Thursday, October 1, 2015

Let's talk about: Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was born August 30, 1797 as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in Somers Town, London.
Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist philosopher, educator, and a writer. Mary was her second child. She died very soon after Mary was born.
Mary's father, William Godwin, was a philosopher, novelist, and journalist. Mary was his first child. He raised Mary along with her half-sister Fanny Imlay. A year after his wife's death he published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In this book he was intending to pay tribute to his late wife but it didn't quite end up that way as it revealed her affairs and illegitimate child.
Mary, however, was raised to cherish the memories of her mother that others shared with her. She had a happy childhood according to those that knew the family, but they were often in debt and her father felt he needed to find a new wife to help raise the children. He married Mary Jane Clairmont in December of 1801. She was a well educated woman and had two young children as well. Mary detested her step mother.
Her father and step mother started a publishing company called M.J. Godwin and sold children's books, stationary, maps, and games. However it was not as successful as he had hoped. He continued to incur debt. 
Mary didn't have very much formal education but was tutored by her father. He took all of the children to the library and on educational outings. She also had a governess, a tutor, and was allowed to read her father's books.
Her father described her at age fifteen as " singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible."

In 1812, Mary's father sent her to stay with the family of William Baxter in Scotland.
He wrote to him that " I am anxious that she should be brought up... like a philosopher, even like a cynic."
Mary loved it there and returned the next summer as well, staying ten months this time.

"I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered."

Mary met the radical poet-philosopher Percy Shelley in between her two stays in Scotland. He was one of her father's political followers. In 1814, when she returned home from her second stay in Scotland, he had become separated from his wife and was visiting her home often as he had helped her father with some of his debt. He was also estranged from his own wealthy, aristocratic family as they wanted him to follow their traditional plans for him and they didn't approve of his radical views. Because of this he was unable to have access to all of his money until he inherited the estate and couldn't help her father with all of his debts. Mary's father felt betrayed as he felt that promises had been made.
Mary and Percy began secretly meeting each other at her mother's grave in St Pancras Churchyard and soon fell in love. 
She was seventeen and he was almost twenty-two.
Her father did not approve and tried to keep them from each other.

On July 28, 1814, Mary and Percy left together for France. They could not marry, as he was still married and his wife was expecting their second child. They took her step sister Claire with them. They traveled through France by donkey, mule, carriage, and foot. They wrote as they traveled.

"It was acting in a novel, being an incarnate romance."

When they reached Lucerne, Switzerland they had to return to England because of a lack of money. 
They arrived in Gravesend, Kent, England on September 13, 1814.
When they returned Mary was pregnant. They now found themselves with no money and neither family would have anything to do with them. 
They found lodging that they shared with Claire.
They continued to write and read as much as they could. Percy would sometimes leave home for short periods of time to escape creditors.
Mary was very ill during this time in her pregnancy and he would often go on outings with Claire.
His wife Harriet also gave birth to his son.
On February 22, 1815 Mary gave birth to their daughter. She was two months premature.
On March 6 of the same year, Mary wrote to their close friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg,

"My dearest Hogg my baby is dead—will you come to see me as soon as you can. I wish to see you—It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions—Will you come—you are so calm a creature & Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk—for I am no longer a mother now."

After the loss of her child, Mary suffered from depression for a time and was said to be haunted by visions of the baby. By summer she had recovered and was pregnant again. 
After the death of his grandfather, Sir Bysshe Shelley, Percy found that he now had the money he needed once again. They rented a cottage in Bishopsgate.  
On January 24, 1816, Mary gave birth to their second child, William, named after her father. He was nicknamed "Willmouse".  

In May of that year they travelled with their son and Claire to Geneva to spend the summer with the poet Lord Byron, whom Claire was having an affair. She was pregnant with his child. 
They spent their time boating on the lake and writing. It rained so often that they would often find themselves confined to the house, sitting around the log fire telling each other ghost stories. 
Lord Byron proposed that they "each write a ghost story". 
At first Mary couldn't come up with an idea, which made her anxious. Then one evening their discussion turned to that of the principles and nature of life. 
"Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated" Mary thought. 
She was unable to sleep that night as her imagination kept her awake. 
"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. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."
 She began writing. She originally planned for the tale to be a short story but it turned into her first novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. It was published in 1818. It was published anonymously. 

