Mary Shelley is most famous for the monster she created.
Every Halloween we’re treated to Hollywood’s many interpretations of her creature. He is depicted with bolts erupting from his neck just beneath his squared-off head, his skin shadowed with a greenish cast. He stumbles about like a large, ungainly toddler.
Frankenstein’s monster has earned a place in our popular culture, but he was born nearly two centuries ago as the product of a cold, rainy night and peer pressure.
Mary was travelling with a small group of friends, which included her step sister Claire, the poet Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, her married lover. She was just eighteen at the time, and had run off with Shelley and the others to shamble across Europe. Their travels brought them to a cottage on the shores of a lake in Switzerland, where the little band of free-loving proto-hippies found themselves driven indoors by unseasonably cold, rainy weather. They gathered around the fire and entertained themselves with ghost stories. Bored with the tales after a while, Byron challenged them each to write their own supernatural tale.
Mary struggled with the story for a year. It’s not difficult to imagine that she was perhaps intimidated by the company. Byron and Shelley were both writers, and Mary was the daughter of two well-known and accomplished thinkers and writers. Her father was William Godwin, a radical freethinker, anarchist and atheist. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of an early influential feminist work. Both were idealistic and driven, and Godwin in particular had a reputation for intensity.
Though Godwin believed that “marriage was the death of love” he nonetheless married Wollstonecraft when she became pregnant with Mary. His feelings about marriage were oddly prophetic; Mary’s mother died just days after she was born.
Godwin later remarried a woman who did not appear to have any affection for Mary, nor did she encourage Mary’s education. Godwin offered some education to his daughter, and she read voraciously, but she was not afforded the formal education of her step and half sisters.
Shelley was a few years older, educated and married. He was fleeing an unhappy marriage to a young, pregnant wife when he landed in Godwin’s parlor. He found more than inspiring conversation there; he also found Godwin’s lovely young daughters.
Mary fell deeply in love with him, and fell into a circle of free-wheeling relationships where the men ping-ponged between young women. In the company of forceful, spirited personalities, she seemed to shrink back a bit. Relationships were complicated, and filled with jealousies and competition and pain.
While the others produced their stories in time, Mary persevered for nearly a year before finishing her tale, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In the span of that year, Shelley’s wife committed suicide, and Shelley and Mary wed.
Shelley was as loyal and attentive to Mary as he was his first wife, and they continued their rather bohemian existence. She bore him four children, only one of whom survived. Their relationship came to an end when Shelley drowned while swimming in a lake.
Mary never remarried, but instead spent the rest of her life as a single mother. She struggled to protect Shelley’s legacy, while producing works of her own to support herself and her child. I’m not sure if she remained single out of her loyalty to Shelley, or out of loyalty to herself. I’d love to know which it was, and I’d ask her if I had the chance.
It’s interesting that her greatest work was the story of a creature cobbled together from the parts and pieces of others, and unnaturally reanimated. It becomes to fearsome and frightening, a threat to its maker and to others.
Mary was surrounded by a context constructed from the parts and pieces of other, older philosophies, and animated by the feverish desire for progress and power. Yet, these creators didn’t quite fully understand what they were creating, or how difficult and complicated a thing it would be to manage. Little loyalty was exhibited, and relationships regularly turned toxic.
Mary had the moxie to navigate her own way through the complex context of her early life, and made her own way through the second half, piecing together the old and the new, and creating a wholly new life that was not quite conventional, but not quite as radical, either.
Who do you know who possesses Mary’s brand of moxie?