Can a corpse be reanimated? Can life be made from death? What if monsters roamed the earth and man could be God? Mary Shelley imagined such things both in her dreams and in her nightmares.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin on 30 August 1797, the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and the proto-feminist writer Mary Wollestonecraft.
Mary never knew her mother who had died from infection in the days following her birth as the result of a botched delivery but she was aware of her work, her significance, and of her own role in her mother’s death that had caused her father such pain.
In 1792, Mary Wollestonecraft had written the Vindication of the Rights of Women now considered the first feminist treatise in which she stated that women were inferior to men in no other way than in the education that was denied them. She also insisted that women maintain control over their own bodies and use them as they wish to satisfy their own desires. Such radical ideas and the fact that as a woman she was willing to express them not just verbally but in writing led her to being described by the author and Whig politician Horace Walpole as that “Hyena in Skirts.”
Her marriage to William Godwin the author of Political Justice which is often seen as an early anarchist tract with its insistence upon the governance of reason over the government of people whether consensual or otherwise was unexpected in that both were vocal advocates of free love even though Mary had been married once before.
It was to be a working partnership with the few years they were together being the most productive of their lives and when Mary died Godwin was devastated. He told a friend:
“I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can ever know happiness again."
Four years after Mary’s death he married Mary Jane Clairmont, a woman with limited intellectual horizons and no literary ambition.
The young Mary was to have a fractious relationship with her step-mother who she was later to blame for turning her father against her, though his own behaviour towards her indicates that perhaps he too in part held Mary to blame for his wife’s death. For despite having a liberal upbringing and being encouraged to think free of restraint and social convention he denied her the formal education that her mother had believed essential if women were ever to be considered the equal of men. But then there is no better education than imagination and with access to her father’s vast library, his manuscripts and papers, she had that in abundance and was an avid reader.
Uncomfortable in the presence of her step-mother and her daughters, Mary was an introverted child who spent much of her time on her own and could often be found sitting at her mother’s graveside reading.
As one of the leading radical thinkers of his day the Godwin family home became a halfway house for London’s liberal elite and was frequented by the likes of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the members of the Corresponding Societies.
In 1814 when she was aged seventeen she met and fell hopelessly in love with the poet Percy Byssche Shelley, five years her senior. He was already married to Harriet Westbrook but on 24 June abandoned his wife to be with Mary.
Upon discovering that his daughter was having an affair with Shelley, Godwin was furious. Not only was he a married man but he had come to believe that Shelley was governed not by reason but by the indulgence of the senses and that no good could come from a relationship with a man who had no moral compass.
Mary was surprised and upset by her father’s reaction for he had written in Political Justice that marriage was a repressive monopoly and had been an advocate of free love, but he had since retracted his words and changed his views.
Godwin’s antagonism towards Shelley may have had more prosaic reasons, however. Shelley who was a devoted follower had introduced himself to Godwin as the son of a family of great wealth, which he was, and Godwin believing that Shelley might be able to alleviate some of his own financial difficulties devoted a great deal of time nurturing the young man. He was to discover later that Shelley had no real income of his own and had been effectively disinherited by his father.
Despite her father’s disapproval, Mary who had been taught to think for herself would make her own decisions in this world.
On 28 July, she and Shelley eloped to France but were to return to England six weeks later penniless and with Mary pregnant. Her father would have nothing to do with them and they were forced to live off the charity of friends.
It was a difficult time for Mary who already haunted by the fact that she may have been responsible for her mother’s death now had to cope with the rejection of the father she adored and the loss of her baby which was stillborn.
Also, unlike her father Shelley remained a devotee of free love and continued to have affairs which Mary was made to endorse. He had also let it be known that he intended to share Mary’s body with his friends. This Mary agreed to though she never acted on it. She wanted to be Shelley’s woman not his plaything.
The year 1816 was a turbulent one both in a wider social sense and for Mary personally. Both significant and sad in equal measure it was to prove a turning point in Mary’s life.
