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Born August 30, 1797, in London, England, Mary Shelley came from a rich literary heritage. She was the daughter of William Godwin, a political theorist, novelist, and publisher who introduced her to eminent intellectuals and encouraged her youthful efforts as a writer; and of Mary Wollstonecraft, a writer and early feminist thinker, who died of puerperal fever 10 days after her daughter's birth.
In her childhood, Mary Shelley educated herself amongst her father's intellectual circle, which included critic William Hazlitt, essayist Charles Lamb and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Another prominent intellectual in Godwin's circle was poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary met Percy Shelley in 1812, when she was fifteen. Shelley was married at the time, but the two spent the summer of 1814 traveling together. A baby girl was born prematurely to the couple in February, 1815, and died twelve days later. In her journal of March 19, 1815, Mary recorded the following dream, a possible inspiration for Frankenstein: "Dream that my little baby came to life again - that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived." A son, William, was born to the couple in January, 1816.
In the summer of 1816, Percy Shelley and 19-year-old Mary visited the poet Lord Byron at his villa beside Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Stormy weather frequently forced them indoors, where they and Byron's other guests sometimes read from a volume of ghost stories. One evening, Byron challenged his guests to write one themselves. Mary's story became Frankenstein.
Mary and Percy Shelley were married December 30, 1816, just weeks after Shelley's first wife, Harriet, drowned. Mary gave birth to another daughter, Clara, in 1817, but she only lived for a year.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was published in 1818, when Mary was 21, and became a huge success. The first edition of the book had an unsigned preface by Percy Shelley. Many, disbelieving that a 19-year-old woman could have written such a horror story, thought that it was his novel.
In 1818, the Shelleys left England for Italy. In 1819, following the death of 3-year-old William, Mary suffered a nervous breakdown. Of the Shelleys' children, only one, Percy Florence, born in 1819, survived past childhood. Further tragedy struck Mary in 1822 when her husband Percy Shelley drowned during a heavy squall in the Gulf of Spezia near Livorna.
Mary, only 25 years old and a widow, returned to England with her son, determined not to marry again. She devoted herself to her son's welfare and education, and continued her career as a professional writer. Shelley gave up writing long fiction when realism started to gain popularity, exemplified by the works of Charles Dickens. She wrote numerous short stories for periodicals, particularly The Keepsaker, and produced several volumes of Lives for Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia and the first authoritative edition of Shelley's poems (1839, 4 vols.).
Mary Shelley lived in England until her death from a brain tumor in Bournemouth, England, on February 1, 1851. She was 54 years old.
Adapted from the National
Library of Medicine
"Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature"