Mary Shelley, Mother Of Horror: Biography And History

Mary Shelley, daughter of radicals and wife of a famous poet, wrote the first horror novel and helped to define the gothic genre.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on September 10, 1797. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died eleven days after giving birth. She had been a liberated feminist at a time when such views were considered scandalous. Little Mary's father was William Godwin, a radical philoshopher. When his wife died, she left him to raise Mary and her sister Fanny alone. For several years, the girls were looked after by a nanny, and five years after his wife's death, William Godwin remarried.

Mary Jane Clairmont, Mary's new stepmother, was already a single mother of two, and soon came to view her new stepdaughters as a burden. Mary Godwin was so intimidated by this new authority figure that she would break out in boils when she was around her for extended periods of time. Finally, the girl was sent to board with a family in Scotland.

Mary was terribly homesick, and returned to England in 1814, when she was sixteen. There she met a poet and a student of her father's named Percy Bysshe Shelley. The fact that Shelley was married did not stop him from seducing Mary, for he was a leading proponent of "free love." Shortly thereafter, the two ran off to Paris to be married. The legality of this marriage is questionable, since Shelley apparently didn't bother to divorce his first wife. Later, the first wife obliged him by commiting suicide.

It was probably the death of her baby daughter, Clara, a year later, that gave Mary Shelley the inspiration to write "Frankenstein." In her diary, she wrote: "Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived." Living vicariously through the scientist Frankenstein, Mary may have been subconsciously willing her child back to life.

"Frankenstein" was written in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary, her husband Percy, and their friends Lord Byron and Jane Clairmont had made a bet as to who could write the most terrifying ghost story. Needless to say, Mary won hands down. Her fear of pregnancy and birth had been masculinized; her male protagonist now shared her impotence in the face of nature. "Frankenstein" was published in 1818, and was an instant success that became an enduring classic.

Mary and Percy eventually had a healthy son, Percy Florence, and for a while were very happy. Percy died tragically in a shipwreck in 1822. Mary died in 1851, at the age of 54.

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