Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
August 30, 1797-February 1, 1851
Nationality: British; English
Birth Date: August 30, 1797
Death Date: February 1, 1851
Genre(s): NOVELS; ESSAYS; TRAVEL; NOVELLAS
Table of Contents:
Biographical and Critical EssayJump to Additional DLB Essay(s) on This Author:
British Short-Fiction Writers, 1800-1880
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
By the time she was nineteen, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had written one of the most famous novels ever published. Embodying one of the central myths of Western culture, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818, tells the story of an overreacher who brings to life the monster who inhabits one's dreams, a tale which still stands as a powerful and enduring example of the creative imagination. Nearly two hundred years later, the story of his creation still inspires stage, film, video, and television productions. In addition to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote six other novels, a novella, mythological dramas, stories and articles, various travel books, and biographical studies. By 1851, the year of her death, she had established a reputation as a prominent author independent of her famous husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The daughter of the two great intellectual rebels of the 1790s, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley (née Godwin) was born on 30 August 1797 in London. Eleven days after her birth, her mother, the celebrated author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), died of puerperal fever, leaving Godwin, the author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), to care for Mary and her three-year-old half sister, Fanny Imlay (to whom he gave the name Godwin). Godwin could find no words to articulate his grief at the loss of the woman with whom he had fallen passionately in love thirteen months before, at the age of forty. In spite of their ethical opposition to the institution of marriage, he and Wollstonecraft had married only five months earlier in order to give their child social respectability.
Bereft of his companion, Godwin dealt with his affliction in the only way he knew, by intellectual reasoning and reflection. The day after her funeral, he began to sort through Mary Wollstonecraft's papers, and by 24 September he had started working on the story of her life. His loving tribute to her, published in January 1798 as the Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is a sensitive but full and factual account of the life and writings of his wife, including Wollstonecraft's infatuation with the painter Henry Fuseli; her affair with American speculator and former officer in the American Revolutionary Army, Gilbert Imlay, the father of her illegitimate daughter, Fanny; and her two unsuccessful attempts at taking her own life. Godwin's noble intention was to immortalize his wife, whom he considered to be a "person of eminent merit." Instead of expressing admiration, however, the public condemned Wollstonecraft as licentious, and read her attempted suicides in terms of her lack of religious convictions. When Godwin had declared in the Memoirs that "There are not many individuals with whose character the public welfare and improvement are more intimately connected" than his subject, he could not have predicted how accurately and with what irony this statement would become true. For at least the next hundred years the feminist cause was to suffer setback after setback because of society's association of sexual promiscuity with those who advocated the rights of women. In the index to the Anti-Jacobin Review of 1798, for example, "See Mary Wollstonecraft" is the only entry listed under "Prostitution," and the Wollstonecraft listing ends with a cross-reference to "Prostitution." Such was the complex and ambiguous heritage Mary Shelley received from her mother. She was to grow up with what Anne K. Mellor had described as a "powerful and ever-to-be frustrated need to be mothered," as well as with the realization that the parent she had never known was both celebrated as a pioneer reformer of woman's rights and education, and castigated as an "unsex'd female."
Godwin immediately became the chief object of her affections, as he was her primary caretaker for the first three years of her life. Having studied progressive educational authorities, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to his contemporaries, Godwin also attempted to adopt many of Wollstonecraft's child-care practices. Precocious, sensitive, and spirited, Mary became his favorite child. He called her "pretty little Mary" and relished evidence of her superiority over Fanny. He supervised their early schooling and took them on various excursions--to Pope's Grotto at Twickenham, to theatrical pantomimes, and to dinners with his friends James Marshall and Charles and Mary Lamb. Mary Shelley 's attachment to her father was to become intense and long lasting.
