Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was an English novelist most famous for the Gothic novel Frankenstein, widely considered an early example of science fiction. She was born in Somers Town, London, England on 30th August 1797 and died on 1st February 1851 in London aged 53.

Major Works

“Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus”. (1818) 
“Recollections of Italy”. (1824) 
“The Last Man”. (1826) 
“Lodore”. (1835) 

Biography Timeline

Mary Shelley was born on 30th August 1797 at 29 The Polygon in Somers Town, London, England. She was the daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and the women’s reformer Mary Wollstonecraft although her mother died after complications with her birth 11 days later. She was educated at local day schools in London and Miss Pertiman’s boarding School in Ramsgate, Kent.

1799: Samuel Taylor Coleridge comes to stay with her father and she hears a recital of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” for the first time.

1801: Her father remarries to Mrs Mary Jane Vial (also known as Clairmont) who already has two children, Charles and Jane (later known as Claire). 

1803: Anthony Carlisle visits her father and recounts experiments which had been done to the bodies of executed prisoners at Newgate. Electricity had been passed through the corpses to make them move. Also present were Humphry Davy, Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

1807: She leaves the Polygon (and its close proximity to her mother’s grave) for 4 Skinner Street to her father’s new bookshop. 

1811: She is sent to Ramsgate on the coast for the good of her health.

1812: Her father takes her to a Coleridge recital where she sees Lord Byron in the audience. She is sent to live with William Baxter, a friend of her father’s, at Broughty Ferry near Dundee in Scotland again for her health. 

1814: She meets Percy Bysshe Shelley on 5th May at Skinner Street. She makes love to Shelley in the graveyard at St. Pancras, London on 27th June. Mary leaves for France with Shelley and Claire Clairemont on 28th July. Mary’s family disown her for the next two years. They all travel to Switzerland eventually returning to England with no money left in November.

1815: Her first child Clara is born prematurely on 22nd February but dies on 6th March. Claire Clairemont goes to stay in the cottage in Lynmouth, Devon where Shelley and his wife Harriet had stayed in 1812.

1816: Birth of her second child, christened William Godwin Shelley on 24th January. Claire meets Byron in April and becomes his mistress. On 3rd of May Mary, a pregnant Claire and Shelley all decide to go to Switzerland to pursue Byron. They arrive in Geneva on 13th of May. Shelley meets Byron and his physician John Polidori on 27th May. Byron is now lodging separately at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva where the others make frequent visits. On 15th June Byron suggests a short horror story competition to pass the time away during a storm. Mary realises the vision of Frankenstein for the first time. Between the 21st and 27th July, Mary, Shelley and Claire visit Chamounix which gives Mary ideas for “Frankenstein”. Mary writes out the first draft of “Frankenstein” on 26th August, although she did not fully complete the first draft until 16th September. They return to England on 29th August arriving in Portsmouth on 8th September and stay in Bath next to the Pump Rooms however Shelley moves on to London. Mary’s stepsister Fanny commits suicide at the Mackworth Arms, Swansea on 9th October. Shelley’s wife Harriet kills herself in the serpentine in London and her body is found on the 10th December and is found to have been pregnant. Mary marries Percy Bysshe Shelley on the 30th December at St. Mildred’s Church, Bread Street, London. Her father William Godwin and his wife attend.

1817: Shelley seeks custody of his children Charles and Ianthe but fails. On 14th May Mary finishes “Frankenstein”. Mary gives birth to her third child Clara Everina on 2nd September.

1818: “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” is published for the first time on 1st January. On 11th March the Shelleys, Claire Clairemont , Allegra, and two servants leave for Dover bound for Italy. They stay in Milan for three weeks in April and Mary meets Maria Gisbourne for the first time in Pisa. On 14th May Mary writes to Walter Scott thanking him for his kind review of “Frankenstein” and informing him that it is she who was the author not Percy. Her daughter Clara dies in Venice on the 24th September of dysentery.

1819: On 7th June William Shelley dies from malaria and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Her fourth child, Percy Florence is born in Florence on 12th November.

1820: She begins the novel “Castruccio, Prince of Lucca” which her father William Godwin will later change the title to “Valperga“.

1822: On the 16th June she miscarries and almost dies of a haemorrhage. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Edward Williams and his friend sail to Leghorn in Shelley’s boat the “Don Juan” to meet Leigh-Hunt. Mary Shelley sees Lord ByronByron. Shelley and Williams are both drowned on the return trip in the Gulf of Spezia. Their bodies are found ten days later. William’s body is cremated on 13th August and Percy’s a day later on the beach. Mary begins transcribing son of Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” to earn her keep and also collects together Percy’s poems.

1823: Percy’s ashes are interred in the Protestant cemetery in Rome on 21st January. In February Sir Timothy Shelley says he will only support their son Percy Florence if Mary gives up custody of him. Mary and Percy Florence arrive back in England on 25th August. She is rejected by Sir Timothy Shelley, who forbids her to publish any of Shelley’s works to which she may hold copyright and refuses to give her any financial assistance. She is also rejected by London Society in general. In November Sir Timothy relents and gives Percy Florence £100 per year.

1824: In February she begins writing her novel “The Last Man“. Mary begins transcribing Shelley’s manuscripts and hopes to get them published. In June 300 copies of “Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley” are produced but Sir Timothy bans their sale two months later. Sir Timothy threatens to stop Percy Florence’s allowance if she publishes any more in his lifetime.

