August Babies – Mary Shelley & Frankenstein
August did not have any compelling holidays to celebrate, so this month I’ll be posting about authors who were born in the month of August.
Mary Shelley 8/30/1797 – 2/1/1851
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born August 30, 1797 in Somers Town, London England. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft a feminist philosopher, educator and writer and her father William Godwin a philosopher, novelist and journalist. Her mother passed away ten days after Mary’s birth. Mary and her elder half-sister Fanny were raised alone by William until he remarried in 1801 to Mary Jane Clairmont, a well-educated woman with two children of her own; Charles and Claire. Mary Godwin had a strained relationship with her stepmother, and it’s been suggested that Mary Clairmont favored her own children over Mary Wollstonecraft’s. Mary Godwin received little formal education but her father tutored her in a broad range of subjects, taking the children to educational outings and giving them access to his library and the many intellectuals who visited their father. Even so, Mary Godwin received an unusual and advanced education for a girl of that time.
It is believed that Mary Godwin met her future husband and radical poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley while he was visiting her father, hoping to assist William out of debt. However, after several months Shelley revealed that he could not or would not pay off all of William Godwin’s debt and the two became estranged. Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley then began meeting each other secretly and her mother’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard and fell in love. She was seventeen and he was twenty-two. Percy however was already married to Harriet Westbrook, whom he had eloped with in 1811. However, Shelley became extremely unhappy with this marriage believing that Harriet, encouraged by her family, had married him for his money and inheritance. On July 28, 1814 Percy Shelley abandoned Harriet (pregnant with their second child) and eloped with Mary Godwin. The couple secretly left for France, taking Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont with them because she could speak French. The trio eventually made their way to Switzerland. However, lack of money forced them to return to England just 3 months later.
The Shelley’s finances improved with Percy’s inheritance after his grandfather’s passing. In May of 1816 Mary, Percy and Claire, who was pregnant with the illegitimate child of Poet Lord Byron, all traveled to meet with Byron in a villa near Lake Geneva at the village of Cologny. It was during this trip that Byron suggested during some ill-weather that each of the write a ghost story to entertain themselves and thus Mary Shelley began her most famous work, Frankenstein. Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818, which led to readers and critics arguing over the origin of the book, and there is much debate on Percy’s role in the novel as just an editor or as a full collaborator. A revised version, the most commonly read, was published in 1831, which was revised to make the story more conservative. The 1818 version is still available and is preferred by many scholars.
Mary’s life continued to be fraught with tragedy and depression. In the fall of 1816 the Shelley’s experienced two tragedies in their life, Mary’s half-sister Fanny and Percy’s legal wife Harriet both committed suicide. After Harriet’s death Percy and Mary were officially married, ending the rift between the couple and the Godwins. The Shelley’s financial situation continued to deteriorate and in an effort to avoid debtor’s prison the couple moved to Italy with Claire. They then took on a roving lifestyle never settling in any one place for too long. During their years in Italy they had many losses including the deaths of their two children and another miscarriage which nearly took Mary’s life. In addition, accusations of Percy’s involvement with other women followed them and Percy and Mary continued to drift apart. Mary’s sole surviving child Percy Florence Shelley was born in November of 1819. In June of 1822 during a boating trip up the Italian coast Percy along with Edward Williams died.
A year after her husband’s death Mary returned to England with her son Percy back to England in 1823. Percy became the heir to the Shelley estate after his half-brother Charles passed away in 1826. Mary and her father-in-law had a strained relationship, though he gave her a small annual allowance to support his grandson. Mary continued to write and edit throughout her life. She also continued to champion her late husband’s works and met many suitors with a cautionary attitude. Percy remained a devoted son and continued to live with his mother after completing his education at Harrow. In 1844 her father-in-law Sir Timothy Shelley passed away and Percy inherited the Shelley estate making he and his mother financially independent. After years of failing health Shelley died of what is suspected to be a brain tumour at the age of 53 in 1851.