The idyll ended when the Godwin's housekeeper and governess, Louisa Jones, left their residence, The Polygon, with one of Godwin's more tempestuous and irresponsible protégés, George Dyson. Godwin had been looking for a wife since 1798 and met Mary Jane Clairmont on 5 May 1801. Susceptible to her flattery, Godwin immediately saw in "Mrs." Clairmont--a self-proclaimed "widow," with a six-year-old son, Charles, and a four-year-old daughter, Jane--the ideal helpmate and mother. Young Mary Shelley 's stepmother was in reality Mary Jane Vial, spinster, who had lived with expatriate mercantile families in France and in Spain. Marshall summed her up as a "clever, bustling, second-rate woman, glib of tongue and pen, with a temper undisciplined and uncontrolled; not bad-hearted, but with a complete absence of all the finer sensibilities."
Mary Shelley 's relationship with her stepmother was strained. The new Mrs. Godwin resented Mary's intense affection for her father and was jealous of the special interest visitors showed in the product of the union between the two most radical thinkers of the day. Not only did she demand that Mary do household chores, she constantly encroached on Mary's privacy, opening her letters and limiting her access to Godwin. Nor did she encourage Mary's intellectual development or love of reading. While her daughter, Jane (who later called herself Claire), was sent to boarding school to learn French, Mary never received any formal education. She learned to read from Louisa Jones, Godwin, and his wife, and followed Godwin's advice that the proper way to study was to read two or three books simultaneously. Fortunately, she had access to her father's excellent library, as well as to the political, philosophical, scientific, or literary conversations that Godwin conducted with such visitors as William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Holcroft, John Johnson, Humphry Davy, Horne Tooke, and William Hazlitt. For example, on 24 August 1806 Mary and Jane hid under the parlor sofa to hear Coleridge recite "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a poem which later haunted both Frankenstein (1818) and Falkner (1837).
Despite a wildly fluctuating income--based largely on the Juvenile Library of M.J. Godwin and Company, a publishing enterprise devised by Mrs. Godwin--the physical needs of the children were provided. Mary's favorite pastime as a child was to "write stories," and in 1808 her thirty-nine-quatrain reworking of Charles Dibdin's five-stanza song Mounseer Nongtongpaw was published by the Godwin Juvenile Library. This version became so popular that it was republished in 1830 in an edition illustrated by Robert Cruikshank. Meanwhile, as Mary became a young woman, the tension with Mrs. Godwin increased. Mellor argues that Mary "construed Mrs. Godwin as the opposite of everything that she had learned to worship in her own dead mother"--as conservative, philistine, devious, and manipulative, where Wollstonecraft was freethinking, intellectual, open, and generous. In the summer of 1812 Godwin sent his precious only daughter to visit William Baxter, an acquaintance who lived in Dundee, Scotland. With the Baxter family, Mary experienced a happiness she had rarely known. She grew fond of Baxter, and a friendship soon developed between Mary and his two daughters, Christina and Isabel. This close-knit family was to provide Mary with a model of domestic affection and harmony that would surface later in her fiction. The dunes, the beach, and the barren hills near Dundee inspired Mary, and she would later describe this scenery in her novella Mathilda (written in 1819-1820).
On her return to London in November 1812, Mary met for the first time Godwin's new, young, and wealthy disciple, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley. The son of a man of fortune, Percy had received a superior education at Eton and briefly at Oxford. Before the age of seventeen, he had published two Gothic romances, Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne (1811), and now, influenced by Godwinian precepts, he desired to benefit humanity more directly. Percy Shelley shared Godwin's belief that the greatest justice is done when he who possesses money gives it to whomever has greatest need of it. Therefore it was not long before Shelley was supporting Godwin financially. When Mary next met the tall, frail-looking, elegant Percy, on 5 May 1814, she viewed him as a generous young idealist and as a budding genius. He, in turn, had become dissatisfied with his wife and was affected by Mary's beauty, her intellectual interests, and, above all, by her identity as the "daughter of William and Mary."
