It was certain when Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin greeted the world on August 30, 1797, her life was going to be out of step with the ordinary. Her unorthodox parents and family structure ensured this from the beginning. Her father, William Godwin, himself a philosopher-historian, was cold and ever remote. Originally he trained for the Calvinist ministry, but only wore the cloth a few years.
A sharp man who ate to excess and borrowed money from anyone who would give him a loan, he had little time for anything that did not constitute the cultivation of a formidable mind through writing. That is, until Mary Wollstonecraft entered his life. With the possible exception of William Blake, she was the most influential of the Enlightenment radicals. Independent at age twenty-one, she ran a school with her sisters and befriended Samuel Johnson. While in France, she took up with a captain and eventually had a daughter, Fanny. After being deserted, she returned to England and attempted suicide. Once she had recovered, she began to write for a living. Although she wrote in a variety of genres, it was a piece on women’s liberation that won her lasting fame.
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The first meeting between these two people took place at a social evening in Godwin’s home. Their identical intellectual beliefs made their coupling inevitable. An affair begun in the autumn of 1796. When Mary discovered she was pregnant, the couple decided to marry, that both illegitimate children would have a name. In spite of the ceremony, they continued to dwell separately and live independently.
They were still very much in love, however. Unfortunately, about a week and a half after Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born, her mother died from labor complications. Although he wanted to be a good father, Godwin soon realized that he could not handle two young girls, and immediately set himself to the task of finding another wife. A proposal to Maria Reveley, who would later become Mary’s best friend, was rejected. As Godwin started to sink into despair, Mary began to talk, and was so lively that she was nicknamed Mercury.
The problem remained of finding a substitute mother, and Godwin found what appeared to be an answer in Mary Jane Clairmont. He quickly married her, that she could care for the children and leave him to his contemplation of the abstract. Fanny and Mary’s stepmother, however, was a cruel woman who constantly favored her own children in disputes. Mary was frequently whipped for impertinence, but rebellion flowed in her blood, and could not be quelled so easily. In any case, the children were always healthy, fed and clothed.
The girls were given domesticity lessons. Mary could not muster interest in such pursuits. She was so often engrossed in a book that she let meats burn. Likewise, she was equally stubborn about learning how to use a ledger and how to clean. Her father was the most important person in her life, and his favor meant everything. She learned at home and excelled in her lessons. Mary could hold her own in adult conversation, including those considered to be great minds at the time. Around the age of eight, she was introduced to the writings of her mother. By the time she was ten, she had absorbed every word.
Mary developed an unhealthy attachment to her mother’s grave and spent many hours there, reading or eating meals when the atmosphere at home was particularly bad. This habit continued well into her teens, when she was sent to board in Ramsgate with a Miss Petman. The change was prompted by Mary’s frailty and inability to concentrate. From there she journeyed to Scotland to stay with her father’s friend, Baxter. Living with him and his family was the happiest time she had known.
When she returned to London a year later, she had grown into a woman. Closer to her father than ever before, she would engage in philosophical conversations with him, augmenting the hatred of her stepmother daily. It was no matter, for now there was an interesting figure on the scene: Percy Shelley, a devoted follower and friend of Godwin’s, who lent him money and spent a great deal of time in his home. Although he was married, his presence made an impression on Mary, who began to read poetry under his influence. Shelley’s genuine admiration for the works of Mary’s departed mother earned him her trust‹he was invited to her mother’s grave, and became her escort on all excursions. The intellectual kinship between them was clear, and they were soon in love. Once this was discovered, Godwin closed his doors to Shelley, but the couple refused to be separated and corresponded secretly. With the help of Mary’s stepsister, they were able to elope.
Setting up housekeeping in London was expensive, and money was very tight. Relations were strained‹Shelley’s first wife Harriet bore him a son, while his good friend Thomas Hogg became enamored of Mary. To make things worse, Mary was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter two months premature, who quickly died. She fell into depression. The only good news was financial. Shelley’s wealthy grandfather had died and left him a fortune. Disliking the city, the couple moved around, to the country, to France, and back to England.
Mary was writing profusely, and in 1818 Frankenstein was published. No one could have guessed it would be the most popular English novel for three decades. Although it was rumored that Shelley had actually written the story, Mary was catapulted into the forefront of women authors struggling to be recognized amongst men. Her novel brought in more money in one month than Shelley earned in one year. The couple lived out the remainder of their days together happy for the most part, and had a son, Percy Florence. Tragically, their time together ended too soon when Percy Shelley drowned in a shipwreck in 1822. Mary was badly shaken, but remained composed and dedicated to her child. After successfully raising him and forcing the publication of the ignored poetry of her husband, Mary Shelley slipped out of life while asleep at the age of fifty-four. Frankenstein
About the Novel
The early nineteenth century was not a prosperous time for female writers, especially novelists. Mary’s work was a fantastic negation of the long-held theory that no mass audiences would be willing to read the works of a woman. Frankenstein held Mary up as a woman of letters. Her reputation on the Continent was only surpassed by Madame de Stael, who passed away a year before the novel was published, and her fame was based more on the fact that the powerful Napoleon could not stop her from publishing her works, not the actual quality of those works.
Although posterity forever classifies Frankenstein as a horror story (the first and purest of its kind), it is interesting to note that the critics and reading public of England at this time considered the novel as an intellectual and literary exercise of terrific merit. The story embodied many of William Godwin’s basic precepts, and accomplished more in the spreading of his philosophical views than did any of his personal works in his lifetime and after. On an exclusively intellectual plane, the novel opposes Godwin’s notions that man can achieve perfection, since it essentially argues that man, in his search for ultimate perfection, destroys himself.
The prejudice against women was quite strong; for this reason the first edition was published anonymously. Not surprisingly, all reviewers believed the author was a man. Yet Mary was uniquely qualified to write this extension of Gothic literature that was just becoming popular in England. The trend of horror was a reaction against the straightforward, serious literature of The Age of Reason, ushered in by the death of Keats, the English author with whom Romanticism is closely associated. Frankenstein is a good compromise between the two schools of thought. It addresses serious subjects in a fantastical, science-fiction manner. Readers embraced the story because of its fabulous blend of an intellectual approach to life and an offbeat sense of morbidity.
Moreover, Shelley’s unprecedented success paved the way for some of the most prominent women writers of the nineteenth century, including George Eliot, George Sand, and the Bronte sisters. All of them owed Mary a tremendous debt. The latter two especially steal many attributes of Frankenstein and craft them into their own novels. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, completely borrows from the personified landscape in Shelley’s novel. In both stories, nature is a living force in the lives of all characters. Shelley’s characters have a connection to landscape, especially mountainous regions, while Bronte’s dramatic people are practically controlled by the English moors.
The construction of the dark, brooding character is another Frankenstein technique upon which the Bronte sisters capitalize. Characters such as Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre, tormented people with many secrets and twisted souls, have remarkable similarities to the tragic hero Victor Frankenstein and his complimentary creation. Had Mary Shelley not broken the ice for female authors to break out of traditional writing rules by exhibiting dark imagination with philosophical reflection, we certainly might have lost a chunk of the literature we study and define as classics today.
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