Nothing is more well-loved during Halloween than a classic ghost story. However, for the Victorians, it didn’t have to be Halloween to send shivers down each other’s spines. Known as the mother of Science Fiction, Mary Shelley has been terrorizing readers with her infamous monster for over two centuries. But the woman behind Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus is almost as fascinating, if not more, than the story itself.
Born August 30th of 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the descendent of two writers, William Godwin, a political philosopher, and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, a philosopher and feminist. Although Mary never got to properly know her mother, who died in childbirth, she took the world by storm with her literary prowess. Mary Shelley soon met the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was still married at the time, and fell in love. Her mother’s grave served as a meeting place for the two writers. Percy Bysshe Shelley left his pregnant wife to elope with Mary. She struggled with debt and the loss of her premature child. However, due to her relationship with Percy, she became estranged from her father for quite some time.
The beginning of what would become Frankenstein start as any good horror story should–it was a dark and stormy night. Mary and Percy were staying at the house of their close friend, Lord Byron, who proposed a contest to the gathering of romantic writers; who among them could write the best ghost story? Inspiration struck her that night with a frightful dream. In her own words, “What terrified me will terrify others,” so she began the story of monster and creator from her nightmare. It would not be for another two years that she would publish the book in 1818 anonymously. The novel was met with controversy and adoration immediately. It inspired her husband and peers, including Lord Byron, to write of Prometheus, the Titan from Greek mythology who was punished for bestowing fire to mankind. Like Victor Frankenstein, he created life and suffered for it. Mary even attended a play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, that was based on her novel. The tale of the overly ambitious, possibly mad, scientist and his murderous monster has since become timeless and countless adaptations, parodies, and spin-offs have been made.
However, Mary took a break from writing after the death of her husband and began focusing on preserving his life’s work as well as his heart, which she kept in her desk. Mary did not lose her rebellious side despite claiming to have changed after her husband’s death. She aided her friend, Mary Diana Dods, who assumed the male identity, David Lyndsay, so that she could live with her lover as man and wife. Mary continued to write until her final years, when it became hard for her to work due to her illness. She died at the age of fifty-three on February 1st, 1851. Mary Shelley’s work continues to live on to this day. From the classic 1931 film to the musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even the beloved Mel Brooks comedy, Young Frankenstein, the tale has resonated with people for over a century. It only proves that to truly be a great writer, all you need to do is scare the crap out of your closest friends.
Special thanks to Abigail Larson for use of her artwork, Mary and Her Creation