Mary Shelley is painted as the queen bee of women who write horror, but in the environment in which she wrote Frankenstein, I’m pretty sure she felt anything but. Mary was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a noted writer and philosopher, and William Godwin, also an intellectual. Her mother died days after her birth, and Mary never knew her. She was a favorite of her father, who praised her intellect, but he didn’t know what to do with the children he’d been left with. (Mary had an older sister Fanny, who was illegitimate.) Her father married again, and Mary did not get along with her stepmother, though she liked her stepsister Jane and stepbrother Charles.
When she was sixteen, Mary went to Scotland for her health and to keep the peace between her and her stepmother. Her father William always struggled for money despite his fame, and he became friends with Percy Bysshe Shelley, an aristocrat. The two schemed to get money by cashing in on Shelley’s expected inheritance; then Mary arrived back from Scotland, standing out dressed in tartan. Her father wrote of her: “Mary, my daughter…is singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible. My own daughter is, I believe, very pretty.” Though Percy was married with one daughter born and another child on the way, he was immediately taken with Mary, and she came to fall in love with him, too.
Her father William forbid them from meeting, and so she ran away with her stepsister Jane to elope with Percy. She and Jane were sixteen, Percy was twenty-one. This odd threesome made their way across France and to Switzerland with barely any money to survive on. Mary and Percy shared a diary during their travels, and Jane requested paper so she could have her own diary. At one point the three were so desperate for money that Percy wrote his discarded wife Harriet, asking her to join his commune and bring some money with her. She refused. The three had to return to England with no place to stay, since Mary and Jane’s father refused to have anything to do with them after the elopement.
Mary and Jane were dependent on Percy, and at seventeen, Mary was pregnant and often sick (perhaps due to the vegetarian diet that Percy had them on), so Jane (now calling herself Claire Clairmont) and Percy were often thrown together, which Mary did not like. Percy had to go into hiding because his creditors were after him, and Mary and Claire were left together alone in an apartment, except for Sundays, when Percy came to visit them since creditors couldn’t work on the holy day.
At this time, Percy’s old schoolmate Thomas Jefferson Hogg came to London and told Mary he had feelings for her. (He’d also done this with Percy’s first wife Harriet.) Percy seemed to encourage this romantic attachment, and according to one story, Mary put her head on Claire’s pillow crying because Percy wanted her to sleep with Hogg. There’s speculation that Claire and Percy were sleeping together at this time, too.
Mary had her daughter prematurely in February 1815, but the baby died a few days later. Mary was grief-stricken after losing her daughter and she was still unhappy with all the time that Claire was spending with Percy. She wanted her stepsister gone, but Claire refused to go home to the Godwins. Finally she convinced Percy to send Claire away, and Mary and Percy traveled together by themselves with Mary becoming pregnant again, due to give birth near the end of the year. She had William in the beginning of 1816.
Claire did nothing but sew and read while she was in exile, seeing no company. After Mary’s son was born, she was allowed to rejoin the household again in the spring of 1816. At this time, Lord Byron was the rock star poet of England, and Claire boldly propositioned him in an unexpected letter. Using her relationship with the poet Percy Shelley and Mary, Claire was able to gain a meeting with him and started a fling.
She chased after him, knowing that he was planning a trip down the Rhine valley to Switzerland, and convinced Mary and Percy to accompany her. Once again, Percy had money problems so he wanted to get away, and he was anxious to meet the famous poet Byron. He agreed, and the three arrived in Geneva. Byron came later with his hated companion John Polidori, a doctor, but he ignored Claire’s letters to him, requesting meetings. Despite that, he met Percy and his entourage by Lake Geneva one afternoon after boating, and he and Percy developed a quick friendship.
Percy and Byron had breakfast almost every day after that meeting, and sometimes Mary joined them—Byron thought she was clever. The group boated often on Lake Geneva, but what started as a wonderful spring turned into the Year Without a Summer. An 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia caused climate changes throughout the world, and in Geneva, Mary, Percy, Claire, Byron, and Polidori were often kept indoors because of an almost constant rain.
Mary wrote of the thunderstorms and weather, which filtered into Frankenstein: “An almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house; but when the sun bursts forth it is with a splendor and heat unknown in England. The thunderstorms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before…one night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up—the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness.”
Mary said that during one of these rainy nights, the group was bored and Lord Byron came up with a challenge for each of them to write a scary story. Mary thought about this for days, and then it came to her: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”
She started writing Frankenstein in Geneva, and after her group left, upon finding out that Claire was pregnant with Byron’s child, she kept at it. During this period, Mary was surrounded by death. Her older sister Fanny committed suicide, and Mary felt guilty for not responding to her despondent letters. Then Harriet, Percy’s wife, committed suicide—though Mary was able to wed Percy after this and officially become Mrs. Shelley. She published Frankenstein in 1818, and the story was quite popular, though some people thought it was Mary’s husband who wrote the work, including Sir Walter Scott.
After this success, death came again. Mary’s second child Clara died after a rushed trip to Italy that Percy insisted on, to help out her stepsister Claire, and Mary blamed him for her death. And then a year later in 1819, while Mary was pregnant with her fourth child, her son William died. At this time in their marriage, Mary’s novel Frankenstein was getting more attention than Percy’s poetry, and this contributed to strained relations. Mary continued to write, but Percy could be disparaging about her work. When Mary was in the middle of writing her Italian historical novel Valperga, Percy described it as “raked out of fifty old books.” Mary also saw her husband becoming infatuated with younger women now that she was getting older. He wrote a poem about one titled Epipsychidion, which he tried to keep hidden from Mary. That work was published in 1821, and a year later Percy drowned in a boating accident.
Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation by Daisy Hay
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley