Friday 30 August 2013

Mary Shelley: A Tale of More Than Monsters

Mary Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; London, England, 30th August 1797 – London, England, 1st February 1851) 

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840
Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840

A few weeks ago I put quill to paper for a very popular post on Percy Bysshe Shelley and his short, tragic life. Since I was a mere slip of a thing I have nursed a fascination for the remarkable woman who, among many other things, was Shelley's wife and so, on the anniversary of her birth, it seems only right to spend some time in the company of Mary Shelley.

Born to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary lost her mother to puerperal fever less than ten days after her birth. She was brought up and educated by Godwin with Wollstonecraft's other daughter, Fanny Imlay; the girls were raised to honour their mother's memory, steeped in her work and philosophy. However, Mary's loving childhood was to be shattered by the arrival of Godwin's second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, whom the little girl would come to loathe. She devoted herself to learning, writing stories that have since been lost and composing comical asides for the amusement of her father.

Mary met the man who would become her husband in 1814 when Shelley was visiting Godwin; with the older man deeply in debt the poet was providing him with financial assistance to stave off his many creditors. There was a definite spark between Mary and Percy and the young couple began to enjoy secret liaisons. Percy was five years Mary's senior and she was utterly besotted with him but when her beau refused to pay off all of Godwin's debts, it became apparent that her father would never give the romance his blessing. With Percy estranged from his heavily pregnant wife, the couple fled for France with Mary's French-speaking stepsister, Claire Clairmont, to complete the party. Having developed a strong attachment to Shelley, Fanny was devastated to be left behind in England. 

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, 1797

The trio exhausted their limited finances and returned to England where they found Godwin apoplectic at their behaviour, flatly refusing to provide assistance to his pregnant daughter and her companion. Instead, the couple and Claire moved into lodgings in London. Born in early 1815, Mary's daughter did not survive more than a month and this loss plunged her into a deep depression from which she would not emerge until the birth of her second child, William, in January 1816. 

Later that year the family travelled to Geneva to spend the summer with Lord Byron and Dr John Polidori in the Villa Diodati. Their days were spent in pastoral pursuits and it was during this trip that Mary wrote a book that has passed into literary legend. When Byron suggested that the guests each write a supernatural story Mary retired to her bed where she experienced a waking dream that inspired her to write Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Initially intended as a short story, it would be two years before the novel was completed. 

Portrait of William Godwin by Henry William Pickersgill
William Godwin by Henry William Pickersgill

When the family returned to England they found Fanny Imlay in a state of deep unhappiness and by the end of 1816 both she and Shelley's estranged wife were dead, the two women having taken their own lives. Shelley and the pregnant Mary petitioned unsuccessfully for custody of his two children and to support their case, married on 30th December 1816. Godwin gave his blessing to the match and the union ended the bitter feud between father and daughter.

Mary devoted herself to writing and editing an account of the earlier journey through Europe, eventually publishing the History of a Six Weeks' Tour in 1817; a year later she anonymously published the novel she had begun in Geneva. Frankenstein caused a sensation and Mary would revise and reprint the novel several times, crediting her husband with writing the preface and inspiring and encouraging her to complete the work.

A few months after the birth of the couple's daughter, Clara, in September 1817, the family left England for Italy. Embarking of a tour of the country, the couple enjoyed an intellectual and social life that filled them with optimism and happiness. These cheery times were not to last though and both William and Clara died in Italy, the children passing away within a year of one another. Mary withdrew into a deep and agonising grief, immersing herself in solitary intellectual pursuits from which she would not begin to emerge until the birth of her son, Percy Florence, on 12th November 1819.

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819
Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819

Mary's depression would return at intervals throughout her life and she struggled with her husband's infatuations with other women even as she enjoyed intense and abiding relationships of her own. At some point whilst visiting Naples the couple acquired another baby and though Mary and Percy were registered as parents to the little girl, the true maternity of the infant has never been established. Here on Gin Lane there was plenty of gossip that Claire had had yet another indiscretion or that Percy's free love had finally caught up with him, perhaps even that they had adopted a local babe. Whatever the truth of the tale, Elena Adelaide Shelley died in Naples before she was even two years old.

Photograph of draft pages from Frankenstein
Draft pages from Frankenstein

Mary would lose another unborn child in Italy, her health frequently failing and her depression darker than ever yet there was to be one final tragedy before the Italian trip was over. On 8th July 1822 Shelley set sail from Livorno for Lerici on board his new sailing boat; caught in a storm at sea, he would never reach his destination nor see his wife and child again.

Shelley was missing for ten days and a desperate Mary searched fruitlessly for her husband in Livorno until her darkest fears were realised when the poet's body was washed ashore near Viareggio. Here his body was cremated, though Mary did not attend this ceremony.

