The works of Mary Shelley, born Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, helped shape a whole genre of books and film that would span centuries after her death. Her novel, Frankenstein, also known as The Modern Prometheus, is considered the very first science fiction literature. It has been 200 years since the release of Frankenstein, and while the book has gained such praise and fame, very little is known about the author herself.
The 1800s were not a time where female writers were taken seriously, hence Mary chose to (initially) write anonymously. While the novel was not a biography, it did bear a striking resemblance to certain aspects of her life. Frankenstein is gothic by nature, and this seems to mirror Mary’s personality as well. It’s fair to say that Mary had an interest in the dead, as she would often times meet her (married) lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a graveyard where her mother had been laid to rest, and allegedly lost her virginity at this location. It is worth mentioning that Mary was a mere 18 years of age when she wrote Frankenstein, and 20 when it was published. By this time she had ran away with Percy and had two children (both unfortunately did not live past infancy).
It was at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland that Mary came up with the idea for Frankenstein. The poor weather at Lake Geneva forced the duo to stay at the Villa, with Lord Byron and writer John Polidori. Frankenstein was conceived through a competition between the four on who could write the best ghost story: Polidori went on to write ‘The Vampyre’ which was one of the inspirations for Dracula, while Mary wrote Frankenstein. It is unsure if this is the legitimate beginnings of Frankenstein, as she had also credited a dream she had for the inspiration. In a forward written by Mary in a later edition of the novel, she says:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. … He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”
Perhaps she was driven to write about death because her life had been marked by it- her mother, her children, her half-sister and her husband all passed away. On the note of her husband’s death, yet another fun fact- she kept he husband’s calcified heart as a keepsake until her death in 1851, nearly 29 years after his death [we all grieve in different ways].
While her novels rarely contained women in prominent roles, the act of writing a novel as a woman itself was a bold act for her time. Her contribution to science fiction is legendary: as Ann Foster writes in ‘Vida: Women in Literary Arts’,
“Science fiction was invented by a woman because only women could have conceptualized such shifts in the balance of power; men have held the balance of power in so many societies, what need would they have to imagine another world?”
The audiences today are very different from the audience then- it is why female-driven young adult and science fiction novels are so well received today. Mary Shelley paved the way for female writers today, and it is a shame that we know so little about her life.