WOMENS-symbolThroughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways.  Each Saturday I plan to highlight one of these remarkable women.  There will be no limit to the areas of history that I may include; however as a guide I will look to the month of their birth, the month of their death or the month associated with their mark in history when I select them.  Is there an outstanding women in history you would like me to include?  I welcome your suggestions.  Would you like to guest blog one of the world’s outstanding women?  Let me hear from you.

Today an outstanding woman from the world of literature.  Meet Mary Shelley.  Also see my post What Happened on March 11th – Frankenstein is Published


Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley was shown at the Royal Academy in 1840

Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary Shelley was shown at the Royal Academy in 1840


English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer is just a start to all that can be said about this renowned woman.  With so much material, I will need to leave much out.  I will focus on her upbringing, her relationship with Shelley, Frankenstein and her death.  To read more, here is my source.

Early life

Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in Somers Town, London, on August 30, 1797. She was the second child of the feminist philosopher, educator, and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and the first child of the philosopher, novelist, and journalist William Godwin.

Page from William Godwin's journal recording "Birth of Mary, 20 minutes after 11 at night" (left column, four rows down)

Page from William Godwin’s journal recording “Birth of Mary, 20 minutes after 11 at night” (left column, four rows down)


Her mother died of puerperal fever (childbed fever from infection) ten days after Mary was born.

Godwin was left to bring up Mary, along with her older half-sister, Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft’s child by the American speculator Gilbert Imlay.   A year after Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), which he intended as a sincere and compassionate tribute. However, because the Memoirs revealed Wollstonecraft’s affairs and her illegitimate child, they were seen as shocking. Mary Godwin read these memoirs and her mother’s books, and was brought up to cherish her mother’s memory.

The Polygon (at left) in Somers Town, London, between Camden Town and St Pancras, where Mary Godwin was born and spent her earliest years

The Polygon (at left) in Somers Town, London, between Camden Town and St Pancras, where Mary Godwin was born and spent her earliest years

Mary’s earliest years were happy ones, judging from the letters of William Godwin’s housekeeper and nurse, Louisa Jones; however a stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont came on the scene in December of 1801.  After the marriage, the family was joined by Mary Jane’s children.  The marriage was a success but William Godwin’s 19th-century biographer C. Kegan Paul later suggested that Mrs Godwin had favoured her own children over Mary Wollstonecraft’s and that Mary despised her stepmother.  Together, the Godwins started a publishing firm called M. J. Godwin, which sold children’s books as well as stationery, maps, and games but it was not successful.

Though Mary Godwin received little formal education, her father tutored her in a broad range of subjects. He often took the children on educational outings, and they had access to his library and to the many intellectuals who visited him.  Mary Godwin nonetheless received an unusual and advanced education for a girl of the time.   She had a governess, a daily tutor, and read many of her father’s children’s books on Roman and Greek history in manuscript.  For six months in 1811, she also attended a boarding school in Ramsgate. Her father described her at fifteen as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

In June 1812, her father sent Mary to stay with the family of the radical William Baxter, near Dundee, Scotland. Mary Godwin reveled in the spacious surroundings of Baxter’s house and in the companionship of his four daughters, and she returned north in the summer of 1813 for a further stay of ten months. In the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, she recalled: “I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.”


Percy Bysshe Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819)

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819)

Mary Godwin likely met Shelley when she came home from Scotland for a second time on 30 March 1814.  Percy Bysshe Shelley, the radical poet and philosopher had become estranged from his wife and was regularly visiting William Godwin, whom he had agreed to bail out of debt. Percy Shelley’s radical economic views, which he had imbibed from William Godwin’s Political Justice (1793), had alienated him from his wealthy aristocratic family.
The wanted him to follow traditional models of the landed aristocracy, and he wanted to donate large amounts of the family’s money to schemes intended to help the disadvantaged. Percy Shelley therefore had difficulty gaining access to money until he inherited his estate because his family did not want him wasting it on projects of “political justice”. After several months of promises, Shelley announced that he either could not or would not pay off all of Godwin’s debts. Godwin was angry and felt betrayed.
Mary Wollstonecraft's original grave, St. Pancras Cemetery

