It’s time for another Fierce Female of the week, and this time we’re going historical. Presumably most of you have heard of Frankenstein (the original book), but how much do you know about the author, Mary Shelley?
Mary Shelley was a woman who was many years ahead of her time. She is known by many to have been the first author to publish TWO new genres of literature – science fiction (Frankenstein), and post-apocalyptic (The Last Man) – though of course, at the time she received no such credit. In fact, it was widely assumed for a number of years that her partner Percy Shelley was the author of Frankenstein until she later advocated for her due credit. There were of course, a couple of authors who had written works that could possibly be considered science fiction prior to Mary Shelley, such as Margaret Cavendish and Johannes Kepler, but Mary was certainly the first to write something that was distinctly science fiction, and have it widely published. Considering that Mary was only 19 years old when she wrote Frankenstein, it says a lot about her beautifully creative mind, and significant intelligence – especially with the lack of educational opportunities for women in the 1700’s and 1800’s.
Mary was also born into the world of feminism, as her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist and advocate for women’s rights back in the mid 1700’s – and although she died early in Mary’s life, she left a significant impact. Mary’s father, William Godwin, also carried on her mother’s legacy, publishing a posthumous book about of his wife’s previously published work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, to which he entitled Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Thanks to both parents, Mary came into the world a passionate woman, who fiercely defended her talents to all of those who would oppose her.
One of the most interesting things that I learned about Mary Shelley was about her wild few days with Lord Byron and others in Switzerland. In university, one of my professors described the infamous weekend in great detail and I found it absolutely fascinating. Mary, her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Claire Clairemont (Mary’s step-sister), and John Polidori (Lord Byron’s personal physician, and presumed part-time male lover) all spent a few days together at Lord Byron’s rented estate in Switzerland. The group of them are believed to have stayed indoors due to bad weather for three days, and (there is a lot of immense speculation about this) intentionally taken some type of drug and, amongst other unknown activities, played writing games with each other – sparking creativity in all of them. This led to Mary Shelley’s first thoughts about the novel Frankenstein – also known as The Modern Prometheus – and led to Lord Byron creating first drafts of a vampire novella eerily similar to Dracula by Bram Stoker, entitled Fragment of A Novel. Additionally, those drafts written by Byron were then stolen (allegedly) post-party weekend by his speculated lover John, who published his own book based off of Byron’s idea, which he then titled The Vampyre. It truly was a wild weekend.
With Frankenstein in mind, Mary finished and published her novel as an anonymous author, knowing that, had she used her own name, no one would bother to read her work as it was written by a woman. Mary was an absolute radical at the time, disagreeing with the way the world saw women and saw life, and herself and her husband Percy were always “fighting the establishment” and living their lives boldly in the romantic movement. Fitting with their romanticism, it’s been said that when Mary’s husband died while she was still quite young, herself and the aforementioned Lord Byron (a romantic himself), wanted to keep a physical representation of Percy. Both wanted to keep his heart (in a jar like you would see in a science laboratory) as their own memento of him, but Mary won that argument, leaving Lord Byron to have Percy’s skull instead – though no one seems to know what happened to the flesh that was on it…
Mary’s personal life was quite troublesome. Involving her being “the other woman”, her sister birthing a child of Percy’s, debt, travel between many countries avoiding creditors, many miscarriages, the death of multiple young children, disease, blackmail, and a brain tumor. Despite it all, Mary was constantly writing, became a publisher herself, and went on to write many different pieces of literature. She maintained the position her mother once held, that women can do anything men can do and should be given the opportunity, and she continued to push for that all the days of her life. She was brilliant, and like many from her time, died much too young. Her literary masterpieces will forever carry her name through history and the future, and her first work, Frankenstein, will remain one of the most treasured science fiction classics of all time.
“Beware; I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
– Mary Shelley
“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”
– Mary Shelley
“I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”
– A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft
Photo of Mary Shelley via Horror Film Wiki