The Last Woman Standing: Mary Shelley and the Enduring Power of Frankenstein

By Marielle Gage C.A.,  HAI Archivist

Almost everyone has heard of Frankenstein. You, yourself, might imagine a lumbering hulk of a man resurrected by a mad scientist. The pedant may correct you that, of course, the creature’s proper name is Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster. If this frustrates you, feel free to respond to your imaginary interlocutor that Victor von Frankenstein is a university student in the novel, and therefore has not earned the title of “doctor” when he reanimates his creation.

But regardless of quibbles over names and titles, the fact remains that Frankenstein is a seminal work of fiction, with profound influences on popular culture down to the current day. And to think, this novel was written when its author was only 18 years old.

The story of Frankenstein’s genesis is well known: in 1816, the Year without a Summer, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin went with her lover and future husband Percy Shelley to Lake Geneva to visit their friend and fellow Romantic Lord Byron. To amuse his guests – who also included John William Polidori and Claire Clairmont — during the dreadful weather, Byron proposed they “each write a ghost story”[i]. After several mortifying days of un-inspiration, Mary struck on an idea inspired by galvanism, a then in-vogue avenue of scientific enquiry. That idea, of course, became Frankenstein, published two years later.

It is hard to overstate the influence of Frankenstein, as a masterwork of horror literature, as the “first prominent work” of science fiction[ii], or as an inspiration for early filmmakers from Thomas Edison (1910) to James Whale (1931) – the latter adaptation being recognized as the most iconic depiction of Mary Shelley’s characters, due to the seminal performances of Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. Even so, as of August 2023, IMDB listed over 100 “Frankenstein” movies, with the most recent release in 2022 and three more films in production.

But if knowledge of Frankenstein is universal, the biography of its creator is less so.

Bournemouth, Dorset, England, 2010. (Photo: Rafaela Ely)

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later known by her married name of Mary Shelley, was born on 30 August 1797. The daughter of philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft (yes, that Mary Wollstonecraft, of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman fame) and proto-anarchist William Godwin, Mary seemed destined to be a most unconventional girl in Regency England. And, indeed, her life began much like a Gothic heroine’s might, with her mother’s tragic death only eleven days after her birth, and her acquisition of a detested (though by all accounts perfectly lovely) stepmother four years later. At sixteen, Mary would meet her romantic counterpart, the then-married Percy Shelley.

The couple scandalized British society – and Mary’s father – by traveling together across Europe in 1814 and cohabitating upon their return to England. Such brazen flaunting of social convention was not without punishment: the stress of their financial situation – which was dire indeed – was exacerbated by the hurts of their ostracism by society, and, more hurtfully, by Mary’s father, who refused to have anything to do with the “sinful” couple. To compound their pain, the couple lost a newborn daughter in March 1815.

I hope the young couple’s travels in Europe in 1816, and especially that sojourn at Lake Geneva, provided some respite, but soon enough it was over and they were back in conservative England. The end of 1816 did see some changes to Mary’s personal life, as she was reconciled with her beloved father. But that too was only possible due to tragedy: Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, had committed suicide , enabling Mary and Percy to be wed, and only after her “respectable” marriage was Mary and her father reunited.

The newlyweds remained in England until March 1818, shortly after the publication of Frankenstein. They traveled around Italy, meeting friends and continuing their intellectual pursuits. Tragedy continued to haunt them, however, even in sunny Italy, and two more children would die before the end of 1819. The birth of a healthy child, Percy Florence, in November 1819 would provide some relief, but fate had one more cruel blow in store for Mary.

On the eighth of July 1822, Percy Shelley went sailing along with two companions. A storm came, and the boat was lost. Ten days later, three bodies washed up on the beach at Viareggio, Italy. One was identified as the poet. He was not yet thirty years old. Mary had his body cremated there on the beach, and mourned for the rest of her days both her great love and the life they had lived together.

Mary Shelley and her surviving son returned to England at the insistence of Sir Timothy Shelley, Percy’s disapproving father. They would endure years under his stern financial control and stifling edicts. Still, Mary continued her literary work as she was able, writing several additional novels (including the post-apocalyptic The Last Man, now considered her second greatest work[iii]) and contributing to a series of authors’ lives for a popular encyclopedia. She found fulfillment where she could, most especially in the rearing of her son Percy Florence. Still, in reviewing her biography, I am left with the uneasy sense that the fire of her genius had been almost drowned in the torrent of tragedy and starved of the kindling of encouragement from her husband, never fully roared to life again.

Mary Shelley's tomb in Bournemouth

Mary Shelley’s tomb in Bournemouth: Original uploader was LordHarris at en.wikipedia. Permission CC-BY-3.0; Released under the GNU Free Documentation License. 13 January 2008.

There are hints she might have felt that way herself. In 1826, she wrote the aforementioned novel The Last Man, one of the earliest works of dystopian literature,[iv] which contains many allusions to both her late husband and their friend Lord Byron, who had died two years earlier in the Greek War of Independence. She outlived William Polidori, too, by a substantial margin. She was the last of those first great Romantics: as she herself put it, she was “the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.” Indeed, the whole Romantic movement seemed to die with her in 1851, replaced by the Victorian world of Dickens and Hardy.

But fortunately, her work lived on. Indeed, I dare to say that not only was she the last living Romantic, she was also the most impactful. Many, no doubt, have heard of “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron, and the heroic archetype his life and works inspired, but who outside English majors can name even one of his poems? The same with Shelley and their fellow poets Wordsworth of Coleridge, or the novelist Walter Scott, or the essayist Charles Lamb. But Mary Shelley? Her work lives on, in the zeitgeist of academia and popular culture alike. The horror genre is obviously indebted to her and the early film adaptations of her novel; so too is science fiction, as Frankenstein pioneered several of the genre’s “thematic hallmarks”, such as the limitlessness of scientific achievement and discovery, the ethical concerns therein, and the “rubric of science fiction as an exploration of our anxieties of the present and the future.”[v] Even if you have never read Frankenstein (though I sincerely recommend you do), if you have ever enjoyed a story in any media where a brilliant scientist regrets their creation – be it a weapon, or a robot, or a dinosaur – you are indebted to Mary Shelley. If you have ever been prompted to wonder about the “humanity” of a fictional AI or chimeric monster, you have Mary Shelley to thank. And if you have ever stepped away from a tale wondering which character was the true monster, well, you have an 18-year-old girl on the banks of Lake Geneva to bless (or curse) for that.

[i] paragraph 7, Introduction, Frankenstein 1831 edition (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42324/42324-h/42324-h.htm)

[ii] “The Evolution of Science Fiction (Feat. Lindsay Ellis | It’s Lit!” PBS Voices. 16 July 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4j5tGNms14

[iii] “Mary Shelley: Writing Frankenstein” Biographics. 02 December 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yANZEaMfHHs

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “The Evolution of Science Fiction (Feat. Lindsay Ellis | It’s Lit!” PBS Voices. 16 July 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4j5tGNms14

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