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Mary Shelley Biography And Visits

Shelley's Cottage (privately owned) in West Street, Marlow - Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was finished here

Mary Shelley was born on 30th August 1797 at 29 The Polygon in Somer's Town, London, near today's Euston station. She was the daughter of two of the most famous radicals of the day. Her father was William Godwin, a former church minister who renounced religion, and turned to radical writing. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, an early campaigner for women's rights, who had made her name in 1792, with her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Although William considered marriage a "system of fraud", with Mary pregnant he compromised on his ideals. But William and Mary's unexpectedly happy marriage did not last long. Soon after the birth of her baby daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft died of puerperal infection, leaving William to bring up baby Mary, and her half sister Jane - a result of one of Mary's earlier relationships. William was not a natural father, much more comfortable putting the world to rights in an abstract way than making his children's world more pleasant in a practical way. Mary hated William's new wife, a woman called Mary Jane Clairmont, who was a next door neighbour. It was in these difficult circumstances that Mary grew up as a self contained bookish person, with a keen sense that her education was in her own hands. The only real breaks from the stress of family life came with visits to the Dundee home of family friend William Baxter. Baxter's daughter Ida was Mary's best friend.


It was following one of these breaks in Scotland, at the age of 16, that Mary's childhood suddenly ended. Returning from Scotland she found an idealistic young man named Percy Shelley visiting her father. Shelley had been thrown out of Oxford University for writing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. He had been travelling ever since with his young wife Harriet, and a devoted entourage, writing and distributing seditious leaflets. Shelley had sought out the famous Godwin to discuss sharing the fortune he was in line to inherit from his wealthy father. Meeting Mary, an intense relationship quickly developed. Shelley visited daily throughout the summer of 1814, and his wife Harriet was quickly sidelined. Shelley and Mary would often walk to Mary Wollstonecraft's grave at St Pancreas Churchyard, and it was on one of these walks that they decided they were in love. On the night of 28th July 1814 a plan was put into effect to elope to the continent. The adventure that followed had its undeniably bizarre elements. The couple made their way to Dover, with Mary's sister Jane making up a little entourage of women which was Shelley's preferred living arrangement. Mrs Godwin gave chase, but returned home when the girls refused to come back with her. A small boat took the group to Calais, from where they travelled to Switzerland, deciding to stay for six months, but only managing two days before running out of money and returning to England. The first stop back in London was the lodgings of Shelley's former wife Harriet. Mary and Jane sat outside for two hours in a coach, while Shelley tried to persuade Harriet, of all people, to pay their fares! Shelley was now penniless, with one daughter already, and two more babies on the way, one with Harriet, and one with Mary. In many ways Mary's youthful dream of love had turned into a chaotic nightmare. Mary's first baby was born in February 1815, but died within a few days. Inspite of all the upset and chaos, something in the sensible Mary seemed to enjoy the unpredictable excitement of life with Shelley.



Chateau de Chillon - on the shores of Lake Geneva - photo by Julian Jones

In May 1816, Shelley, Mary, and Jane, now calling herself Claire for some reason, set off on a second expedition to the continent. They travelled to Geneva and lived in a cottage at Montalegri beside Lake Geneva. Nearby was the grand Villa Diodati where poet Lord Byron was staying. Shelley's group already had a link to Byron through Mary's sister Jane - now called Claire remember - who had written to him for advice on becoming an actress. Byron didn't seem to offer any advice, but he did find time to seduce Claire and make her pregnant. In his famously caddish way, Byron soon tired of Claire and had no interest in the baby. Nevertheless Claire remained obsessed with the charismatic lord. She pursued him in Europe, and it was Claire who introduced Shelley to Byron outside the Hotel d'Angleterre on Lake Geneva. The two poets, and their respective entourages, got on well. Through the wet, cold summer of 1816, as the world sat under a volcanic cloud from the Tambora eruption, there would be meandering nights of drinking and talking in rented lakeside houses. During one of these evening sessions, the group all agreed to write a ghost story. Mary initially struggled to come up with an idea. But then during a sleepless night with the topics of various conversations about life and science running around her head, she came up with a vision of a scientist who creates a living creature from dead body parts. This story would become Frankenstein. Mary continued working on the story when she and Shelley moved back to England, in December. It was at this point that Shelley received news that his first wife Harriet had committed suicide. Her body had been found in the Serpentine. In the shadow of this tragedy Shelley and Mary married at St Mildred's Church in London's Bread Street on 30th December, and moved into Albion House in West Street, Marlow. It was here that Mary finished Frankenstein.


