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Mary Shelley Biography | Poet

Photo of Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in London, England on August 30, 1797. Her father, William, was a political writer while her mother, Mary, was a writer and feminist. When her mother died shortly after her birth, Mary was raised by her father and older half sister. The three eventually welcomed a new step mother with her own children. The new mother, Mary Jane, saw to it that her children attended school, but didn’t see any reason why she should worry about educating young Mary. Her life was surrounded by death and suicide, herself becoming a widow at the age of 24. She began writing her greatest work, Frankenstein when she was nearly 20 years old. She spent many years promoting her late husband’s poetry. She passed away after a battle with brain cancer on February 1, 1851, in London.

Early Life and Tragedy

Mary lost her mother when she only four weeks old. Her father, William, was charged with raising her along with her older half sister, Fanny Imlay who was the product of an affair their mother had with a soldier. William and Mary had only been married for 5 months before their daughter was born. The small family wasn’t without a matriarch for long however; William married Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801. She had two children of her own, and the newlywed couple soon welcomed a son together. Mary never got along with her new stepmother, who sent her own children away to school but neglected to educate her. She used her father’s excellent library to read and learn on her own. She was fond of taking books to her mother’s grave to read in peace, escaping her unhappy home. She also began to find a creative outlet through writing.

In 1812, Mary was sent to stay with William Baxter, a friend of the family, who lived in Scotland. Mary Jane had her sent away as she blossomed into a young woman, because she was beginning to look like her mother and didn't want her new husband to be reminded of her. She hasn’t realized how much a house could be a home until she experienced the Baxter household. She was able to stay with them for a year before returning home. It was after her return, in 1814, that she met a student of her father’s, Percy Shelley. Shelley was still married to his wife when the pair ran away together in a scandal that alienated Mary from her father. It was while they were travelling around Europe in 1815 that Mary gave birth to her first child, a daughter who only lived for a couple days.

The Inspiration To Write

While visiting friends in Switzerland, Mary got the idea to write her greatest novel, Frankenstein. After sharing spooky stories, their host suggested they all try their hand at writing a scary story. Taking the challenge to heart, she began working on her novel about the struggle between the monster and the creator. Her story was so frightening to the group, it is said they ran screaming from the room. That same year saw significant personal loss and gain for Mary. Her step sister Jane, who had been her travel companion with Percy Shelley, committed suicide. Percy’s abandoned wife also committed suicide that year, giving Mary the opportunity to officially marry Percy a short two weeks later, in December 1816.

Finally in 1818, with her masterpiece complete, Frankenstein was published with an anonymous author. Because he had written the introduction to the novel, many at the time thought it was written by Percy, not his young wife. It became an instant classic, well received in most literary circles. Within their own home, the Shelley’s would lose two more children, with a single son surviving to adulthood. It was in 1822 that Percy Shelley drowned while sailing with friends, leaving Mary widowed and devastated in Italy. She was already suffering and depressed at the loss of all but one of her children, and her husband’s death proved to be a very difficult hurdle for her.

Her Greatest Works

Trying to financially support herself and her young son, Mary wrote more novels and promoted her husband’s poetry. After a struggle with her father in law, she released Posthumous Poems in 1824, a collection of her husband’s works that she edited. With her own writings, her second novel, Valperga, was well received based on the success of her first novel. Her fan base was very excited to read more from the promising author.

The Last Man was published in 1826 and would become her best known novel, after Frankenstein. During her early travels she began writing two works, Hate and The Life of Louvet. Unfortunately due to pregnancy and illness she never completed either. She also released a collection of her accounts and her husband’s poetry called History of a Six-Weeks’ Tour, telling the tale of their early romance. That book began an accidental genre of travel storytelling, and is a loved collection for its romantic descriptions.

The Later Years

Mary took advantage of an opportunity to travel Europe with her son, once he became the sole heir of her late husband. Rambles in Germany and Italy is the telling of her travels with her son. Unfortunately by that time she was forced to write for money, needing to earn her own living. Once money was the main purpose, Mary lost some of her heart for writing, and these stories at times lack her well loved spark. It is the biographical works in Cabinet Cyclopedia that are considered her greatest writings, which is odd considering they are some of her least read.

Mary Shelley lost her battle with brain cancer when she was 53 years old. She passed away on February 1, 1851 in London. Her remains are buried next to her parents, with her husband’s cremated heart laid to rest with her. While she has a handful of novels published, her greatest achievement remains Frankenstein. The beautifully written classic has been adapted into several films, with the monster even becoming a Halloween staple. She was able to see the beginning success of her monster novel, even having the opportunity see the play on a trip through Europe with her son. 

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