In honor of her birthday and Frankenstein Day, here are 15 surprising facts about the feminist/horror/sci-fi/literary icon Mary Shelley.
On August 30th, 1797, Mary Shelley was born, the author of one of the most iconic books of the 19th century. Frankenstein would become the first major science fiction novel, inventing the concept of the “mad scientist”, and would also establish what would become horror fiction.
The story of a misunderstood monster and a doctor’s desire to play God, would go on to influence literature, film, theater, and popular culture in a way few works have come close to. Equally effective as a timeless horror story and as still relevant social commentary, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is considered essential reading — and a truly spine-tingling tale — even 200 years after a teenage girl first put pen to paper.
While it’s easy to define Mary from her most memorable literary contribution, there’s so much more to this queen of horror than just that. In many ways, her real life was even more eerie and heartbreaking than her famous terrifying tale — a life marked by repeated tragic loss, scandal, an illicit love affair, controversy and rampant sexism.
Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) once theorized that James Whale selected her to play both Mary and The Bride because the director “felt that if this beautiful and innocent Mary Shelley could write such a horror story as Frankenstein, then somewhere she must have had a fiend within, dominating a part of her thoughts and spirit…”
To honor her birthday and her remarkable legacy, here are 15 facts you may not know about Mary Shelley.
1. Progressive Pedigree
Mary Shelley is often revered as a feminist icon who fiercely fought for recognition for her work. Given her upbringing, that’s not surprising. Her father, noted philosopher William Godwin, is considered the architect of modern anarchism. Her mother was none other than Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer of feminist thought who wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in 1792 (just after the American Revolution). Sadly, Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Shelley. But her father raised her with his radical political ideas, and she was influenced by her mother’s writing.
Mary Shelley was considered a political radical throughout her life — and her writings, including Frankenstein, have been analyzed for their feminist and communist themes, as well as anti-Catholic symbolism and resistance against individualistic societies.
2. Intellectual Stimulation
Although her father would not approve of her future spouse, he did nurture her creativity and knack for writing, thanks to his extensive library and penchant for interesting and well-known visitors like poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
She eventually married a Percy Shelley, a political poet who left his wife to be with her. It was in this provocative and intellectually charged atmosphere that she decided to pursue a career as a writer, and she mingled with the best and the brightest, including Lord Byron.
3. Forbidden Love
Mary married the poet Percy Shelley after running off with him and having his child. She was just 16 when she met 22-year-old Shelley, a student of Mary’s father. The couple conducted a two-year public affair and traveled throughout Europe — during which time Percy’s then-wife, Harriet, was pregnant. When the couple returned to England, Mary was also pregnant, and her father wanted nothing to do with her. Percy’s wife, Harriet Westbrook, died in 1816 by suicide, which led to Percy and Mary’s marriage.
At the start of their affair, Mary and Percy began meeting each other secretly at Mary Wollstonecraft’s — Mary’s mother’s — grave at St. Pancras Church, in England. It seems the writer already had an predilection for the creepy and morbid before she began writing her classic novel.
4. Murder Mystery
There’s speculation that Mary’s father killed Harriet to save his daughter’s reputation. In 1816, the pregnant body of Shelley’s first wife was found in London’s Serpentine river after an apparent suicide. Mary and Percy got married soon after, but rumors persisted that Mary’s father had Harriet killed, as she stood in the way of his own daughter marrying Percy and thus forging a “legitimate” relationship.
5. A Family Affair
An infatuation for poets may have run in the family. Like Mary, Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont wanted a poet lover for herself, so she pursued Percy’s famous friend, Lord Byron. While pursing him, she, Mary, and Percy traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to meet Byron. It was there in 1816 that Mary would begin writing Frankenstein.
Mary was also with Claire and Percy on an exploration of the Alps in July of 1816 when they got sight of the vast glacier Mary would later use as a pivotal location in Frankenstein. At that moment, an avalanche tore away part of the mountain they were scaling.
6. Young Prodigy
When Mary started writing Frankenstein, she was just 19. By the time of the book’s 1818 publishing, she was only 21. It is widely considered the first science fiction novel.
While Frankenstein was initially published anonymously, a preface by Percy Shelley led many to believe he had written the novel. It wasn’t until after the story became popular on the stage — in 1823, five years after its initial release — that Mary published the book under her own name.
7. Love and Monsters
Lord Byron may have inspired Shelley to write her most famous work. As the legend goes, Byron, Mary, Percy, and Byron’s personal physician, Dr. John William Polidori, stayed up late one night, discussing the occult and reading ghost stories. Byron challenged the group to write a horror story, believing that women couldn’t produce a work of horror. Mary’s contribution was the story that would later become Frankenstein.
