Tag Archives: Romantic Outlaws

Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein

Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, radical writers of the late 18th Century. She ran away with and later married a radical from her own generation, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She spent time in the company of Lord Byron, and wrote her most famous novel trapped by the rain in his Italian villa. These associations are significant, but Mary Shelley made her own contribution to cultural life, not least through the novel Frankenstein.

Mary’s Life

The tragedy of Mary’s childhood was the death of her mother from puerperal fever within days of her birth in 1797. Her father was devastated. Mary grew up motherless. Godwin remarried, partly to provide a mother for baby Mary and her half-sister Fanny Imlay (Mary Wollstonecraft’s older illegitimate child). Her stepmother provided her with stepsiblings, including Jane, later Claire, but very little affection.

250 Mary and Percy Shelley

Mary spent intellectually formative time in Dundee with friends of her father’s, but on meeting and falling for Shelley in 1814, ran away with him and Claire to France. Shelley was already married to Harriet who was pregnant and later committed suicide. Her half-sister Fanny Imlay also committed suicide at this time. Mary married Shelley on Harriet’s death. She and Shelley already had a son and were to go and have three more children. Only one survived.

In 1816 the Shelleys and Claire returned to Europe, staying in Geneva near Byron. Claire had already started a liaison with Byron, but he soon tired of her. It was here that Mary had her first ideas for Frankenstein.

Over the next few years the Shelleys lived and travelled in Europe, where three of Mary’s children and Claire’s daughter by Byron all died. Shelley was drowned in June 1822. It is not surprising that Mary suffered from depression with her life defined by the death of many of her most important people.

Mary supported herself and her remaining son until she died in February 1851 through her writing. She wrote travel books (as did her mother) as well as six more novels, at least 50 biographical essays for an encyclopaedia and edited her husband’s work for publication.

Of her works, only Frankenstein has remained well known.

1816 – The Year without a Summer.

In April 1816 Mount Tambora erupted in the Dutch East Indies – present-day Indonesia. It was the most violent eruption ever recorded. The effect of the huge volumes spewed from the volcano was to change weather patterns all over the world for at least 12 months. In Europe the dreadful, wet summer resulted in failed harvests, and the high prices of grain brought starvation and political unrest.

In Geneva it rained day after day and the Romantic poets’ party was confined to their houses. It was here that someone, Byron it seems, announced ‘we will each write a ghost story’.

Writing Frankenstein

250 Frankenstein text

Mary took time to find her inspiration, and it was the conversations that the party were having about life and its principles, and specifically about galvanism, that led Mary to form her ideas. After one such conversation she records

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. (quoted in the Introduction xxi)

She began writing:

It was a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. (58)

In the revisions the sentence appears at the start of Chapter V of Book 1.

The novel reveals her extensive self-taught understanding of ‘natural philosophy’ as physics was called at the time. She also knew the classics, and read the new knowledge being revealed by enlightenment scholars. Mary’s most famous novel is not so much a ghost story as a gothic science fiction horror story.

250 Frankenstein Peng

Not surprisingly women cannot be forgiven for so much transgression nor allowed to achieve intellectual status. Some commentators have suggested that Frankenstein was actually Shelley’s work. Although he apparently provided some editorial assistance, this was Mary’s.

More on Frankenstein in the next post, looking at the Royal Ballet’s production of Frankenstein, by Liam Scarlett – a world premier.

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter

Both women challenged conventional acceptable behaviour by women, refusing to accept that women should be treated differently. Both had unmarried sexual relationships with men, and both had illegitimate children.

Both wrote fiction and travel writing, but Mary Shelley did not publish polemic books such as the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Both women married radical men. Both suffered for their love, Mary Wollstonecraft was abandoned, more or less, by Imlay, despite their baby Fanny. Shelley seems to have indulged himself wherever he chose, including with Claire (Mary’s step-sister, who accompanied them on their travels). Claire is known to have had a child by Byron. It is not surprising that the group were known as the ‘league of incest’. The men of the circle seem to have behaved like those men of the 1970s who exploited women’s new sexual freedoms, whatever the cost to their partners.

Both women were ostracised for their sexual activities. Both spent time abroad, Mary Wollstonecraft in France during the revolution and Mary Shelley in Europe with Shelley until his death.

Despite the tragedies in both their lives and the attitudes of their times, both women pursued education, radical ideas and have influenced ideas for more than 200 years.

Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marcy Shelley by Charlotte Gordon published by Corsair 2015. 652pp.

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. I used the Penguin Classics revised edition 1992, edited with an introduction by Maurice Hindle.

Related posts

Katacharin on Mary Shelley on sheroesofhistory.

Mary Wollstonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw from this blog in March, looking at Charlotte Gordon’s biography of the two Marys.

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Mary Wollstonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw

Mary Wollstonecraft has been important in my life for nearly fifty years. I was studying history in 1970 with the great EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class. Our small group of undergraduates were exploring the English radicals of the 1790s. The previous year I had picked up a copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (price 7/6d). As a special project for my history degree I explored Mary Wollstonecraft’s radicalism. There were no available biographies so most of my work was done from primary sources. It was the beginning of the second wave of feminism and we hadn’t really discovered Mary Wollstonecraft yet. I spent happy hours in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and browsed copies of radical journals lent to me by EP Thompson. My husband wrote my married name and ‘her book’ on the first page. I wrote my paper, and feminism took off.

