This story is paired with Chapter 1 of Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
In 1816, the ostracized daughter of two freethinkers crafted the greatest Gothic Romantic novel of all time—Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Although she was only 19 years old at the time, Mary Godwin drew inspiration from a murky mix of tragic experiences as she stitched together the story of the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous nemesis. Shunned by society for her involvement with a married aristocrat, Mary threw herself into the creation of what would become her masterwork. Between the pages, Mary exposed dark demons roused by the despair wrought from the death of her first child, the emotional turmoil of the suicide of her half-sister Fanny Imlay and her increasing disenchantment with her tumultuous love affair with the radical poet—Percy Bysshe Shelley. The resulting manuscript of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus validated Mary Godwin Shelley’s writing ability and launched her literary success.
Mary Godwin entered the world on August 30, 1797. Heralded by a spectacular storm and attended by the tragic death of her mother, Mary’s birth resembled the dark tones of the Gothic genre she brought to life under the hands of Victor Frankenstein. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, left the newborn her legacy as the first feminist and the author of the philosophical writings in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792). Eleven days after her daughter’s birth, Mary Wollstonecraft died, leaving the newborn Mary Godwin and her three-year-old daughter Fanny Imlay (the product of an illicit love affair with the rakish American Gilbert Imlay) to be raised by her new husband, philosopher and novelist William Godwin.
The death of her mother haunted Mary throughout her entire life. As a child, Mary learned to write her first name by tracing the letters chiseled in Mary Wollstonecraft’s headstone at the old St. Pancras Churchyard. Her habit of visiting the cemetery continued in her teen years. Jane (Claire) Clairmont, the daughter of her father’s second wife Mrs. Jane Clairmont, often accompanied her sojourns to Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave. In the summer of 1814, Percy Shelley joined the sisters on their afternoon visits. Percy fell in love with the 16-year-old girl and consummated their love affair in the confines of the cemetery with Claire standing guard. Even though he was already married and a father, Mary returned his love and eloped with him to the continent at the end of July with Claire in tow. Two summers and two pregnancies later, Mary Godwin conceived the basis of what would become her most famous work.
The trio of Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont arrived at Lake Geneva and set up residence near Villa Diodati where the English poet Lord Byron and his personal physician Dr. John Polidori were spending the summer. By this time, Mary had suffered the alienation and disapproval of her father, the death of her first child and the birth of her second, Percy’s intimate relationship with her step-sister Claire and Percy’s pressured insistence for her to take his friend T.J. Hogg as a lover. This stew of death and disappointment finally came to the surface in the form of a waking dream brought on by the famous three-day ghost story competition incited by Lord Byron in mid-June.
Over the course of discussions on the science of galvanization and readings from Das Gespensterbuch, a collection of German ghost tales, the seeds that would grow into Mary’s monster were planted. On one of those nights from June 15 to June 17, Mary experienced a waking dream detailing the mad scientist and his horrible creation.
“When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie,” Mary writes in the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. “I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —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, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”
And Frankenstein was born.
From the beginning, Percy Shelley’s initial fascination with Mary stemmed from her esteemed parentage as the daughter of his illustrious mentor William Godwin and the intellectual feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary’s introduction in the 1831 edition of Frankenstein reveals her knowledge of Percy’s aspirations for her intellectual inheritance: “My husband…was from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enroll myself on the page of fame. At this time he desired that I should write, not so much with the idea that I could produce anything worthy of notice, but that he might himself judge how far I possessed the promise of better things hereafter.”
The influence of Percy Shelley’s character on the author and her life are evident in development of her protagonist. In 1810, Percy Shelley published a book of poetry under the pen-name Victor. The name of Percy’s favorite sister was Elizabeth, which Mary used as the name for Victor’s adopted sister. Percy’s fascinations with alchemy and chemistry are also mirrored in Victor as was the poet’s studies of works by Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus. Victor Frankenstein finds contempt for his early studies from his natural philosophy professor M. Krempe who states, “I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus.” Victor’s chemistry teacher M. Waldman, however, validates the protagonist’s inquiries into a time “when the masters of the science sought immortality and power.” As a result, Victor’s thoughts are consumed with the desire to “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”
Percy Shelley’s years at Eaton and, later, the short stint at Oxford were fueled by the poet’s fascination with science and chemistry, which he combined with his eclectic studies on the occult. He was particularly engrossed in the use of electricity in the field of medicine. His nefarious scientific pursuits earned him the nickname “Mad Shelley.” After his expulsion from Oxford, Percy attended anatomical lectures in London before pushing aside thoughts of being a surgeon to embrace his poetic pursuits. Victor Frankenstein’s studies resemble those of the poet. “From this day natural philosophy, and particularly chemistry, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, became nearly my sole occupation. I read with ardour those works, so full of genius and discrimination, which modern inquirers have written on these subjects.”
