Monster Monday: Mary Shelley, Mother of Modern Monsters

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Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840
Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley‘s titular character (and his monster!) have been made and remade, especially since the advent of film. And really, that’s one of the things that the creature can represent—a certain sort of reading of the text suggests that Frankenstein’s monster is emblematic of poetry and story-telling, of the way that novels and writings are often informed by various sources.

Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a pivotal early text of the feminist movement. Mary Shelley didn’t know her mother—she died in 1797, less than 2 weeks after giving birth to Shelley—but the legacy that Wollstonecraft left behind was a complex one. She was both celebrated and condemned for her promiscuity, for her ideas about femininity, and for her genius.  Shelley’s father was William Godwin, a mostly-political writer with anarchist philosophies.

Left to care for Mary Shelley and her sister, Fanny Imlay (Wollstonecraft’s daughter from an affair), William  Godwin began searching for a wife. In the meantime, he took great interest in Mary’s education, and so her early childhood education was well supervised. He remarried in 1801, and by most accounts, Mary’s stepmother didn’t seem to like her much—her stepbrother, Charles, and stepsister, Jane (who later changed her name to Claire), were formally educated while Mary was left at home; Mary’s access to her father was limited; and Mary’s mail was often opened by the new Mrs. Godwin.

William Godwin by James Northcote, 1804
William Godwin by James Northcote, 1804

Despite her lack of formal education, Mary Shelley listened to such thinkers and writers as Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, friends of her father’s, when they visited her home. They were often interested in Mary, the product of two such forward-thinking intellectuals. Mary also had access to her father’s rather extensive library, and so she grew up reading. Early on she turned to writing, too. At the age of 10, she had a children’s story published by her father’s children’s book company.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819)

In 1812, Mary met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his then-wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley. Over the course of many evenings dining with the Godwins and talking with Mary, Percy and Mary fell in love. It was only after his attempted suicide in 1814 that Mary was truly convinced of this, though. Afterwards, she and Claire fled with him to France shortly.

In 1816, Claire had an affair with George Gordon, Lord Byron, and it was during a visit to his home that Mary Shelley came up with the inklings of what would become Frankenstein. One evening, the group was driven inside by rain, and they began reading ghost stories. That night, as a sort of game, they were all supposed to write their own horror tale. Mary’s was to be the beginning of her novel. She was 19. And the world was never to be quite the same.

frankenstein early edition
An early edition of Frankenstein

As of now, IMDB lists more than 70 films in which Frankenstein and his monster appear. Film adaptations of the novel have been in production for over 100 years, with the earliest film a 12-minute short adaptation from 1910. The short was made only a few years after the advent of film, when the line between stage acting and film acting was just being explored, and it reflects some interesting early film practices. Currently, Victor Frankenstein features as a character on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and he has been a character on ABC’s Once Upon a Time.


(Note: An earlier version of this post appeared at Sourcerer. Urszula will be back with us in August!)

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16 Comments

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  1. Frankenstein was my favorite high school read. I still have my copy, notes written in the margin and all. I need to pick it up again. This post was seriously interesting. Such an intriguing life! I wonder if anyone has written a biography.. or a historical fiction..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are a few out there of both biography and historical fiction, and some of them are quite good. There are also 2 films in the works, one a fictional and one a nonfiction take on Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein.

      Like

  2. Great post, Mary Shelley had quite a life! I’m reading my way through as many robot novels as I can this year and I don’t think I’ve come across a single one that doesn’t reference Frankenstein!

    That said, I’ve never read anything by Mary Shelley other than Frankenstein. I’ve always meant to have a look at her apocalyptic sci-fi novel ‘The Last Man’ but never quite got round to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her other works aren’t bad, but there’s something captivating about Frankenstein, which I suppose is why it’s influenced so many texts and overshadowed her other books

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  3. Mary Shelley’s Monster

    What could be more alien . . .
    Dead torso, limbs and such
    Stitched together
    like some beggar’s ragged coat
    Re-animated by
    That most mysterious force
    running the belly of the sky
    Electricity
    Say the word
    Electricity
    It sizzles on your tongue

    A dead man
    Fabricated from dead parts
    With a diseased brain
    That was better off
    in the glass jar
    But she built him
    (What, you thought it
    was Dr. Frankenstein?)
    Bit by bit on those cold
    winter nights
    Her tender hands
    Elbow deep in gore
    casting and molding her nightmare
    Percy

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! She’s a really interesting woman. I can remember that even as a teen I liked her, because as a 19 year old she’d done something like written Frankenstein. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the fact Shelley had access to the foremost thinkers of her time. Wordsworth and Colerridge just hung around with no idea they will shape her, or writers years after they died. I keep forgetting many writers had little access to formal education, and they taught themselves either through a well-stocked library, or tenacity. That needs to come back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true—-I think that access to conversations with people like Coleridge and Wordsworth is an education itself, albeit not formal-classroom style. That kind of access, though, can’t be underestimated.

      Liked by 1 person

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