Mary Wollstonecraft’s original grave, St. Pancras Cemetery

Mary and Percy began meeting each other secretly at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard, and they fell in love—she was nearly seventeen, he nearly twenty-two. To Mary’s dismay, her father disapproved and tried to thwart the relationship and salvage the “spotless fame” of his daughter. At about the same time, Mary’s father learned of Shelley’s inability to pay off his debts. She saw Percy Shelley as an embodiment of her parents’ liberal and reformist ideas of the 1790s, particularly Godwin’s view that marriage was a repressive monopoly, which he had argued in his 1793 edition of Political Justice but since retracted. On 28 July 1814, the couple secretly left for France, taking Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with them, but leaving Percy’s pregnant wife behind.

The trio traveled to Paris by donkey, mule, carriage, and foot, through a France recently ravaged by war, to Switzerland. As they traveled, Mary and Percy read works by Mary Wollstonecraft and others, kept a joint journal, and continued their own writing. At Lucerne, lack of money forced the three to turn back. They traveled down the Rhine and by land to the Dutch port of Marsluys, arriving at Gravesend, Kent, on 13 September 1814.

Mary Godwin’s return to England had some complications.  Either before or during the journey, she had become pregnant. She and Percy now found themselves penniless, and, to Mary’s genuine surprise, her father refused to have anything to do with her. The couple moved with Claire into lodgings at Somers Town, and later, Nelson Square. They maintained their intense program of reading and writing and entertained Percy Shelley’s friends.  Percy Shelley sometimes left home for short periods to dodge creditors. The couple’s distraught letters reveal their pain at these separations.

Pregnant and often ill, Mary Godwin had to cope with Percy’s joy at the birth of his son by Harriet Shelley in late 1814 and his constant outings with Claire Clairmont. She was partly consoled by the visits of Shelley’s frined, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, whom she disliked at first but soon considered a close friend. Percy Shelley seems to have wanted Mary Godwin and Hogg to become lovers; Mary did not dismiss the idea, since in principle she believed in free love. In practice, however, she loved only Percy Shelley and seems to have ventured no further than flirting with Hogg. On 22 February 1815, she gave birth to a two-months premature baby girl, who was not expected to survive and who died in March.

The Shelley Cottage at Bishopsgate

The Shelley Cottage at Bishopsgate

Mary Godwin was acutely depressed at the loss of her child; however but she conceived again and had recovered by the summer. With a revival in Percy Shelley’s finances after the death of his grandfather, Sir Bysshe Shelley, the couple holidayed in Torquay and then rented a two-storey cottage at Bishopsgate, on the edge of Windsor Great Park. Little is known about this period in Mary Godwin’s life, since her journal from May 1815 to July 1816 is lost. At Bishopsgate, Percy wrote his poem Alastor; and on 24 January 1816, Mary gave birth to a second child, William, named after her father and soon nicknamed “Willmouse”. In her novel The Last Man, she later imagined Windsor Great Park as a Garden of Eden.

William "Willmouse" Shelley, painted just before his death from malaria in 1819 (portrait by Amelia Curran, 1819)

William “Willmouse” Shelley, painted just before his death from malaria in 1819 (portrait by Amelia Curran, 1819)


My daughter is always saying that many people think the monster is Frankenstein and they are wrong.  Frankenstein was the scientist who created the monster. 🙂


Frankenstein's Monster (Boris Karloff)

Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff)

In May 1816, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, and their son traveled to Geneva with Claire Clairmont to spend the summer with the poet Lord Byron, whose recent affair with Claire had left her pregnant. Mary called herself “Mrs Shelley”; however the couple was not actually married until 30 December 1816 after the suicide of Shelley’s first wife. Byron joined them on 25 May.  Percy Shelley rented a smaller building called Maison Chapuis on the waterfront nearby.

Maison Chapuis

Maison Chapuis

They spent their time writing, boating on the lake, and talking late into the night.