By June 1814 Shelley was dining with the Godwins almost every day. Chaperoned by Jane, Mary and Percy went for daily walks, sometimes to St. Pancras Church to visit Wollstonecraft's grave, where Mary had earlier gone to read her mother's works. Inevitably, on 26 June, they declared their love for each other. Percy saw Mary as a "child of love and light," and in his dedicatory stanza for The Revolt of Islam (1817) wrote of her: "They saw that thou wert lovely from thy birth, / Of glorious parents, thou aspiring Child." Upon discovering the relationship, Godwin, while still accepting Percy Shelley's money, forbade him from visiting the house. Mary tried to obey her father's injunction, but Percy's attempted suicide soon convinced Mary of the strength of his love, and on 28 July 1814 she fled with him to France, accompanied by Jane Clairmont.
Recollecting her years with Percy, Mary wrote in her journal on 19 December 1822: "France--Poverty--a few days of solitude & some uneasiness--A tranquil residence in a beautiful spot--Switzerland--Bath--Marlow--Milan--The Baths of Lucca--Este--Venice--Rome--Naples--Rome & misery--Leghorn--Florence Pisa--Solitude The Williams--The Baths--Pisa--These are the heads of chapters--each containing a tale, romantic beyond romance." The eight years Mary and Percy Shelley spent together were indeed characterized by romance and melodrama. During this period Mary and Percy, both extremely idealistic, lived on love--because of extended negotiations over the disposition of the estate of Percy's grandfather--without money, constantly moving from one placed to another. Mary gave birth to four children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. The first, a girl, was born prematurely and died eleven days later in 1815; William, born in 1816, died of malaria in 1819; Clara Everina, born in 1817, perished from dysentery the next year; Percy Florence, born in 1819, died in 1889. In 1822 Mary miscarried during her fifth pregnancy and nearly lost her life. With the suicides of Fanny Godwin and Harriet Shelley in 1816, death was much on her mind. Numerous critics--among them Ellen Moers, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar--have pointed out the link between the themes of creation, birth, and death in Frankenstein and Mary Shelley 's real-life preoccupation with pregnancy, labor, maternity, and death.
Before Mary Shelley wrote her most popular novel, she published History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, with Letters descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (1817), which was based on journal entries and long letters home to Fanny. For this work Mary had as a literary model her mother's Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), a book that, according to Godwin, "calculated to make a man in love with its author." While describing the countryside with enthusiasm and accuracy, Shelley writes from a foreigner's perspective. She complains, for instance, of the squalor and the dirt in French villages, and of the disgusting behavior of Germans.
In 1815, shortly after the death of her first baby, Shelley recorded a dream that may or may not have had a direct influence on the plot of Frankenstein. On 19 March 1815 she recorded in her journal: "Dream that my little baby came to life again--that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived." Her anxieties about motherhood and the inability to give life may have led her to write the tale of the aspiring scientist who succeeds in creating a being by unnatural methods. For example, Frankenstein's act has been read, by Robert Kiely and Margaret Homans among others, as an attempt to usurp the power of the woman and to circumvent normal heterosexual procreation.
In Frankenstein, Shelley dramatizes some of her ambivalent feelings about the proto-Victorian ideology of motherhood. As Mary Poovey has argued, Shelley desired to conform to the ideals of what a proper wife and mother should be, but her attachment to Percy, who was still legally married to Harriet, and the ménage à trois with Jane Clairmont (who over the next five years changed her name three times, from Jane to Clara to Clare and finally to Claire) involved her in an unconventional, if not romantically original, domestic arrangement. Condemned by her beloved father, who believed that she "had been guilty of a crime," the seventeen-year-old Mary, not yet a wife and no longer a mother, was insecure and increasingly dependent on Percy for emotional support and familial commitment. He, on the other hand, caught up in his excited passions, was eager to live out his theory of "free love," encouraging Claire's affections. In the early part of 1815 Percy's friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg came to stay with Mary, Percy, and Claire for six weeks, during which time Percy urged Mary, despite her reluctance, to reciprocate Hogg's sexual overtures.
