Mary Shelley Biography


Personal Background

Mary Wollestonecraft (Godwin) Shelley was born on August 30, 1797 in London, England to philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollestonecraft; both her parents were noted writers in the 1800s. Her father's most famous book was Political Justice (1793), which is a critical look at society and the ethical treatment of the masses. Godwin's other popular book Caleb Williams (1794) examines class distinctions and the misuse of power by the ruling aristocracy. Mary Wollestonecraft, her mother, was a leading feminist writer who espoused her views in her famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). They married in 1797 to protect the rights of the forthcoming child. When their daughter Mary was born, William and Mary had only been married for five months. Four weeks after giving birth, Mary Wollestonecraft died of complications. Thus, Mary Shelley never knew her mother. Her father remarried a woman by the name of Mrs. Clairmont when the young Mary was four years old.

Mary's learned father, who had frequent guests in their home all through her formative years, guaranteed her education. A voracious reader, Mary borrowed books from her father's extensive library. She enjoyed writing at a young age, and her passion was to write stories intended for a very limited audience. The influence of her famous father's home cannot be understated with a constant stream of writers, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was at home that Mary developed into a person of letters, following in the family tradition of writers and thinkers.

Between June 1812 and March 1814, Mary lived with relatives in Scotland. It was upon her return visits to London when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who idolized her father, and their relationship began. Mary and Percy left England for France in June 1814 to begin a life together. Shelley was still married to his first wife, Harriet Westbrook. Within four years of being married, Percy met Mary, and a new marriage was proposed as soon as the first marriage was dissolved. In late 1814, Mary and Percy returned to England and lived in hiding to avoid his first wife and previous back debts. It was at this time that Percy petitioned Mary's father William for relief of his debt.

In February 1815, Mary gave birth to a daughter, who was born prematurely and who subsequently died in March of the same year. The couple settled in Bishopgate, England and a second child, William, was born.

In the summer of 1816, a tour of continental Europe was proposed. At a stop in Switzerland, the couple and Mary's stepsister, Claire, rented a house near another British writer, Lord Byron. The summer proved wet and unseasonable; Byron suggested the group take to writing ghost stories to pass the time. It was during this summer that the form for Frankenstein was to take shape. The story was first only a few pages, but with the encouragement of Percy, the tale took on a greater length. Mary's story, the best of the group, was so frightening to Byron that he ran "shrieking in horror" from the room. Frankenstein was published in 1818.

In November 1816, Fanny, Mary's half-sister, committed suicide. A few weeks later, in December 1816, Shelley's first wife Harriet also killed herself. Within two weeks, Percy and Mary were married in St. Mildred's Church in London on December 30, 1816. Early the next year, the couple moved to Marlow, England and a third child, Clara Everina, was born. In 1818, the Shelley's left England for Italy to escape mounting debt and to improve Percy's health. It was during this time that both small children died; Clara died in September 1818, and William died the following June, in 1819. Mary was miserable and disconsolate at 21 and 22 years of age. She did recover somewhat later in November 1819 when her son Percy was born in Florence, Italy. He would become the only Shelley child to survive to adulthood. Mary did not remain idle as a writer during this time, as she began a new novel, Valperga.

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