“The act of writing may compose the mind…but the boiling of the soul, and quake of the heart, that precede, transcend all the sufferings which tame spirits feel.”
Most of us view our teenage years as times of uncertainty. When I was sixteen, my biggest challenge was getting out of bed, and though I tried my hand at longform writing, getting a full novel done was completely out of the question. It is with a great amount of curiosity, then, that I approached the story of Mary Shelley. At 16, she had started her masterpiece, Frankenstein, a novel now credited as being the first major work of science fiction. What began as a pet project, however, would soon become a reflection upon the trials and tribulations of her youth–a turbulent period of happiness, sorrow, romance and burnt bridges.
Mary came from a family where intellectualism was not only rewarded, but championed as the greatest strength in the household. Her adopted father, William Godwin, was a prolific London activist and novelist who not only brought atheism and anarchism to the fore of English public debate, but who also wrote what some call the first detective novel, The Adventure of Caleb Williams. Many connected to the Wollstonecraft legacy would not only create new forms of literature and philosophy, but would also inspire whole new ways of reading and expression.
Mary Wollstonecraft, known today as one of the pioneers of the modern feminist movement, died 11 days after giving birth to Mary Godwin. Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, would nevertheless become one of the most influential figures in her life. William Godwin raised his adopted daughter outside of the bounds of traditional womanhood–stressing independent thinking over domestic servitude.
Mary Godwin, as she was known before her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley, was naturally precocious, but Williams’s stature as a public intellectual permitted her to access hundreds of books most could not retrieve, and allowed her to encounter some of the greatest minds in the Western World before she had even reached puberty. She dined with then-American Vice-President Aaron Burr, met poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth, novelists like Maria Edgeworth, and even witnessed one of the first ever skydives in recorded history from aeronaut and daredevil André-Jacques Garnerin in 1802.
At a young age, her father exposed her to countless influences for her novel. The Age of the Enlightenment had waned on the European continent with the despotic rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, but now the movement was spilling over into England, where a surge of intellectual fervor prompted everybody from poets to chemists to combine their artistic efforts with an air of radicalism. It is this confidence in drastic change that most dramatically influenced the young Mary Godwin, whose tireless avidity for reading lead her to study gothic horror and the natural sciences with equivocal temerity.
But then Percy Bysshe Shelley arrived. Half a decade her senior, the charming and handsome Oxford dropout immediately made an impression on her. By helping her father out with his Children’s Book enterprise, William Godwin trusted him, and enjoyed seeing his daughter taken by revolutionary and romantic opinion. Unfettered by popular opinion, the young atheist neither ate meat nor drank alcohol. He did, however, make life itself his primary indulgence, and soon enamored the teenaged Mary to do something so drastic, it would irreparably alter the course of her life thereafter. After proposing to William to take his daughter’s hand in symbolic union (not marriage), he vehemently objected. The rejection, however, only bolstered the couple to disobey even further, and on July 28th, 1814, almost exactly 200 years ago, the couple escaped to the continent.
Young and in love, the two hiked in France and Switzerland, rode donkeys through the hills and haphazardly made love whenever they wanted. After playfully cajoling and idly sketching unfinished manuscripts, they returned to England with barely any money to their name, and Mary was pregnant. Shelley had started but failed to complete a prose work called The Assassins, about a group of covert terrorists in Lebanon, perhaps one of the first attempts at the spy novel. Amid the domestic battle between her and her father, Shelley suffered several bouts of consumptive sickness and Mary attempted to regain her father’s favor through carefully-constructed argument. When she was seven months pregnant, Mary went into labor and bore the child prematurely. After only 11 days, the child was dead, and a year of Romantic hopes had come to an end.
The couple, however, would slowly find their footing again, and several months before beginning the first draft of Frankenstein, Mary took again to an athletic level of reading, devouring dozens of books in an extremely short period of time. She also took the downtime to endure a less turbulent legacy, and gave birth to a baby boy, who she named William Godwin. Between tours of England and an unintended love triangle, Lord Byron began paying the Godwin’s visits, eventually seeking to court her step sister, Clare, who had been briefly involved with Percy. Byron lived up to his reputation as a rakish sleuth who approached the company of woman as comfortably as he dispensed his wit, and the couple admired his natural charm but surprising humility. A year after her tragedy, they left to spend the Summer in Italy, which would end up being perhaps one of the most innovative seasons in literary history.