Though Claire continued in Mary and Percy's household until 1820, she was temporarily diverted by an affair with George Gordon, Lord Byron, during the spring of 1816. Persuading Percy and Mary to accompany her to Switzerland to meet Byron, Claire set off with the Shelleys in early May 1816 and eventually moved into a chalet on the banks of Lake Geneva, within walking distance from Villa Diodati, where Byron and his physician, Dr. John William Polidori, were staying. Byron and Percy became close friends, sailing together on the lake and having literary and philosophical discussions in the evenings. Both Mary and Percy found Byron fascinating and intriguing. He was handsome, capricious, cynical, and radiated an intellectual energy. Mellor surmises that "The intellectual and erotic stimulation of [Percy] Shelley's and Byron's combined presence, together with her deep-seated anxieties and insecurities, once again erupted into Mary's consciousness as a waking dream or nightmare," becoming "the most famous dream in literary history."
In the 1831 edition of Frankenstein Mary Shelley 's introduction explains how she, "then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea." On a rainy evening in June 1816, they all gathered at the fireside to read aloud Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d'histoires d'apparitions de spectres, revenants, fantômes, etc. (1812), a French translation of a German book of ghost stories. At Byron's suggestion, they each agreed to write a horror story. The next day Byron read the beginning of his tale, Shelley "commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life," and Polidori had "some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole." Mary wanted to think of a story "which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awake thrilling horror--one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart." The others dropped their stories, but kept asking Mary: "Have you thought of a story?" to which she had to reply with "a mortifying negative." Finally, one night, after a discussion among Byron, Polidori, and Percy Shelley concerning galvanism and Erasmus Darwin's success in causing a piece of a vermicello to move voluntarily, she fell into a reverie of waking dream where she saw "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." She felt the terror for the artist who endeavored "to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world" by giving the "spark of life" to a "hideous corpse." Next morning, after the poets went off sailing, she started work on what was to become chapter 4 of Frankenstein, which begins, "It was on a dreary night of November...."
Encouraged by Percy, Mary developed the little ghost story into a novel, which she finished in May of 1817 at Marlow and published in March 1818. To those who have not read the book, the name Frankenstein is often associated with the monster rather than its creator. The mistake is perhaps not altogether erroneous, for as many critics point out the creature and his maker are doubles of one another, or doppelgängers. Their relationship is similar to that between the head and the heart, or the intellect and the emotion. The conception of the divided self--the idea that the civilized man or woman contains within a monstrous, destructive force--emerges as the creature echoes both Frankenstein's and narrator Robert Walton's loneliness: all three wish for a friend or companion. Frankenstein and his monster alternately pursue and flee from one another. Like fragments of a mind in conflict with itself, they represent polar opposites which are not reconciled, and which destroy each other at the end. For example, the creature enacts the repressed desires of its maker, alleviating Victor Frankenstein's fear of sexuality by murdering his bride, Elizabeth Lavenza, on their wedding night. Identities merge, as Frankenstein frequently takes responsibility for the creature's action: for instance, after the deaths of the children William and Justine, both of which were caused by the creature, Frankenstein admits they were "the first hapless victims to [his] unhallowed arts."
In a recent reading of Frankenstein , Mellor demonstrates a link between events, dates, and names in the novel and those in Mary Shelley 's life. Mellor argues that the novel is born out of a "doubled fear, the fear of a woman that she may not be able to bear a healthy normal child and the fear of a putative author that she may not be able to write.... the book is her created self as well as her child." Dated 11 December 17--to 12 September 17--, the letters that form the narration of the novel--from Walton to his sister Margaret Walton Saville (whose initials are those of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley )--are written during a period similar in duration to Mary Shelley 's third pregnancy, during which she wrote Frankenstein. Mellor discovered that the day and date on which Walton first sees the creature, Monday, 31 July, had coincided in 1797, the year in which Mary Shelley was born. This fact and other internal evidence led Mellor to conclude that the novel ends on 12 September 1797, two days after Mary Wollstonecraft's death: " Mary Shelley thus symbolically fused her book's beginning and ending with her own--Victor Frankenstein's death, the Monster's promised suicide, and her mother's death from puerperal fever can all be seen as the consequence of the same creation, the birth of Mary Godwin the author."