In April Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies erupted. It was the greatest volcanic eruption known in history up to that point and it deposited huge amounts of dense, black, volcanic ash into the atmosphere that blotted out the sun. As a result the Continent of Europe and elsewhere was plunged into semi-darkness and cursed with freak weather conditions for months. There was frost in August as temperatures fell below freezing, the rain was incessant, rivers flooded and red snow was seen to fall in Italy. Across the Continent crops failed, and there was widespread famine during what was to become known as The Year Without Summer.
In May of that year Mary and Percy travelled to Switzerland along with Mary’s step-sister Clara Clairmont to stay with Lord Byron.
Distant as children Mary and Clara had become close as they grew into adulthood. Clara, who was as tempestuous and argumentative as her mother, was pregnant with Lord Byron’s child at the time and she was also the on-off lover of Shelley. Indeed, his friends often used to joke about his two wives.
By June of that year, Mary who was by now using the surname Shelley, Percy, Clara, and Lord Byron along with his personal physician the twenty one year old Dr John Polidori were living together at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
Because of the extreme weather conditions and Mary was often to complain of the incessant rain, they had been unable to leave the villa for some time. To relieve the boredom of their enforced incarceration they would often read poetry and stories to each other.
On the night of 16 June as a storm raged outside Lord Byron was reading The Phantasmagoria, a book of German ghost stories. As the rain fell, the wind howled, the villa shook with thunder and bolts of lightning lit up the darkened sky, Lord Byron spoke in menacing tones as the others listened in rapt silence. Then in fading light, as the candles flickered, and the fire blazed, he slammed shut the book startling his friends. He would read no more stories he said, and demanded instead that they all write their own.
Mary was the only one among them who took the suggestion seriously. She saw this as the opportunity to emerge from the shadow of her more exalted friends and prove herself worthy of their company.
Mary who had long been tormented by the death of the mother and had since endured a stillbirth had a fascination with death and the possibility of resurrection.
Following the night of 16 June life in the Villa Diodati carried on much as before but one subject in particular became a frequent topic of conversation: could the principles of life and the secrets of death ever truly be communicated?
The night of 22 June was a restless one for Mary, she could not sleep and her consciousness was tormented by waking nightmares. She wrote later:
"My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw the vivid phantom of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion."
Frankenstein had been born.
It took a year for Mary to complete her manuscript for Frankenstein - In the meantime there was to be more tragedy.
In September they returned to England where instead of residing in London they travelled to Bath in the hope of at least for the time being maintaining the secrecy of Clara's pregnancy to the notorious Lord Byron.
During their stay in Bath, Mary received a number of letters from her half-sister by her mother's first marriage, Frances Imlay. They had been close as children but had grown apart as Mary’s attentions were deflected elsewhere. In her letters Fanny, as she was known, wrote of her intense sadness:
“This dreadful state of mind that I labour under and which I endeavour in vain to get rid of.”
Fanny may well have suffered from the same depression that had so often afflicted their mother. She wrote in her journal words distressing in their clarity:
“I have long determined that the best thing I could do was put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed.”
Mary had been too absorbed with Shelley to take the time to respond to her sister’s missives but on 9 October a letter was received so alarming that Shelley departed in haste to find Fanny, but it was too late. On 10 October, alone in a Tavern in Swansea she took her own life with an overdose of laudanum.
There is no mention of Fanny’s death in the written correspondence between Mary and Shelley but it is perhaps little wonder that Mary had a morbid obsession with resurrection and cruel redemption.
Fanny’s sad suicide was followed two months later by the news that Shelley’s wife Harriet Westbrook’s heavily pregnant body had been discovered floating in the Serpentine. She had apparently drowned herself.
Following his wife’s death Shelley was now free to remarry and on 30 December at St Mildred’s Church in Bread Street, London, he and Mary were wed. The marriage at last brought reconciliation for both parties with their respective father’s and restored Shelley to the Baronetcy he would receive upon his father’s death but this still did not make him a man of means. Not long after the marriage Mary was once more pregnant.
