mary continued trying to support herself and her young son through the earnings of her writing career. She returned to England in 1823. She negotiated an annual allowance for her son, from her affluent father-in-law Timothy Shelley. Timothy had only disdain for Mary, but considered his grandson a valuable potential heir. In 1826, Mary's son officially became the legal heir to the Shelley family estate. Meanwhile, Mary helped other writers with their biographies of Percy Shelley and Baron Byron (who had also died).
In 1826, John Howard Payne (1791-1852), an American actor and aspiring playwright, fell in love in Mary. He proposed marriage to her, but she rejected the offer. She was not in love with him. Mary also flirted with another expatriate American, writer Washington Irving (1783-1859). Neither of the two writers intended to pursue a serious relationship.
In 1827, Mary obtained false passports for her friends Mary Diana Dods (1790-1830) and Isabel Robinson. Dods and Robinson were a lesbian couple. Dods used the false passport to register herself as a man in France, with the intention to marry Robinson. Mary helped them with the plot. In 1828, Mary fell ill with smallpox. She survived the illness relatively unscarred, but her continuous health problems left her looking older than her actual age.
Mary continued her writing career with the novels The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837). She contributed a large number of biographical articles for the Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia and wrote short stories for publication in magazines. Her father William Godwin died in 1836, leaving his personal papers to Mary and requesting that she should work on their publication. She considered the project but abandoned. In 1838, Mary was hired to be the editor for a collection of all of Percy's surviving. She added biographical material and context to the poems.
Mary continued her flirtations with various men, with none resulting in serious relationships. For about a decade, she was romantically attached to politician Aubrey Beauclerk (1801-1854). But Beaucklerk pursued marriages with other women. Meanwhile she helped her son Percy Florence Shelley get a formal education and supported him through his college years. Once he finished college in 1841, her son moved back in with Mary. He was reportedly devoted to his mother.
In the early 1840s, Mary traveled across Europe again. She then published the travel memoir Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. In 1844, her father-in-law Timothy Shelley finally died and Mary's son inherited the family estate. For the first time in her life, Mary was financially secure and reasonably affluent. In 1845, Mary was targeted three times by different blackmailers. She managed to mostly avoid paying them, and had one of them arrested.
In 1848, Mary's son married Jane Gibson St John. Mary continued living with her son and daughter-in-law, and grew very fond of Jane. However, she was in increasingly poor health. Since 1839, Mary was suffering from frequent headaches and bouts of paralysis. As the situation grew worse, Mary was left unable to continue reading and writing. She died in 1851, when only 54-years-old. There was no autopsy and the cause of death is unclear. Her physician suspected that Mary died due to a brain tumor.
Images Attributed to Mary Shelley
- Mary's novel Frankenstein is mostly set in Switzerland, because she started writing it while in this country.
- Her novels Frankenstein (1818) and The Last Man (1826) are considered early works of science fiction. Several literary historians consider Mary Shelley to be the creator of the science fiction genre, but this is disputed.
- No trivia
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