The theme of creation is highlighted by the many references to Paradise Lost (1667), John Milton's epic rendition of the biblical story of Genesis, which becomes an important intertext of the novel. "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?--," from book 10, is quoted as the epigraph, and Milton's poem is one of the books the creature reads. The monster is caught between the states of innocence and evil: like Adam he is "apparently united by no link to any other being in existence," but as an outcast and wretch he often considers "Satan as the fitter emblem" of his condition. Victor Frankenstein, too, is at once God, as he is the monster's creator, but also like Adam, an innocent child, and like Satan, the rebellious overreacher and vengeful fiend. Throughout the novel there is a strong sense of an Edenic world lost through Frankenstein's single-minded thirst for knowledge.
Frankenstein is also cast as a Promethean figure, striving against human limitations to bring light and benefit to mankind. While he advises Walton to "Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition," he nevertheless invites his listeners to share in the grandeur of his dreams, to glory in his ability to create a sublime facsimile of the human self. Frankenstein's fall, after all, results not from his creative enterprise, but from his failure and inability to give love to his creature. Indeed, another central concern of the novel is the conflict of individual desire against that of familial and social responsibility. George Levine writes: "Frankenstein spells out both the horror of going ahead and the emptiness of return. In particular, it spells out the price of heroism." Unlike her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and unlike the Romantic poets generally, Shelley advocates self-denial and social harmony over self-assertion, confrontation, and the individualistic, imaginative act. In her novel she shows that Frankenstein's quest is an act of selfish obsession, one that destroys his domestic relationships. He is contrasted with the mariner Robert Walton, whose concern for others ultimately wins over his ambition to reach the "region of beauty and light."
Finally, the use of the nightmarish murders, the demonlike monster, the terror of the unknown, and the destruction of the idyllic life in nature by a dark, ambiguous force places Frankenstein in the tradition of the Gothic novel. Like other Gothic authors, Shelley situates good and evil as a psychological battle within human nature. Both Frankenstein and the creature initially have "benevolent" feelings and intentions, but eventually both become obsessed with ideas of destruction and revenge. Shelley's novel successfully manipulates the conventions of the genre, replacing the stock Gothic villain with morally ambiguous characters who reflect the depth and complexities of the human psyche.
After Frankenstein, Shelley wrote the novella Mathilda, which was never published in her life-time. A rough draft was originally titled "The Fields of Fancy" (after Wollstonecraft's unfinished tale "Cave of Fancy," written in 1787). Mathilda, though not exclusively autobiographical, includes many self-revealing elements. For example, the three characters--Mathilda, her father, and Woodville the poet--are obviously Mary Shelley , Godwin, and Percy Shelley. The tale is in the form of memoirs addressed to Woodville, composed by a woman who expects to die at age twenty-two. Written during the late summer and autumn of 1819, when Mary was struggling with the depression from the deaths of two children in nine months, Mathilda is at once angry, elegiac, full of self-recriminations, and charged with self-pity. Like Mary Shelley 's own nativity, Mathilda's birth causes the death of her mother, who has only shortly before been blissfully wedded to Mathilda's father. Mathilda is abandoned by him and left lonely and unloved, growing up with an austere aunt in Scotland. At his return sixteen years later, she is ecstatically happy, but the felicity is brief, as he, full of agony, soon admits his incestuous love for her. This father's love could be read as wish fulfillment on Mary Shelley 's part; Godwin, though he had forgiven Mary for her elopement after her marriage on 30 December 1816, remained cold and callous, unable to comfort her when she was grieving after the loss of William in 1819. Instead of exalting the incestuous bond, Mellor believes that Mathilda "calls into question the bourgeois sexual practices of her day, ... which defined the young, submissive, dutiful, daughter-like woman as the appropriate love-object for an older, wiser, economically secure and 'fatherly' man." When Mathilda flees from her father, he kills himself, and Mathilda, after staging her own suicide, goes off to mourn him in a remote area of Scotland.