1825: In June she refuses a proposal of marriage from John Howard Payne an American actor and playwright. 

1826: The novel “The Last Man” is published in January in three volumes. Mary assists Thomas Moore with his projected life of Byron. In September Charles Bysshe Shelley, the son of Percy and Harriet from his first marriage, dies, which makes Percy Florence the heir to the baronetcy.

1827: Sir Timothy increases Percy Florence’s allowance to £250. 

1828: In March Percy Florence begins his schooling at Edward Slater’s Gentlemen’s Academy, Church Street in Kensington. Mary contracts smallpox on a visit to Paris to see the Douglases in April. Claire Claremont comes to live with Mary in London in December until April 1829.

1829: Sir Timothy increases Percy Florence’s allowance to £300 per year.

1830: “The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance” is published in three volumes in May.

1832: Percy Florence goes to Harrow school.

1833: She begins writing “Lodore” but breaks off to start “The Lives of the Italians” which was to take five years to research and write. 

1835: “Lodore” is published in three volumes and is attributed to the author of Frankenstein.

1836: She removes Percy Florence from Harrow and engages a private tutor to save money. Her father William Godwin dies on 7th April. She begins the task of writing Godwin’s life and editing his papers for which Henry Colburn has offered her 350 Guineas. 

1837: “Falkner”, a novel is published in three volumes. In October Percy Florence goes up to Trinity College, Cambridge. Sir Timothy finally relents to the publication of Shelley’s poems provided no biographical information is included.

1839: She prepares texts and biographical notes for Edward Moxon’s edition of Shelley’s work for which she is paid £500 pounds. The strain of this work makes her ill. 

1841: Percy Florence graduates from Cambridge and Sir Timothy increases his allowance to £400. In June Mary Jane Godwin, her stepmother dies.

1844: Sir Timothy Shelley dies leaving Field Place to Percy and Mary. The property is in a terrible state of repair and its costs as well as her husband’s debts left her in despair.

1848: Her son Percy marries Jane St. John on 22nd June, the widow of Charles Robert St. John the younger son of Lord Bolingbroke. The three move back to Field Place and use Jane’s money to restore it. 

1850: Her health worsens and she is taken back to Chester Square in London.

1851: She suffers a series of fits and lapses into a coma on 23rd January at her home in Chester Square.

Mary Shelley died on 1st February 1851 at Chester Square in London, England of brain cancer. After her death Percy arranged for the bodies of her father Godwin and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft to be exhumed and reburied alongside Mary at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth.

Influences

Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft died when she was only a few days old and she was looked after by her father the philosopher William Godwin and her stepmother whom she disliked. She never went to school but her father encouraged her to read widely. Particular favourites were the poetry of John Milton and the plays of William Shakespeare. Her parents were influenced by Enlightenment ideals expressed in the works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and this permeated through to Mary who was allowed to use her father’s extensive library. She read and reread her mother’s books all her life committing many to heart. Her father encouraged her to write letters to people and she enjoyed making up stories.

Other more recent writers who influenced her were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe whose, famous novel of tragic love “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was a favourite, the poet William Wordsworth, the gothic novelist Clara Reeve whose most famous novel was “The Old English Baron” and the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” she had heard the poet read aloud when a child.

John Milton’s influence is clear in the pages of “Frankenstein” where “Paradise Lost” also charts a complex story of creation. She references Shakespeare’s works several times in the novel particularly “The Tempest” and “Othello” and there is evidence she read Voltaire’s works “The Ingénu” and “Micromégas” which describe creatures from other worlds interacting with our own. Several of her father’s novels such as “The Adventures of Caleb Williams” were set in Switzerland like her own “Frankenstein”. The novel itself was inspired by a nightmare she had had at Geneva before the famous evening story telling session at the Villa Diodati.

She was also well aware of the scientific theories of the day in talking to her father, Shelley her Husband and Lord Byron and had heard of Giovanni Aldini’s experiments and Luigi Galvani’s theories on animal electricity who maintained that galvanism showed that “animal electricity” could create life. Due to this emphasis on the scientific ideas of the day she is seen as one of the founders of the genre of science fiction and is still admired as such today.

After the early death of her husband she devoted herself to promoting and editing the works of both Percy and her father and extending Godwin’s vision of gradual reform through education and discussion. After her own death she was chiefly known as the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of “Frankenstein” and her son’s well-meaning attempt to describe her life without the radical aspects did little to dissuade this view. Writings about her by Thomas Jefferson Hogg and Edward John Trelawny concentrated on her husband to the exclusion of her own genius and even her son’s wife edited her letters for publication in 1882 to try and show a quiet and almost timid character. It was not until the last quarter of the twentieth century that she began to be seen as an important figure in her own right.

The first theatrical production of “Frankenstein” was in 1823 and there have been many others since and film versions have been produced since the original in 1910. It is fair to say that they have influenced the horror genre in many ways from cheap shock to more cerebral interpretations. During the twenty first century the republication of almost all of her writing has shone a new light on its value and many authorities now consider her to be a major Romantic figure significant for both her literature and for her liberal political voice.

Further Information

For more information see Britain Unlimited’s Mary Shelley page here.

List of works by Mary Shelley.

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