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Mary Shelley Biography

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in London, England, on August 30, 1797. Both of her parents were celebrated political radicals. Mary Wollstonecraft, her mother, authored A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) and was an early advocate of sexual equality. William Godwin, her father, was a utopian-anarchist best known for his An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). Despite their freethinking ways, Wollstonecraft and Godwin were wed five months prior to their daughter’s birth. Mary’s birth was difficult. Her mother became ill and died ten days later.

Concerned with Mary’s welfare, Godwin courted numerous women, intent upon finding for her a suitable mother. On December 21, 1801, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont. She had two children of her own, six-year-old Charles and four-year-old Jane (later called Claire). The marriage was flawed by money problems and lifelong friction between Mary and her stepmother. Mary came to idealize her natural mother, whose works she read avidly. Though not a literary person, the new Mrs. Godwin did possess business sense, encouraging Godwin to become a publisher. Godwin’s vocation and reputation as a man of letters granted Mary valuable exposure to such literary giants as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Despite being deprived of the formal education that her natural mother would have wished for her, Mary thus became deeply acquainted with the literary and philosophical issues of her day.

Mary’s intellectual development did not make her relationship with her stepmother any more cordial. Distance was required, and Mary did manage to get away from the household, most notably living in Dundee, Scotland, from 1812 to 1814, with the relatively conventional Baxter family. Mary’s imagination soared in the ruggedly beautiful Scottish countryside, and life with the Baxters proved to be a revelation.

Visiting her father in November, 1812, Mary had met Percy Bysshe Shelley for the first time. An as yet unknown poet, Percy Shelley was drawn to William Godwin by the latter’s radicalism. Indeed, Percy took some of Godwin’s ideas more seriously than Godwin himself. Not unrelated to this was Percy’s whirlwind courtship of Mary upon her permanent return from Scotland in May of 1814. Godwin was not pleased. Percy was already married, albeit unhappily, and, in Godwin’s eyes, Mary was prohibitively young. The two lovers remained unswayed by Godwin’s opinion and ran off on July 28.

The relationship was both deeply romantic and somewhat bizarre. The young couple went to Europe, ready to live on love, and sometimes having to do just that. Percy and Mary became true soul mates, sharing abundant enthusiasm for literature and ideas. On the other hand, the two were not alone. Mary’s half sister Claire (formerly Jane) accompanied them. Just why she did so is not clear, but the fact that the three were so often together ultimately raised scandalous rumors. In addition, Mary often was agitated by Claire’s presence. She thought Claire wished to compete for Percy’s attention.

Plagued by money woes, the trio returned to England in September, 1814. In February, 1815, Mary gave birth to a daughter, the first of her four offspring with Shelley. Unfortunately, the baby died two weeks later. The following January (1816) saw the successful birth of a son, William. That May, under pressure from creditors and again accompanied by Claire, Mary and Shelley returned to Europe, this time residing in Switzerland. At this point, they made the acquaintance of Lord Byron, already a celebrated poet. It was after an evening of reading ghost stories at Byron’s mansion that Mary first conceived the plot of Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). In addition, Byron and Claire became lovers, though definitely not soul mates.

The Shelleys returned to England at the end of August. In December, Percy...

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