Mathilda's relationship with the poet of "exceeding beauty"--whom she meets in Scotland--reveals Mary Shelley 's awareness of her contribution to the gulf that had developed between her and Percy at this time. As Percy's poem "To Mary" suggests, Mary had become cold and withdrawn by late 1819, but she was not insensitive to the pain she was inflicting on him. In Mathilda the heroine criticizes herself: "I became unfit for any intercourse ... I became captious and unreasonable: my temper was utterly spoilt.... I had become arrogant, peevish, and above all suspicious." Her self-examination leads her to remorse and wretchedness, and--dying of consumption--she concludes: "having passed little more than twenty years upon the earth I am more fit for my narrow grave than many are when they reach the natural term of their lives."
Shelley began writing her next novel, Valperga, in April 1820 while in Florence and was still working on it in Pisa that fall. Percy Shelley described it in an 8 November 1820 letter to Thomas Love Peacock as a work "illustrative of the manners of the Middle Ages in Italy, which she has raked out of fifty old books." Bonnie Rayford Neumann emphasizes that four difficult years had elapsed in Mary Shelley 's life between the novel's inception in 1817, while the Shelleys were still in England, and its completion in the autumn of 1821. As the change in title from "Castruccio, Prince of Lucca" to Valperga suggests, the book Shelley finally produced was quite different from the one she had originally intended. The focus of the novel published in 1823 is not on Castruccio, an exiled, ambitious adventurer who returns to his native city and becomes its demoniac tyrant, but on the inhabitants of Valperga, the ancestral palace and home of the heroine, Euthanasia. As Neumann points out, Valperga shares with Frankenstein and Mathilda the theme of "initiation--or fall--from the innocent, happy illusions of childhood into the reality of adulthood with its knowledge of loneliness, pain, and death." In the novel Euthanasia awakens to the realization that her lover, of whom she had "made a god ... believing every virtue and every talent to live in his soul," was in reality deceitful, cruel, and self-serving. Castruccio is responsible not only for Euthanasia's unhappiness and death but for the misery and eventual demise of Beatrice, another fanatically religious girl. The tragedy of both women stems largely from their self-delusion, their illusory belief in Castruccio's goodness and love despite all external evidence.
In 1822 Shelley was to suffer her greatest loss, the death by drowning of Percy Shelley on 8 July. Ironically, just about a month before his decease he had saved her from bleeding to death when she miscarried during her fifth pregnancy. Their relationship had had its difficulties. Mary secretly blamed Percy for the death of their daughter Clara, and she became severely depressed and withdrawn after William's death. Unable to find emotional support and affection from Mary, Percy had sought consolation elsewhere. Emily W. Sunstein surmises that Percy and Claire "may have become lovers in 1820." Moreover, in 1821 Percy became fond of and flirted with Jane Williams, wife of Edward Williams (who was to drown with Shelley), and composed verses to her. He also became enraptured of Emilia Viviani, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the governor of Pisa and the woman for whom he wrote Epipsychidion (1821). Mary, aware of his dissatisfactions and his interest in other women, had trusted that time would heal the breach between them. Percy's sudden death left Mary in a psychological turmoil, with feelings of "fierce remorse" and guilt. To atone for her guilt, she committed herself to the immortalization of her husband. She decided to write his biography and publish a definitive collection of his poems. Later she created an idealized portrait of him in her next novel, The Last Man (1826). Her desire to glorify Percy was blocked, however, by his father, who was embarrassed by any public mention of his revolutionary and atheistic son. Mary contented herself with appending long biographical notes to her 1824 and 1839 editions of his poetry, notes which, as Mellor points out, "deified the poet and rewrote their past history together."