They returned to England in September. They found a home in Bath and Claire once again lived with them. They were hoping to keep Claire's pregnancy a secret.
Soon after, Mary's sister Fanny was found dead in an Inn along with a suicide note and a bottle of laudanum. 
On December 10, Percy's wife, pregnant with their third child (so apparently he was still visiting Harriet after their separation) was found drowned in a lake in Hyde Park, London. It was also suicide. 
Harriet's family tried to keep Percy from getting custody of their two children and he was told by his lawyers that his case would be improved if he was married. Percy and Mary (who was now pregnant again) married on December 30, 1816. Mary's father and step mother came to the wedding and ended their estrangement from her. 
In march of that year the Chancery Court ruled that Percy was morally unfit to have custody of his children and placed them with a clergyman's family. Percy and Mary moved with Claire and her new baby Alba to Albion House at Marlow, Buckinghamshire. Here, Mary had their third child, Clara.
Percy was once again worried about creditors and often lived away from home. They were worried about losing custody of their children and decided to leave England for Italy in March of 1818. 
When they arrived in Italy, Claire gave Alba to Lord Byron to raise. He had agreed to this as long as Claire promised to have nothing more to do with her. 
They spent their time moving from place to place meeting new people who would often come along with them on their travels, writing, and reading. 
During this time Mary was struck with heartbreak at the death of both of her children. 
Clara died in September of 1818 and William in June of 1819.  
Mary found comfort in her writing. 
She gave birth to her fourth child, Percy, on November 12, 1819. 
The family found happiness in Italy after this. She called it " a country which memory painted as paradise". 
Mary wrote the autobiographical novel Matilda, Valperga, and the plays Prosperine and Midas during this time. She was however often ill and depressed. 
It was revealed that in 1819, Percy had registered the birth of a baby girl named Elena Shelley. Mary had not had this child and it was claimed that Claire was the mother. It remained a mystery. The baby died in 1820. Mary dealt with that and Percy's many other affairs. She may have had some of her own. 
In the summer of 1822 Mary, pregnant again, moved with Percy, Claire, the children, and their friends Edward and Jane Williams to a Villa near the Bay of Lerici. While there, Claire found out that her child with Lord Byron, had died from typhus. Mary was distracted and unhappy and came to regard the villa as a dungeon. She miscarried, losing so much blood that she almost died. Percy had her sit in a bath of ice while waiting for the doctor and was said to have saved her life by doing so. 
In July Percy and Edward left on a sailing journey and never reached their destination. 
Their boat sank during a storm. 
After Percy's death, Mary soon left for England to stay with her father and step mother in Strand until a bit of money from her father in law allowed her to get a home nearby. She spent her time writing and editing her late husband's poems. 
She found it hard to find friends and eventually moved closer to London to be near her friend Jane Williams. 
During the years of 1827-1840 Mary wrote the novels The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, Lodore, and Falkner. She also wrote for Ladies' magazine. She also compiled the poems of her husband for publication. 
In 1848, her son Percy, was married. They were happy and Mary and her daughter in law Jane got along very well. She moved in with them and traveled with them. 
On February 1, 1851 Mary died at the age of fifty three from a suspected brain tumor. 
On the one year anniversary of her death, her son opened her box-desk and found locks of her deceased children's hair, a notebook she had shared with her husband, a copy of his poem "Adonais", and a silk parcel containing some of her husband's ashes and the remains of his heart. 
Of all of her work, I have only read Frankenstein. 
I will review it later but for now I can say that I found it fascinating. 
Mary obviously lived a life of turmoil and drama. It is certainly not a life I would want.  I think her life led to a very unusual mind and insight that perhaps made a work such as Frankenstein possible. 

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The Kings said...

Not the life I would want either.

Donna said...

What a fascinating life she had! That was so interesting to read. I admire her for writing Frankenstein when she was so young. I enjoyed that book much more than I thought I would! I'm looking forward to your review of it.

cheryl said...

Mom- Right? It is pretty crazy.

Donna- I know. Sometimes I think of the people living in these time periods as all being like they are portrayed in the books and movies. Then you read about some of them and realize it is not the case!