The novel Frankenstein, subtitled Prometheus Unbound, was published in January, 1818 and it was a success if not exactly a publishing sensation. This was partly because many people believed it had been authored by Percy Shelley and only published in his wife's name to enhance her reputation. It did not help that Mary had permitted Percy to write the foreword to the first edition. She had also given him free-licence to edit the book as he wished.
This has caused some to question exactly how much of the book was actually written by Mary at all. Shelley insisted that it was all his wife’s work but Mary’s own words many years later did little to clear the matter up:
“I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.”
To conjecture so is perhaps a little unfair, it was certainly Mary's ideas that propelled the work and it is written in a style not conversant with Shelley's own. She also understood its meaning in a manner he never did:
"For supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator.”
She wished to communicate "the mysterious fears of our nature," those things that would curdle the blood and quicken the beating heart. This she achieved down the centuries and through the ages.
Following the publication of the book Mary and Percy returned to the Continent in an effort to escape Percy's many creditors. They lived mostly in Italy, constantly on the move, living with friends and relying upon admirers for their upkeep and more tragedy was soon to follow. On 24 September, 1818, their one year old daughter Clara died to be followed on 2 June the following year by three year old William.
It was a particularly difficult time for Mary. The loss of her children hurt deeply but so too did Shelley’s continuing commitment to and pursuit of free-love and he had a string of affairs. It all plunged Mary into a state of deep depression. Finding nothing but neglect in her marriage she sought solace elsewhere though in friendship not in empty and meaningless manifestations of the sexual act. Despite everything, she gave birth to yet another child by Shelley. It did little to lighten her mood and things were about to get much worse.
On 8 June, 1822, the famous poet, radical, and sexual libertine Percy Byssche Shelley drowned when his boat the Don Juan sank in a storm in the Bay of Lerica.
The precise circumstances surrounding his death and that of his two companions remain unanswered. As also does the question of why a man who could not swim would take his boat out in the midst of a violent storm.
Some believe his death was a political assassination. Considered a dangerous radical in England he had earlier been attacked by an unknown assailant in his home. The fact also that the boat did not capsize in the heavy seas but quickly sank with the lifeboat still on board has led some to believe it was deliberately rammed by a larger vessel.
Shelley’s body later washed ashore and was cremated on the beach at Viareggia by Lord Byron and some of his friends. Mary, the grieving widow, did not attend the ceremony as was the custom at the time.
Mary was devastated by her husband's death for despite everything he had put her, through she had never ceased to adore him.
She returned to England where reconciled with her father she remained in his house. She rarely socialised and when it was suggested to her that she should remarry she replied that she had been married to a genius and that it was only possible to marry one.
She never did remarry but she did continue to write with varying degrees of success. She died on 1 February, 1851, at the age of fifty three in great pain from a brain tumour.
Only one of Mary’s four children by Shelley, Percy Florence, ever lived into adulthood.
Of the others that were there on that momentous stormy night in the Villa Diodati, Lord Byron died of a fever on the Island of Messalonghi where he had gone to fight in the Greek War of Independence against Ottoman rule.
Dr John Polidori, who is credited with writing The Vampyre, a short story and possibly the first mention of a vampire in literature and one that pre-dated Bram Stoker's more famous Dracula by many decades, was heavily in debt from gambling and suffering from depression. He died on 21 August, 1821, according to the Coroner from natural causes though the likelihood is that he committed suicide by drinking prussic acid.
Only Clara Clairmont, Byron's former mistress, lived to a ripe old age. She was to die quietly in her bed in Florence in 1879, aged 80, having regularly communicated with Mary over many years in ever increasingly bitter tones but rarely commenting upon her relationship with her more illustrious friends or indeed their notorious residence in the Villa Diodati.