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There's Something About Mary Shelley

Readers have spoken, and 2014's One Book One Michiana (OBOM) selection is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Read more about free, family-friendly activities for OBOM 2014 here.

Mary Shelley in an 1840 portrait by Richard Rothwell
Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Some of you may be asking, "Who was Mary Shelley?"

Mary Shelley's parents were both influential figures in their own right. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a famous first-wave English feminist who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. The elder Mary died ten days after giving birth to the younger Mary, her second daughter, in 1797.

The younger Mary's father was William Godwin, who began his career as a Calvinist minister but later, influenced by a number of Age of Reason philosophers, became an atheist and an anarchist, writing political and philosophical treatises with lengthy titles. The younger Mary was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (abbreviated as MWG here).

The "Shelley" came after her marriage to English Romantic poet Percival (Percy) Bysshe Shelley. MWG is thought to have met the poet in 1812, when the poet and his wife at the time, Harriet, may have eaten dinner with William Godwin and Godwin's second wife, Mary Jane. MWG would have been 15 years old at the time; Shelley was 20. Two years later, MWG and Shelley would run off together to France, taking with them Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont. In 1815, Mary gave birth to a daughter, who was two months premature and, sadly, died after less than two weeks. She had her son William less than a year later, in January 1816.

1816 was a momentous year in MWG's life. In that year, Claire became the mistress of the notoriously scandalous poet Lord Byron. When Byron fled London for Geneva, Switzerland, a then-pregnant Claire took off after him with MWG and Shelley in tow. Byron rented Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, and the legend of Frankenstein is said to have begun there.

One night during the summer of 1816, the group of MWG, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, and Byron's personal physician John Polidori sat around reading German ghost stories. Byron suggested to the group that they each try to write their own stories. Polidori began writing his short story "The Vampyre," one of the first vampire stories published in the English language.

Mary was unable to produce a story immediately, but thought of the beginnings of one after the group discussed galvanism, as electrophysiology was known at the time. Luigi Galvani had recently discovered that electricity could cause muscle contractions in dead animals. This discussion inspired MWG to imagine a medical student animating a corpse using electricity - the very beginnings of Frankenstein.

That summer at Villa Diodati is fictionalized in a number of movies, including Gothic, directed by Ken Russell and starring Natasha Richardson as Mary. Those interested in the history of the science of electricity might like to check out An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment by Patricia Fara.

In November 1816, Shelley's pregnant, estranged wife went missing. Her body was found a month later. She had apparently committed suicide by jumping into the Serpentine River. A short time later, Shelley and MWG were married. Mary gave birth to the couple's third child, a daughter named Clara Everina, in September 1817, but tragedy continues to stalk the young family. Clara Everina died when she was only a year old, and William died of malaria in 1819, while Mary was pregnant with her fourth child. In June 1822, Mary's fifth and final pregnancy ended in a miscarriage that nearly caused her to bleed to death. Shelley is thought to have saved his wife's life by giving her an ice water bath that stopped the bleeding.

Yet only two weeks later, Mary was forced to wait helplessly for ten days while Shelley and two friends are missing at sea. On the tenth day, Shelley's body washed up on shore.

After her husband's death, Mary Shelley edited a volume of his poetry, which helps cement Percy Shelley's literary reputation. Mary herself continued to write professionally for the remainder of her life. She wrote fiction, biographies, short stories, and memoirs, as well as editing the works of Byron, her late husband, and her father. Her other novels include The Last Man, an apocalyptic novel, published in 1826.

Mary Shelley died in London at the age of 53, on February 1st, 1852. She was survived by Percy Florence Shelley, the only one of her children to live to adulthood. Of the five friends who lived at Villa Diodati in 1816, only Claire Clairmont outlived Mary. Claire died in 1879.

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