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Shelley, Mary (1797-1851)

Published onFeb 19, 2024
Shelley, Mary (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

By Dr. Mark McCutcheon
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was the only daughter of public intellectuals, the anarchist William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died from complications after delivering Mary. In her teens, Mary met and began a tumultuous relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. They ran away to Italy in 1814, and married in 1816. In 1816 Mary, Percy, and others visited Lord Byron at Lake Geneva, where they held a ghost story-writing contest whose most famous result was Mary's novel Frankenstein, published anonymously in 1818 and then, revised and under her name, in 1831. Mary bore Percy several children but only Percy Florence, born 1819, survived infancy and outlived her. After her husband drowned in Italy in 1822, Mary returned to England. Mary Shelley's oeuvre includes another prototypical science fiction novel, The Last Man (1826); other novels like Falkner (1837); and travel writings like Rambles in Italy and Germany (1845). 

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (published anonymously in 1818) unfolds a triply nested narrative wherein Victor Frankenstein makes a human-like creature from body parts, makes it live, but abandons it, whereupon it turns on him and runs amok. Like its "mad scientist" protagonist, Frankenstein combines source materials (from literature, science, and history), inventively making something new: late Gothic, foundational science fiction--a "modern myth".1 In this first-chapter scene, Frankenstein recalls first his youthful interest in heterogeneous knowledges, foreshadowing their abominable commingling in his research, then a lightning storm: pathetic fallacy and Eureka! device for his research's "spark"--and catastrophe. 

Frankenstein towers among pop culture's most iconic and widely adapted texts, across media, even discourses.2 Mary Shelley herself delivered variations on her "hideous progeny" contemporaneously with London's theatres: 1831's second edition finally announces her authorship and alludes to Presumption, Sheridan's popular stage version--itself a major source for later plays and films. In Vol 3's Chapter 3, Frankenstein recounts making his creature's mate; critically extrapolating (as SF itself does) possible consequences from his experiment as "an instrument of future mischief"--like a Miltonian "race of devils" plaguing humankind; and therefore aborting it (prefiguring Captain Walton's decision).

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