Mary Shelley, a genius in her mother’s shadow

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley was born the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the influential enlightenment philosopher. Her mother died only 10 days after giving birth to her, and the two seemed separated forever. However, the daughter then took it upon herself to become an expert on her mother’s writing, and to live as much as she could in accordance with the wishes of her dead mother. It was a mother-daughter relationship that defied death. We asked two biographers of Mary Shelley, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, some questions about Mary Shelley’s sometimes sad life.

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler are historians and Edgar Award winning authors. They have written over sixty books, including the biography The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein (2007). If her mother died when she was so young, who was it that raised her? In what sort of family environment did she grow up?

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: She was raised by her father, William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist. By all accounts he was a cold and unfeeling man. He soon married again, to a woman named Mary Jane Clairmont, who already had two children of her own. Mary’s birth mother had advocated giving daughters a good education, but Godwin educated Mary at home. She was exposed to many of the great writers of her time, who visited because Godwin was held in high esteem in intellectual circles. Mary and her stepsister Jane Clairmont (who later changed her name to Clair Clairmont) remembered hiding behind the couch as Samuel Taylor Coleridge read aloud his epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Godwin sometimes took Mary to her mother’s grave had told her to trace the name on the tombstone. It was the same (Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) as young Mary’s own name, and her father stressed that she must live and achieve in a way that would be worthy of her mother’s sacrifice. Is the novel Frankenstein a book about the need to be a good parent?

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: Possibly. Readers have found many meanings in it. In our book, THE MONSTERS, we posit that the monster, a being with no name, is Mary’s description of herself. There is that famous story of the meeting between Shelley, her husband and Lord Byron, and the writing of the novel Frankenstein. She was a woman surrounded by geniuses. How can we be sure that her writings were indeed her own? She was only 18.

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: The meeting was at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva, and five people were present. Besides the three you mention, there was also Claire Clairmont, then pregnant with Byron’s child, and Dr. John Polidori, who followed Byron because he wanted to be a writer. Byron read aloud some ghost stories and then challenged the others to see who could write the best ghost story. Besides Frankenstein, the only other story that emerged from the “contest” was Polidori’s THE VAMPYRE, often called the first modern vampire story. Even then, Polidori was overshadowed by Byron, because the publisher hinted that Byron had written it. Byron stoutly denied that.

As for the authorship of Mary’s novel, there are existing pages of Frankenstein in her handwriting, and occasional notes in the margins in Shelley’s handwriting. These marginal notes are quite minor. In fact, Mary later assembled and edited Shelley’s poems (after his death), giving him the reputation he has today—which he did not gain from the writing he published before his death. So in a way, it can be said that she was the co-author of his best work. Byron, who had poor handwriting, also entrusted Mary to make fair copies of his work to send to his publisher. He later praised Frankenstein as a “wonderful work for a girl of nineteen—not nineteen at the time” to have written. In the novel Frankenstein, there is some talk of electricity, a mysterious force for romantic writers. In the novel, like today, it is used to jumpstart life, or the heart. Where did the teenager, Mary, learn about this new science?

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: Like the monster in her book, Mary learned much from listening. One of the favorite topics of conversation that summer between Shelley and Byron was the origin of life. They discussed an elan vital, or life force, that could possibly be connected with electricity. They (and Polidori) had heard of Luigi Galvani, an Italian scientist, who had shown in 1786 that he could produce muscular contractions in dead frogs by touching them with a pair of scissors during an electrical storm. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, later performed experiments on human corpses, using a Leyden jar. (early form of electric battery). Stories had circulated that dead bodies had been brought back to life through this method. Was there ever a real life model for doctor Frankenstein?

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: Mary never specified one, but you can see similarities to Shelley. The book Frankenstein was not initially well received, and the next great scifi genius in English literature did not arrive until the late Victorian/Edwardian writer H.G.Wells. At what point in history did people realize that Mary Shelley had created something completely new?

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: One of the first reviewers of the book was Sir Walter Scott, at the time one of England’s most famous writers, and he praised it. Byron called it “a wonderful work for a girl of nineteen—not nineteen, indeed, at that time.” Two years after the book’s publication, a friend of Shelley’s wrote him, “I went to the Egham races [where] I met….a great number of my old acquaintance…of whom I was asked a multitude of questions concerning Frankenstein and its author. It seems to be universally known and read.” By 1823, another author had written a stage production called Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which was a loose adaptation of Mary’s novel. She attended it with her father and enjoyed it.

Jules Verne (not English, of course) wrote science fiction before Wells, as did Edward Bellamy (American) in Looking Backward, 2000-1887. Her husband, the poet Shelley, of course, died when she was only 24, and she lived most of her life without him. Did she ever find another man?

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: She did not lack for suitors. John Howard Payne, the American author of “Home, Sweet Home,” came to England as manager of a theater, sent Mary free tickets and they began to be seen together. When Washington Irving visited England, Mary asked Payne to introduce her to the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” He did so, but then broke off his courtship of Mary. She and Irving did not develop a closer relationship. She never remarried. She is the author of several other novels, including one quite innovative called The Last Man. It was the first post-apocalyptical scifi novel. Tell us a little about that novel, and its message? Why do you think she wrote this work? There is a sense of loneliness in it, is there not?

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: The premise of The Last Man is that a plague has wiped out the human race, except for one man. Mary wrote in her journal: “The last man! Yes, I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.” Three of the four others who had been with her at the conception of Frankenstein were all dead. Mary and Claire were estranged. When The Last Man was published in 1826, the author was identified on the title page only as “the author of Frankenstein.” She lived well into the Victorian age. Did she communicate with other famous writers of her age, Dickens or George Eliot perhaps?

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: Not that we know of. Dickens referred to Frankenstein in his novel Great Expectations. Frankenstein has given her immortality, but did she experience any of this recognition in her own life time? Was she ever a grand old lady of letters?

Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler: She continued to write, and devoted her life to her one surviving child. When he married, Mary moved in with the newlyweds, and her daughter-in-law became a close friend. Mary didn’t become a public person.

Recommended books:

    • Mary Shelley (2001), by Miranda Seymour
    • The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein (2007), by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

Read Frankenstein Illustrated in our comic book section 

 Mary Shelley’s


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