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton, 1857
Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton, 1857
Following Shelley's death the new widow remained in Italy, supporting herself initially through writing and translation work and then a small allowance gleaned from her father in law, Sir Timothy Shelley. He initially insisted that Mary's surviving child, Percy, be surrendered to him but Mary would not countenance such a suggestion and though he agreed to the allowance, he never met his daughter in law. Though his plans to take guardianship of the boy were unsuccessful, Sir Timothy did secure Mary's agreement never to write a biography of her late husband, on the understanding that her allowance would be cut off if she ever did so.

With some difficulty Mary managed with her limited finances and devoted herself to protecting and preserving the names and works of both her late husband and her parents. She continued with her own literary career, producing a number of novels and factual works and forged new friendships and liaisons. Under Mary's stewardship Shelley's writings enjoyed new acclaim and popularity and she devoted herself to her son, who adored her in return. Indeed, when Percy eventually married, Mary moved in with the new couple and enjoyed a happy and contented life.

Photograph of tomb of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin
The tomb of Mary and her parents

Mary died at the age of just 53 of what was apparently a brain tumour. She was buried in Bournemouth and, in accordance with her wishes, her parents were exhumed and buried alongside her. Among her final effects she left locks of her dead children's hair and a parcel of Shelley's ashes. 

Today Mary is rightly celebrated as a towering figure of the Romantic movement, a hugely talented and intelligent woman who forged her own path and survived unthinkable tragedies, pouring her very soul into the writings that are her legacy. There is no doubt, I think, that her beloved mother would have rightly been proud of all her daughter achieved and her name lives on, a literary legend. 


Unknown said...

This is really interesting and so tragic in so many ways. So much grief associated with the loss of her children and her mental state must have been pure torment. And yet she produces Frankenstein! It's an inspirational account.

Catherine Curzon said...

She has long been one of my icons; Mary is such an inspiration!

Unknown said...

Such a remarkable woman! I have always been fascinated by her (and her mother). It is just unbelievable to me that she was able to overcome so much tragedy in her life and still be able to continue to produce such amazing work. It is heartening to know that, at least in her later years, she was able to find some degree of comfort and happiness.

Catherine Curzon said...

I absolutely agree with you; fascinating figures who faced such enormous odds.

Gem Twitcher said...

Amen to that,Madame!!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you sir!

Regencyresearcher said...

Why is it always overlooked that Mary caused great grief to Harriet, Shelley's wife? Mary ran away with a married man and only the death of the wife allowed her to marry. I do not know why her father was angry at her , though, because he preached free love. That had been one of the things that drew Shelley to him. Mary was unfortunate in the loss of her children. She didn't believe the Italian climate good for them and blamed Shelley for their deaths, even though the boy by Harriet also died before his grandfather. Mary's son inherited the baronetcy. Mary and her daughter in law dedicated themselves to polishing Shelley's reputation so that his atheism ( why he lost custody of his children by Harriet,) his radical politics, and his advocacy of free love besides his elopement with the 16 year old Mary when he was already married, are scarcely remembered or swept under the rug. Many believed Shelley slept with Mary and her step sister Clare. Mary made all the accusations disappear and they are scarcely discussed. If mentioned they are often brushed aside as of being of no importance. "geniuses are like that."

Angela said...

Thank you very much for this interesting post about a very tragic life. You might be interested to know that in Marlow in Buckinghamshire there is a cottage called Shelley's Cottage where locals belief that she had the idea for Frankenstein. Always enjoy your posts.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you for your comment; it was certainly a tangled situation and one that involved a lot of heartache and unhappiness. If I can tempt you into a guest post on this subject, do let me know - I'd love to!

Catherine Curzon said...

I didn't know that - thank you!

Mari Christian said...

It's amazing that Mary managed to write at all in such a tangled life. Yet she engendered a whole new genre of fiction in Frankenstein,

Catherine Curzon said...

She certainly left one heck of a legacy!

Unknown said...

Choice in lover, and his friends follow along with his miseries he cultivated. Mary W. Shelley work and life tragic but often misunderstood.. Love forces many of us to look into a face of an angel with a gift of a brilliant writer and end in horrifying experiences. ??? Mrs. ATK

Catherine Curzon said...

Sadly so!

Carol Hedges said...

It is interesting that in Frankenstein, the first (and finest) of the Female Gothic genre, ALL the mothers/women die.... it is as if Mary Shelley associates female deaths with her own tragic maternal loss. Also, the aberrant birth of the monster is done via Frankenstein (male) who creates 'life' out of 'death'.

Catherine Curzon said...

I think you may be onto something there...