Great Moments In Historial Sluttery: Free Love and Frankenstein, The Remarkable Life of Mary Shelley

It would be enough to solidify Mary Shelley’s place in history if feminist scholarship added nothing to the story of the woman who wrote Frankenstein at the tender age of twenty and championed the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The scholars who’ve dug deeper into her life reveal a second-generation proto-feminist free thinker whose works earned her recognition during her lifetime that she used to protect her family and make a literary icon of her dead husband.

Mary Shelley’s mother was the formidable women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, writer of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792, a revolutionary essay that was an early step towards campaigning for equality between the sexes. Though her mother died in Mary’s infancy, her memory was kept alive by Mary’s father, the political writer William Godwin, who recounted his wife’s independent spirit in a candid biography. This biography scandalized Godwin’s contemporaries with its unflinching descriptions of Mary Wollstonecraft’s struggles with mental health and tempestuous romantic affairs. Raised in a liberal environment that encouraged curiosity and informal education, it’s no surprise that the daughter of this pair of iconoclasts matured into a creative and headstrong young woman.

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In 1814, at the age of seventeen, Mary had already been writing on a regular basis for over a year. It was this woman that Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley encountered during one of his visits to fellow free thinker William Godwin’s home. Though it’s likely that Mary and Percy had met before, this time the romance between the two was set alight, with the young poet seeming to be an in-the-flesh representation of the values Mary was raised to cherish: an idealist committed to ideas of equality, nonviolent protest, and–significantly–free love. Unfortunately for Mary, her father had rather more traditional aspirations for his daughter, and in spite of his arguing on paper that marriage was a repressive institution, he was vocally opposed to Mary’s budding romance. Perhaps the fact that Shelley was still married played a role in his reaction, or maybe he got wind of the rumor that the besotted couple was meeting–and perhaps consummating their love–beside his wife’s grave.

Regardless of Godwin’s disapproval, months after falling in love, Mary was living with Percy and had become a part of the poet’s social circle. This group of friends was, by many accounts, engaged in significantly more intimate activities in addition to their extensive reading, writing, and philosophical debating. Mary and Percy were early adherents to the concept of free love, and it’s been suggested that Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, who frequently traveled with and shared lodgings with the pair, was sexually involved with both parties. Additionally, Percy had what might be called a “Complicated Relationship” with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who had a habit of becoming smitten with Percy’s romantic partners. At times when Percy was occupied with his estranged wife and their infant son, Percy would encourage Thomas to woo Mary.

Peculiar things happened in the summer of 1816 that went far beyond the complex bedroom trysting of the English counter culture intelligentsia. A catastrophic volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused so much ash to be ejected into the Earth’s atmosphere that the climate of the Northern Hemisphere was affected, causing pervasive, dreary, cold weather that resulted in widespread food shortages and pockets of civil unrest. It was during this “Year Without a Summer” that Mary and Percy joined Lord Byron–accompanied by the ever-present Claire, then pregnant with Byron’s child–at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. Holed up in the house due to seemingly never-ending rain, the group was inspired by the gloom to concoct stories of the supernatural. A teenaged Mary, inspired by a dream in which a giant body is brought to life, began to write what would become Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818. The story of a German science student who gives life to a creature built by his own hands employs many of the already-established tropes of the gothic story (grisly murders, overwrought emotions, the uncanny, and a Middle European setting, to name a few) while setting the stage for science fiction stories to come with its use of speculative technology as a plot lynchpin. The tale struck a chord with the reading public, and the book would go on to be re-published multiple times in Mary’s lifetime.

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While she experienced early success, tragedy struck early and often in Mary’s life, beginning with the death of her first child with Percy in 1815. A son, William, and a daughter, Clara, would be born soon after, but both would die before they reached the age of four. By the age of 22, Mary had watched three of her children die, and while a fourth child (Percy Florence Shelley) would live to the age of seventy, a final blow to her family came when Percy Shelley drowned during a boating trip in 1822.

It would be easy to imagine any person being irreparably devastated by this series of events, but Mary resolved to support herself and her surviving son while simultaneously undertaking the task of immortalizing her husband. While this may be difficult for anyone who’s spent any time studying English literature to believe, Percy Bysshe Shelley was not widely read during his lifetime. The Shelleys had spent much of their time ostracized from English society as a result of their unorthodox lifestyle, and almost fifteen years would elapse after Percy’s death before he would begin to become a literary legend. This shift in opinion was almost entirely Mary’s doing: she continued to write novels and short stories and her reputation as an author brought her into the social circles of English and American intellectuals, all while quoting Percy’s poems and thereby building his reputation. Not only did she promote Shelley’s poetry, Mary also served as his biographer, brazenly including extensive notes on his life in editions of his work in direct opposition to the wishes of his wealthy father, who was providing Mary and her son with an allowance.

Mary left behind a legacy of writing in a number of forms: seven novels, two diaries of her travels, and scores of articles and short stories alongside her editorial work on her husband’s poetry. Though her life was marked by tragedy, she persevered in the face of personal loss and stayed true to her untraditional, groundbreaking values while producing a body of work whose impact continues to be felt in the present day.

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