Frankenstein was of course to become one of the most famous books in English Literature, a great achievement for anyone, let alone an eighteen year old. The character of the scientist Frankenstein seems to be clearly inspired by Percy Shelley himself, who before turning to poetry had spent his youth as something of a mad scientist. In many ways the story of Frankenstein has been taken as a cautionary tale about science and scientists over reaching themselves. And certainly in this story of a scientist taking dead body parts and reanimating them, a sense of fear about what science might do is clear. That message seems as resonant now as it was in 1816, particularly in relation to genetically modified plants, or cloning. But it also seems clear that in using Percy Shelley as her inspiration it is unlikely that Mary's portrayal of science and scientists would be entirely negative. She clearly admired her forward looking husband. It is also clear that Mary was herself genuinely interested in science. The famous scientist Humphrey Davy, director of the Royal Institution, had been a visitor at the house when Mary was young, and she had been reading Davy's books Elements of Chemical Philosophy and A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry in October and November of 1816 while she was writing Frankenstein (see Introduction to the Penguin edition of Frankenstein by Maurice Hindle). With this in mind it should be remembered that Frankenstein's Creature, horribly unfamiliar though he appears, is initially benevolent. He tries to help the people he meets. This is before Frankenstein's rejection of his creation, and the unthinking revulsion of people terrified of his appearance, turns the Creature into a lonely, embittered and murderous outcast. But it is people's fear and ignorance that makes the Creature like this. If they had been more accepting, understanding and open minded then the helpful potential of the Creature might have been realised - he is after all immensely strong physically and highly intelligent. Frankenstein is a classic tale not because it gives a clear and easily defined message, but because it is ambivalent and multifaceted. It captures the confusion of an age facing the excitement, promise and fear of unprecedented scientific advance.



The period when Mary was finishing Frankenstein in Marlow was a time of relative peace for the Shelleys. But this did not last long. By autumn of 1817 turbulence had returned. Shelley convinced himself that he was suffering from elephantiasis, after sitting next to a woman with fat legs. Mary's next child, Clara, was born. Then Shelley was arrested for debt, and lived in lodgings off the Euston Road. Mary and Claire came to visit him alternately, while the other stayed in Marlow with the children. All this upset spurred another escape from Britain. Shelley, Mary, Claire, two maids, and baby Clara travelled to Europe, the other children being left with guardians. But there was no escape in running away to Europe. Chaos followed on. Byron was now, bizarrely, insisting on possession of the daughter he had had with Claire, a little girl called Allegra. Possession of the girl was the price Byron demanded for continuing to pay for her keep - even though he had no interest in children. Since Byron showed no inclination to return from his own European wanderings to collect Allegra, Shelley's party decided to take her to Byron. Claire was devastated at the prospect of losing Allegra. It is then thought that Shelley, while consoling Claire over the loss of her daughter, made Claire pregnant. There was more trauma to come: Shelley took Claire on a trip to Venice, which like making her pregnant, was planned as a way of distracting her from Allegra's loss. They took baby Clara with them. In Venice, following a short illness the baby died. Mary was furious and deeply distressed.

Tragedy was now to shadow the Shelleys until Percy's approaching untimely death. Mary's son William died in Rome in June 1819. April 1822 saw the death of Allegra. Percy's state of mind became unstable, reflected in the dark Triumph Of Life. Sailing seemed to help his mood, and in May 1822 he took delivery of the Don Juan, a boat he had commissioned. He set off in Don Juan, intending to sail from Pisa to Leghorn where he was to meet his publisher Leigh Hunt. Shelley was not a competent sailor, and neither were the two men he was with. A storm blew up, and the Don Juan sank ten miles off Viareggio. Ten days later three bodies were washed up on the beach. Shelley was identified by his clothes, and a copy of Keats' poems in his jacket pocket.

The period of her life for which Mary is best known was now over. While Shelley died, followed by Byron two years later, Mary lived on, and this seems fitting for the person she was and the sensible, tolerant attitudes she held. Mary Shelley seemed to instinctively know that life was not really about striving aggressively towards some great goal, some point where progress would burst into a new world. She knew that tomorrow you would have to get breakfast again for the children, and continue the routine as before. Mary was a daughter of radical parents, and the wife of a brilliant and crazy poet, while she herself was wise, and moderate, with a practicality to set against her intellectualism. Following the death of Percy, Mary gave birth to her final child, Percy Florence, and devoted the rest of her life to raising her son and working as a professional writer, living for many years at 24 Chester Square in Knightsbridge - a house which still survives. It is interesting that Victor Frankenstein loses all his domestic ties in the struggle with his Creature, losing his friends, his father and his new wife. Domesticity was important to Mary, and she seems to have seen it as an anchor point in the world, providing a sense of perspective lacking in apparently clever people who feel they are above such things. In Frankenstein we are told that as he trains as a scientist, Frankenstein has to replace the grand dreams of alchemy with the mundane day to day drudgery of real science. Whereas the ancient teachers of alchemy had "promised impossibilities and performed nothing," the drudges of modern science, "whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miricles" (P49). Real scientists actually spend their days in their own domestic routine, which ties them down and makes real progress possible. And of course there is the chaming domestic analogy seen early in Frankenstein, where an explorer preparing for a journey to the North Pole feels "the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river" (P16). For Mary Shelley images of domesticity characteristically lie behind any idea of real progress. It makes sense, therefore, that although Mary was domestic and homely there was also a part of her that continued to admire progressive ideas and exciting individuals. In 1824 the American actor John Howard Payne asked Mary to marry him. But Mary could not accept an ordinary marriage in which she would just rub along. She said that after being married to one genius, she could only ever marry another (see Mary Shelley by Muriel Spark P111).

From 1839 Mary began suffering headaches. A decade of declining health followed. Mary Shelley died aged 53 on 1st February 1851, from what may have been a brain tumour.