Other observations of her lover dig deeper.
During her first pregnancy, Percy urged Mary to embrace his ideals of free love, urging her to engage in a sexual relationship with his Oxford pal T.J. Hogg. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Mary attempted to embrace the idea of an open relationship, but was sexually indifferent to Hogg, who became a close friend during their correspondence. During her pregnancy, Percy spent more and more time with her step-sister Claire. In the meantime, Percy’s abandoned wife Harriet Westbrook gave birth to his son Charles in November 1814. Percy’s daughter by Mary was born three months later on February 22, 1815. The baby began ailing immediately and died just 12 days later on March 6. Percy found consolation in Claire’s arms, leaving Mary alone to deal with her despair.
Mary’s bereavement can be seen in the sorrow expressed by Victor after the untimely death of his mother: “…when the lapse of time proves the reality of the evil, then the actual bitterness of grief commences. Yet from whom has not that rude hand rent away some dear connection? and why should I describe a sorrow which all have felt, and must feel?” The protagonist’s questioning continues after he decides to immerse himself in the research of the divine spark: “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.” Her accusations of abandonment might also be read into her description of Victor’s flight from the monster he created.
Percy’s indiscretions came to halt that spring after being diagnosed with consumption. Told he didn’t have long to live, Percy began work on Alastor; Or, the Spirit of Solitude. In later years, Mary wrote an introductory note to the 1839 edition of this poem, remarking “…it was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal hues which his brilliant imagination inspired, and softened by the recent anticipation of death.”
In the second stanza, the poet writes:
I have watched
Thy shadow, and the darkness of thy steps,
And my heart ever gazes on the depth
Of thy deep mysteries.
Shelley’s influence from this particular poem might also be seen through the eyes of Victor Frankenstein: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.”
On January 24, 1816, Mary gave birth to their second child, a boy she named William after her father. Seeking warmer climes for the betterment of Percy’s health, the couple, with the ever-present Claire in tow, retreated to Lake Geneva. To their dismay, the weather was cold and wet as a result the environmental disturbance caused by a violent volcanic eruption that had occurred in Indonesia the previous year. The dreary weather led to the development of what would become Mary’s masterpiece – Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
At Percy’s urging, Mary expanded her original idea into a full-length novel, which she continued to work on after they returned to London in early September 1816. The tragedy of death, which seemed to shadow Mary’s life, presented itself once again when her half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide by overdosing of laudanum at the end of September. The news of yet another tragic death descended on the Shelly household, when the body of Percy’s legal wife Harriet was found floating in the waters of the Serpentine River. Harriet’s suicide lays the blame on Percy’s abandonment: “My dear Bysshe … if you had never left me I might have lived but as it is, I freely forgive you & may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of… so shall my spirit find rest & forgiveness.”
Just twenty days after the body’s discovery, Percy and Mary were wed at St. Mildred’s Church in London on December 30, 1816. By the spring of the next year, Mary’s draft was complete and she started the process of seeking a publisher in May 1817. In January 1818, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his mad creation was published anonymously by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and James. The publication of the tale was quickly accompanied with speculation that it had been written by either Mary’s father, the novelist William Godwin, or even by her husband Percy Shelley, who penned the original preface. No one ever suspected a woman as being the author of the first science fiction novel ever written.
Published in August 1822, the second edition of Frankenstein credited Mary Shelley as the author. In October 1831, a heavily revised edition of Frankenstein was released by Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley. This revision includes edits made by Mary Godwin Shelley and a new preface in which she offered insight into the story’s origin. Although Percy Bysshe Shelley provided the original preface, Mary claimed authorship of the terrifying tale. It wasn’t until nearly 180 years later that a detailed analysis of the manuscript would stir doubts of the authenticity of Mary’s claim.
In 2008, Charles E. Robinson released a new edition of Frankenstein, crediting the novel to Mary (with Percy) Shelley. His analysis of the original manuscript revealed Percy Shelley’s revisions to the novel—changes amounting to 5,000 of the 70,000 words in the novel and dramatic alterations to the story. His suggestions in the early drafting of the novel appear to have been accepted by Mary as fewer alterations appear as the story progresses. However, the root of the tale and the subsequent drafting belong to Mary alone. The story draws heavily from her father’s novels, her extensive travels and her tragic preoccupation with death. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus endures as one of the first major novels written by a woman and it continues to stand as one of the most terrifying tales of all time.
In another life, Carina Bissett wrote travel articles and books about the Southwest. These days, she spends her time crafting twisted fairy tales and cross-pollinated mythic fiction. She is currently at work on the first novel in her five-book Elements series.