In February 1824, about a year and a half after Percy's drowning, Mary began to write her darkest and gloomiest novel, The Last Man. In his introduction to the novel Hugh J. Luke, Jr., points out that Shelley was "boldly experimenting with the novel form, attempting to expand its boundaries." The Last Man is a work of science fiction, an apocalyptic prophecy, a roman à clef, a Bildungsroman, a dystopia, a Gothic horror, and a domestic romance. Envisioning a horrifying and disastrous future world in a nightmarish state, it chronicles the disappearance of the inhabitants of earth as people are killed by war, emotional conflict, or a mysterious plague comparable to or worse than that described by Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722).
Conceived partly out of a desire to immortalize Percy, the figure of Adrian, Earl of Windsor, is a Romantic idealist, lofty, full of courage and self-sacrificing beliefs. He is a republican who dreams of the day when countries will "throw off the iron yoke of servitude, poverty will quit us, and with that, sickness." In the midst of epidemic and disease he expresses hope for liberty and peace, the union and cooperation of all mankind. But, though he is a paragon, he remains single, unable to find his soul mate. Mellor points out the ambivalence toward Percy Shelley manifested in the portrait of Adrian. Adrian resembles Percy in appearance. He is a "tall, slim, fair boy, with a physiognomy expressive of the excess of sensibility and refinement"; he seems angelic, with his gold "silken hair," and "beaming countenance." Benevolent, sincere, and devoted to love and poetry, he nevertheless is impractical and excessively emotional. Implicit in the portrait, argues Mellor, is a criticism of Percy as a narcissistic egoist insensitive to the needs of his wife and children. Unthinkingly, Adrian causes his own death and that of Clara's by drowning, leaving Lionel Verney alone, as the "last man" on earth. Verney's situation mirrors Mary's, especially after Byron's death in Greece on 19 April 1824. She wrote in her journal on 14 May 1824: "The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me--" The next day she lamented: "At the age of twenty six I am in the condition of an aged person--all my old friends are gone ... & my heart fails when I think by how few ties I hold to the world...."
After Percy's death Mary developed a strong friendship with Jane Williams, believing that the two of them would live together forever. Jane, however, admitted her preference for Thomas Jefferson Hogg in 1827, and also betrayed Mary by spreading malicious tales to their friends about how Mary's "coldness" and "temper" had made Percy unhappy in their last year together. Though she received offers of matrimony from men such as John Howard Payne, an American actor-dramatist, and Prosper Mérimée, a cynical French novelist and dandy, Shelley never remarried. As she wrote to Edward John Trelawny on 14 June 1831, in answer to his half-serious proposal: " Mary Shelley shall be written on my tomb." The men who did interest her--including poet Bryan Waller Procter, American author Washington Irving, and Aubrey Beauclerk, whom Emily W. Sunstein speculates may have been Shelley's lover briefly in 1833--were not willing to commit themselves to her. She was to spend the rest of her life as a devoted mother to Percy Florence Shelley and a devoted daughter to Godwin, whom she continued to support emotionally and financially until his death in 1836.
The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, published in 1830, was perhaps Shelley's least successful novel. Impressed by the popularity of Sir Walter Scott's historical romances, Shelley attempted one based on the historical figure Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the younger son of Edward IV, Richard, Duke of York, escaped from the Tower of London--after Richard III's henchmen killed his elder brother--and raised in Flanders. When Warbeck attempted to take the throne of Henry VII for the Yorkists, his pretension was supported by James IV of Scotland who wed him to his cousin Princess Katherine Gordon. Shelley was under some constraints in the composition of the novel. Believing in his royal identity, she created Perkin Warbeck as a stereotypically perfect, benevolent, and honest character, and then had to manipulate that character to adhere to the facts of history. William Walling describes the book as "essentially a lifeless novel, although it deserves our respect for the quality of the intelligence which is intermittently displayed in it," while Bonnie Rayford Neumann says that the novel "has none of the power and passion of her earlier ones; by the time she removes Richard from the Procrustean bed, not only does she have no hero, but she is almost devoid of a story as well."
