One of my favourite historical women is Mary Shelley, who is famous for being the author of the epic novel, Frankenstein. Arguably she is the first writer of science-fiction, which is amazing – she invented a genre that has spawned some of the greatest literature and drama of the last two hundred years, and is a genre that is often associated with men.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Not only is Frankenstein a literary classic, it has permeated our very culture – there have been countless movie adaptations and plays and TV shows and Halloween costumes based on the famous monster.
But there is so much more to Mary than Frankenstein. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Mary Wollstonecraft, who tragically died just after her daughter’s birth, was a forerunner of the Feminist movement and writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a book that argued that women were not inferior to men, a radical notion for the 18th Century, where women where considered to be their husbands property. Mary’s Dad, William, was a prominent liberal philosopher, and raised Mary in a way that was considered unconventional for middle class children of the time.
Mary’s romance with Shelley
One of the things Mary is infamous for, is running off with the romantic poet, Percy Shelley, when she was a teenager. Even by our modern standards this elopement would be controversial, but back in Mary’s day, it was unheard of. Not only was Percy Shelley already married (and expecting a child), but Mary’s father and step-mother did not approve of the union. Running away with Shelley meant Mary was giving up her status in society, her family and any marriage prospects she might have. Mary was the ultimate teenage rebel.
They eventually married in 1816, after his first wife, Harriet, died. Their relationship would be happy, but it also meant she faced untold hardship. Mary and Percy were riddled with debt and alienated from polite society, so they decided to spend most of their time abroad in Europe. Mary also lost three children during her marriage, which haunted her for the rest of her life.
Image: Wikimedia Commons | Mary and Percy Shelley. Engraving by George Stodart after monument by Henry Weekes
In was on holiday in Geneva that her most famous work was born. The famous poet Lord Byron proposed that each of the group write a ghost story. A few nights later, Mary dreamt about a terrifying monster – this would form the basis of Frankenstein. Mary’s literary talents extended far beyond Frankenstein though, she wrote other novels, plays and short stories.
After Percy Shelley drowned in 1822, Mary spent her time raising her only surviving child, Percy, and recommitted herself to writing. She died of a suspected brain tumour in 1851.
Why Mary Shelley inspires feminism
The reason why Mary inspires me so much is because in an age where women were valued for their dowry’s and their fertility, she stood out. She rebelled against conventions, followed her heart and supported herself financially by writing. Not only that, she was a feminist before the word and movement even existed. Mary Shelley is truly an inspiring women.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Mary, I really recommend reading Daughter of Earth and Water: A Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Noel Gerson.