Claire Clairmont, Mary's stepsister and mistress of Lord Byron (portrait by Amelia Curran, 1819)

Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister and mistress of Lord Byron (portrait by Amelia Curran, 1819)


It was a very wet summer and the group was often confined to the house for days. Sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, the company amused themselves with German ghost stories, which prompted Byron to propose that they “each write a ghost story”. Unable to think of a story, young Mary Godwin became anxious: “Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” During one mid-June evening, the discussions turned to the nature of the principle of life. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated”, Mary noted, “galvanism had given token of such things”. (In biology, galvanism is the contraction of a muscle that is stimulated by an electric current.)  It was after midnight before they retired, and unable to sleep, she became possessed by her imagination as she beheld the grim terrors of her “waking dream”, her ghost story:

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. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

She began writing what she assumed would be a short story. With Percy Shelley’s encouragement, she expanded this tale into her first novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818.  As they say, the rest is history.  To me the story was the foundation for much that came in the genre afterwards.

Authorship of Frankenstein

Since Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818, readers and critics argued over its origins and the contributions of the two Shelleys to the book. There are differences in the 1818, 1823, and 1831 editions, and Mary Shelley wrote,

I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.”

She wrote that the preface to the first edition was Percy’s work “as far as I can recollect.” James Rieger concluded Percy’s “assistance at every point in the book’s manufacture was so extensive that one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator” while Anne K. Mellor later argued Percy only “made many technical corrections and several times clarified the narrative and thematic continuity of the text.”

In the time before the death of her husband, other children were born to them.  Her son William died in 1819.  A daughter, Clara born in 1817 died in 1818.  She gave birth to her fourth child, Percy Florence, on 12 November 1819.  A boating accident in 1822 left Mary Shelley a widow.

Final years and death

In 1840 and 1842, Mary and her son traveled together on the continent, journeys that Mary Shelley recorded in Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843 (1844). In 1844, Sir Timothy Shelley (father-in-law) finally died at the age of ninety and for the first time, she and her son were financially independent, though the estate proved less valuable than they had hoped.

In 1848, Percy Florence married Jane Gibson St John. The marriage proved a happy one, and Mary Shelley and Jane were fond of each other. Mary lived with her son and daughter-in-law at Field Place, Sussex, the Shelleys’ ancestral home, and at Chester Square, London, and accompanied them on travels abroad.

Mary Shelley’s last years were blighted by illness. From 1839, she suffered from headaches and bouts of paralysis in parts of her body, which sometimes prevented her from reading and writing. On 1 February 1851, at Chester Square, she died at the age of fifty-three from what her physician suspected was a brain tumor. According to Jane Shelley, Mary Shelley had asked to be buried with her mother and father; but Percy and Jane, judging the graveyard at St Pancras to be “dreadful”, chose to bury her instead at St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth, near their new home at Boscombe.

In order to fulfil Mary Shelley's wishes, Percy Florence and his wife Jane had the coffins of Mary Shelley's parents exhumed and buried with her in Bournemouth.

In order to fulfill Mary Shelley’s wishes, Percy Florence and his wife Jane had the coffins of Mary Shelley’s parents exhumed and buried with her in Bournemouth.

On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death, the Shelleys opened her box-desk. Inside they found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a copy of his poem Adonaïs with one page folded round a silk parcel containing some of his ashes and the remains of his heart. (CREEPY MUCH).




3 responses

  1. Birgit says:

    That last sentence is , um, weird to say the least. She obviously loved him and maybe she accepted the free love notion more on his behalf than what she actually believed since she did keep part of his heart (ick). She was ahead of her time in writing such a horror novel that is still very prevalent today. To lose so many children must have been heartbreaking. It is the sign of the times but that doesn’t mean the women didn’t suffer less


    • When I read the part about the heart kept, I had to read it to my husband and ask does it really mean what it says? Plastics weren’t even invented yet so she had it in a cloth bag. When I read stories about women having 10+ live babies and also had some not live, I think that in itself is cruelty to their bodies. On the show “Call the Midwife”, a woman in the first season was portrayed as giving birth to her 24th child.


      • Birgit says:

        24! wow. I had a client who had 24 children. She had 56 Grandchildren and she could not recall how many great grandchildren. My great Grandmother had 17 children but all died in infancy except for 4. My grandmother died in childbirth in 1919 so the brutality to women’s bodies was never even considered as such