During the years 1828 to 1838 Shelley also kept busy by writing more than a dozen stories for a popular annual gift book, The Keepsake. In 1831 the revised edition of Frankenstein was published by Colburn and Bentley in their Standard Novels series. This version places more emphasis on the power of fate and the lack of personal choice in human lives. Nature is no longer seen as organic; it becomes a mechanistic force capable of creating, preserving, and destroying. Even Shelley's belief in the ideology of the loving, egalitarian family is undercut, as most instances of domestic affection prove ineffectual. By 1831 Shelley viewed herself as she presented her hero, as a victim of destiny.
Shelley's last two novels, Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), are semi-autobiographical, and both repeat the triangle of characters found in Mathilda: father-daughter-lover. The most popular and successful of her novels since Frankenstein,Lodore was the first of Shelley's novels to have a sentimental, happy ending. Ignored by her mother, the heroine, Ethel, is taken to America by her father, Lord Lodore, and is left alone when he is killed in a duel. In London she falls in love with the financially desperate Edward Villiers and marries him. Their experiences of insecurity are reminiscent of the early years that Mary and Percy shared together. Villiers is haunted by creditors and forced to flee, but unlike Shelley, Ethel is reconciled with her mother, who, it turns out, has been their secret benefactress. Unable to fully portray the mother-daughter relationship she never had, Shelley resorted to a sentimentalized and unrealistic ending.
In Falkner Shelley once again emphasizes a father-daughter relationship, this time between an orphaned girl, Elizabeth Raby, and her rakish, Byronic guardian, Falkner. Haunted by a dark and mysterious past, Falkner is horrified to find that Elizabeth loves Gerard Neville, the son of the woman he once destroyed. The descriptions of Falkner's guilt and the psychological tortures he inflicts upon himself and his daughter make the novel one of Shelley's best works. Elizabeth, caught between her lover's desire for revenge and her adoptive father's secret obsession, becomes the link which ultimately enables all to live in domestic peace. Falkner is an appropriate finale to Mary Shelley 's novel writing as it encapsulates many of her concerns and uses her greatest novelistic strengths--the portrayal of an agonized hero struggling with himself, the conflicts created by love and domestic duty, the problem of the absent mother, the concept of fate and victimization, the Gothic terror of the unknown--elements she had dexterously manipulated and precociously displayed in the writing of Frankenstein nineteen years earlier.
Before working on Falkner, Shelley had written three volumes in The Cabinet of Biography, part of the Reverend Dionysius Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia, and after completing her last novel she devoted her energies to nonfiction and editing her husband's works. Her last book, an account of summer tours on the Continent with her son and his college friends, was published in 1844. By then she was in ill health, and in 1848 she began to suffer what were apparently the first symptoms of the brain tumor that eventually killed her. The disease was not diagnosed until December 1850 when she began to experience numbness in her right leg and impaired speech. Within a little more than a month she was almost completely paralyzed, and she died in London on 1 February 1851, having asked to be buried with her mother and father. Her son and daughter-in-law, Jane, Lady Shelley, had the bodies of her parents exhumed and buried them with her in the churchyard of St. Peter's, Bournemouth. A memorial sculpture to Mary and Percy Shelley was commissioned by Percy Florence and Jane Shelley and installed at nearby Christchurch Priory.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The largest collection of Mary Shelley 's papers is in Lord Abinger's Shelley Collection on deposit at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Most of these papers have been microfilmed. Other significant collections of letters are in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library, New York Public Library; the Huntingdon Library; the John Murray Collection; and the British Library.
Written by: Eleanor Ty, Wilfrid Laurier University
Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 116: British Romantic Novelists, 1789-1832. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Bradford K. Mudge, University of Colorado at Denver. Gale Research, 1992. pp. 311-325.
Source Database: Dictionary of Literary Biography
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