Frankenstein | Study Guide

Mary Shelley

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Author Biography

Learn more about Mary Shelley's life and the personal experiences that inspired her novel Frankenstein (1818) in Course Hero's video study guide.

Mary Shelley | Biography


Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin might have seemed destined to become a writer from her birth in London on August 30, 1797. Her father, William Godwin, was a noted philosopher and political writer who argued, in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1792), that a central government was by its nature corrupt and tyrannical. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was an early feminist and novelist whose controversial book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) argued that women's lives—and society as a whole—would improve if women were given an education equal to that of men. Mary grew up surrounded by some of the most important writers of the time, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Mary had an unhappy family life. Her mother died less than two weeks after giving birth to her, and Mary detested the woman her father married four years later. Denied any formal schooling, Mary taught herself by reading widely in her father's library. She also wrote, noting in the 1831 edition of Frankenstein that in childhood her "favorite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to 'write stories.'"

When Mary was 15 years old, she met poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was handsome, charming, intellectually alive, and committed to political liberalism like her parents—and married. Nonetheless, she fell in love with him. In 1814, when she was nearly 17 and he 21, he abandoned his wife, and the couple fled to Europe. A year later Mary had her first child, who died a few days later. The couple settled in Switzerland, and in the summer of 1816 Mary began writing Frankenstein, which she published two years later. That work came in the midst of tragedy. Mary's half-sister Fanny committed suicide in 1816, and later in the year Shelley's wife, Harriet, devastated by her husband's affair with Mary, killed herself. In December Mary and Percy married. Frankenstein was published in 1818.

The couple's life was not easy, as Percy, despite being from a wealthy family, was in conflict with his father. Though Frankenstein's first edition sold out, that was only 500 copies. Mary had published the novel anonymously, and because she was so young, relatively unknown, and married to Percy Shelley, people believed he had written the runaway hit. The fact that he had written the preface increased that conviction. Added to the couple's troubles were the deaths of three of their children and Percy's inability to remain faithful. Financial and emotional struggles continued. Then, in 1822, when Mary was only 24 years old, Percy drowned.

Needing to support herself and her only surviving child, Mary wrote five more novels and a novella, but none were as successful as Frankenstein. She also wrote magazine stories, biographies, and travel books, and she collected and edited editions of Percy's poetry and prose. Several men wanted to marry her, but she remained devoted to her husband's memory. She carried Percy's heart—which a friend had grabbed out of his funeral pyre—in her pocketbook for the rest of her life. She died in London on February 1, 1851, at age 53.

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