However, her story created during that infamous night wasn’t the only one that would go down in literary and horror history. Polidori’ story called “The Vampyre” is widely considered the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
As an amusing sidenote to this story of Frankenstein’s origins, Lord Byron tried to inspire the group for their writing challenge by reading some of Coleridge’s “Christabel” aloud. As Byron read of a witch revealing her breasts, Percy, who’d long harbored a bizarre obsession with that part of a woman’s anatomy, fixed his eyes on Mary. Imagining she had eyes where her nipples should be, he became overcome with horror, screamed, and fled the room. Percy was so disturbed by the image that he had to be calmed with ether.
8. Nightmarish Origins
Shelley claims the idea for Frankenstein came to her while she slept. In the third edition of Frankenstein, Mary explains that a dream inspired the story. “I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” the author writes. “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life…”
9. Making a Name for Herself
Though Mary said she simply made up the name “Frankenstein”, it’s very likely she took significant inspiration from the real Frankenstein Castle (above) located in Darmstadt, Germany. Frankenstein is a German name that means Stone of the Franks. Historian Radu Florescu claimed that the Shelleys visited Castle Frankenstein on a journey up the Rhine River.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Frankenstein’s Castle was the home of unbalanced alchemist Johann Conrad Dippe. Local legends tell of gruesome experiments by Dippel on human bodies he would exhume while living in the castle, in an attempt to create an elixir that would make people live for over a hundred years.
Of course, Mary chose not to give her creation a name. She instead refers to him as only as a monster, a fiend, a daemon, a creature, a wretch, a devil, a being, an ogre, and even a vampire. One thing she never calls him is Frankenstein.
10. Monstrous Reviews
Although it is now regarded as a classic, many of the original reviews of Frankenstein were not positive at all. The Quarterly Review called it “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity. Novelist William Beckford denounce it as “the foulest toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times.”
But gothic novels were all the rage, and Frankenstein soon gained readers. In 1823, a play by Richard Brinsley Peake titled “Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein” cemented the story’s popularity. Mary attended the play and, while she enjoyed the acting, she said “the story was not well managed.”
In 1831, a new version of the book was published, this time under Mary’s name. In 1910, Thomas Edison made a one-reel, 15-minute film of Frankenstein, one of the first horror movies ever made. It was thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 1950s. Watch it below.
11. Life After Frankenstein
Although she is often remembered solely for Frankenstein, Shelley was able, in her short life, to publish a large amount of work across a wide area of forms and subject. Her body of work includes seven novels, three children’s books, over a dozen short stories and poems each, several volumes of biographies, and a smattering of articles and poems.
Her other works include more science fiction, like the apocalyptic novel The Last Man, about the only survivor of a global plague, and the historical novel Valperga. She also edited posthumous editions of her husband’s poetry.
12. Death Becomes Her
Tragedy marked much of Shelley’s life. In addition to suffering the death of her mother shortly after she was born, she also lost her half-sister Fanny to suicide, as well as losing three of her four children in or shortly after childbirth.
Before writing Frankenstein, she lost her first daughter, Clara, six weeks after giving birth. Soon after the baby died, she wrote in her journal, “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived—I awake & find no baby—I think about the little thing all day.” This circumstance, as well as the suicide of her half-sister, must have contributed to the novel.
Just like his first wife, Shelley’s husband Percy drowned, making Mary a widow at age 24. While sailing his boat, the Don Juan, Percy got caught in a storm. His body was found ten days later, a copy of Keats’ poems in his pocket. Interestingly, her mother also attempted to drown herself in the Thames but was rescued by a passing man.
It’s eerily coincidental that, a century later, Mary’s monster would accidentally drown a little girl in a controversial scene devised for James Whale’s Frankenstein. Sadly, the director, too, would drown himself in a swimming pool in 1957.
Shelley herself died relatively young, at age 53 of a brain tumor. When she died, he was remembered first as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife, and only later became universally recognized as the author of Frankenstein.
13. What Still Remains
Percy was cremated, but his calcified heart refused to burn. Further cementing her title as gothic horror queen, Shelley kept the heart, wrapped in one of her husband’s poems, in her desk. The heart was discovered by her only surviving son after her death in 1851. In addition, he found locks of her dead children’s hair.
14. Altered States
The Frankenstein we know is not the one Shelley originally created. The author revised her book many times, most notably in 1831. Written after the tragic deaths of two of her children and Percy, this version presents Doctor Frankenstein as less of a man of free will and more as a pawn of fate, which is how Mary saw herself in the wake of her tragedies.
15. A Woman’s Work
First published anonymously in January of 1818, there was early skepticism about whether or not Mary Shelley was the primary author of Frankenstein. Stories about the extent to which Percy collaborated with her on the story vary, from Percy overseeing the majority of the writing to simply acting as an editor after the manuscript was completed.
The book was dedicated to William Godwin, Mary’s father, and Percy Shelley wrote the preface. Because of these connections, many assumed that Percy Shelley was the author — even after the book was republished under her name.
Later in life, Shelley’s success allowed to her to perform quiet charitable acts for other women. Shelley lived by the principles of her mother until her death. She blazed trails for women in literature, and proved that talent and imagination is gender neutral. At the time, this idea was revolutionary.