Mary, Percy, Byron and his friend Polidori sought the clear air and fair weather of the Swiss Alps, but instead of idle sunbathing, and lengthy excursions, they were forced indoors by powerful electrical storms and abnormal weather. The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 would literally cause the infamous “Year Without a Summer” in Europe, so the young writers, stuck indoors and justifiably bored, decided to make up their respective horror stories.
Byron and Shelley abandoned their stories almost right away, but Mary persisted in its creation. For one reason or another, the necessity to confront a horrifying incarnation–and one created by her, for that matter–affected her so badly that she suffered violent, semi-conscious nightmares relating to a “hideous phantasm of a man”. Thus, with the poets mocking her brooding reflectiveness, she saw, for the first time, the mental image of what would become the most recognizable monster in modern pop culture. Meanwhile, Polidori, the proverbial fourth-wheel on this trip, would complete his story, a novella called The Vampyre, now considered the first example of the mythic creature being associated with romance (just imagine a world without Twilight). Two of the most fundamental cultural icons of modern Western Folklore may not have been created were it not for a volatile combination of creative genius and boredom.
For the next three weeks, Mary would become increasingly involved in the endeavor. The locale also helped drive the plot forward; while the local Ingolstadt University was one of the scientific hubs of Europe (where Victor Frankenstein learns his craft), the surroundings mountains provided a stark reminder of the insignificance of humanity in its quixotic battle to control nature.
Subtitling it The Modern Prometheus, Mary delved into the classical canon for further inspiration, reading and rereading Paradise Lost without relent. By late August, she was diligently plotting the first novelized manuscript. Several coming events, however, would not only alter her life but also her story. After once again failing to win back her father’s admiration, she lamented that she was “an outcast from human society” and that she “must be going mad.”
Just when things could not get worse, Mary and Percy were confronted by the suicide of two quite close to them. The first, her step-sister Fanny, poisoned herself. Then, Harriet Shelley, Percy’s embittered ex-wife, drowned herself in the Serpentine River. The summer of 1814 may go down as one of the most “innovative” in literary history, but the sensational meeting of the era’s literary pantheon drew further light away from the jealousy of those caught in the obscurity of England’s young and famous writers.
Nevertheless, death’s long shadow proved to be a blessing for Mary, who now garnished her story with a generous heaping of morbidity. Those who learn Frankenstein at any level of schooling are told that the novel is a cautionary tale against humanity’s desire for progress. What lesson plans rarely address, however, is that Mary herself was unwittingly spearheading a paradigm shift in the way that we understand the classical parable. Instead of looking way back, Mary considered the dangerous hypotheticals of the near future. Ironically, her forward-thinking clairvoyance could not prevent her from reconciling with the problems that she and the Romantic poets so easily swept under the rug. Their years of pleasure carried with them a trail of destructive jealousy.
Mary continued to pick away at the manuscript for three years until it was finally accepted for publication in 1818. Mary confront detraction from both sexist and traditionalist critics, but Frankenstein became an eventual commercial success in only a couple of years. By the time that most of us are old enough to enjoy our first legal drink, Mary Shelley had already experienced a lifetime worth of highs and lows.
Unfortunately, she would never outperform her own success, and instead of creating another moment of magic with fellow writers, she would remember her young adulthood more for the death of her beloved Shelley, as well as one of her other great influences, Lord Byron. That’s not to say she stopped pioneering a genre she didn’t even know she created. The Last Man, written in 1826, is the original “last man on earth” story, is undoubtedly influenced by the passing of so many of those around her, but it is also the original of a subgenre adopted today for novels like Stephen King’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is doubtful that we would even understand what “post-apocalyptic” means without Shelley.
Mary Shelley’s success reminds us all that age and experience are not necessarily the most important prerequisites for being a author. Rather, a voracious appetite for reading and a persistent investment in what inspires us–even if nothing of its kind has been written before–will at the very least guarantee a completed manuscript.