Romantic Outlaws

241 Rom Outlaws cover

Over the last few weeks I have been reading the very detailed dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley called Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. Charlotte Gordon’s book is very long. The chapters on the lives of the two women alternate. This has the effect of showing up the similarities and the differences in the lives of the two women. It also means that the cast of characters gets unwieldy, and you loose track of which semi-famous person came into which Mary’s life. In this post I am focussing on Mary Wollstonecraft and I will reserve Mary Shelley for a later blog.

241 MWbiosSince 1969 eight biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft have been written, according to Wikipedia. William Godwin wrote a biography immediately after she died, intended to disprove the image of Mary as a virago. According to Charlotte Gordon he did her no favours, playing down her forthright political writings, and her determination to live according to her principles. What does this biography add to our understanding of Mary Wollstonecraft?

Mary’s life

Reading Romantic Outlaws I am reminded of what an extraordinary woman Mary Wollstonecraft was. How resourceful, intelligent, free-thinking and brave. She set sail to Lisbon to assist her best friend; to Paris to witness the revolution; later to Scandinavia on behalf of her lover. She took on injustice, especially against women, and when she found it, she took action if she was able to – for example by liberating her sister from an abusive marriage – or exposed it with her pen. She lived and wrote despite extreme social disapproval. It was not acceptable for women to write about philosophy or politics. And they were expected to hide away if they had illegitimate children. And they were not expected to make demands upon the men who wronged them.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary was born in London in 1759. Her father failed to support the family and was alcoholic and abused his wife. Mary supported her family, despite a strong desire for independence. She worked as a lady’s companion in Bath, ran a school in Newington Green for a while, then became a governess to the foremost family Ireland. Not successful or happy employments, but they helped form her ideas about girls’ and women’s education. She returned to London and began to earn a living from her writing. She was employed by the radical publisher John Johnson to write reviews for his periodicals, and she advanced to essays and then to books on the education of girls, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her reflections on the French Revolution, a travel book about her experiences in Scandinavia, as well as several novels.

She believed in living according to her principles, which brought her into conflict with genteel society, where women were not supposed to write anything but sentimental novels. Her pursuit of the painter Fuseli was disapproved of. She went to France during the Revolution, witnessing the Terror, and became disillusioned by its excesses. She met Imlay, father of her first daughter, Fanny, but he tired of her. Distraught at a second rebuttal she attempted suicide. On her recovery she set out with her baby for Sweden in an attempt to win Imlay back by tracking down some missing cargo. On her return he made it clear he was interested in someone else, an actress whose name is not recorded. Mary threw herself off Putney Bridge in a second, failed, attempt at suicide.

She met William Godwin, an established radical philosopher, and they fell in love, and on her becoming pregnant, married. Mary died in childbirth of puerperal fever, aged 38, still engaged in writing.

Her writing

Title page of A Vindication, 1792

Title page of A Vindication, 1792

Today we tend to see the Vindication as Mary’s most important published book. However, her book on the education of girls Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, with Reflections on Female Conduct (1788) was widely read. Her accounts of her experiences in France An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), and in Scandinavia Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden Norway, and Denmark (1796) were every bit as well known as the famous Vindication. Charlotte Gordon claims her travel writing was ahead of its time, and much appreciated, especially by Mary and Percy Shelley.

Perhaps we refer to it today because the Vindication is a manifesto, arguing for the acceptance of equality of women and improved education of girls. She was less concerned about how to achieve equality. She lived according to her principles, never financially dependent upon men, never accepting that men’s views had more authority than hers.

Mary’s influence

Since I first picked up A Vindication Mary Wollstonecraft has become much better known, seen as one the major influences on the development of feminism. She has even been called ‘the first suffragette’ to capitalise on the recent film. I don’t think she saw the vote as the way forward for women’s rights.

Newington Green, in north London, was something of a centre of radicalism and still held something of that history when I moved there in the early 1980s. It was an overgrown roundabout, a haunt for winos and rubbish thrown from buses. Islington spent some money on it and it became a nice green space, like a traditional village green, with a children’s playground, a café (intermittently), benches, places to throw Frisbees and to teach your child to ride a bike. Not long before I left a Banksy-like mural appeared on the wall of the former bank, and an appeal was launched for some kind of memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft.

44 M Wolst

The Biography

It’s hard, when you pick up non-fiction, not to just read to confirm what you already know. From Romantic Outlaws I learned how Godwin ruined her reputation after her death, while trying to demonstrate her vulnerability by revealing her sexual behaviour. Her intellectual gifts were subsumed in the subsequent damage to her reputation. Sound familiar? Ever been called aggressive, or shrill? ‘A hyena in petticoats’ was Walpole’s judgement.

I learned that her reputation was damaged and not rescued until Virginia Woolf paid her attention in the Second Common Reader (1923) and as the second wave of feminism got under way in the 70s, her contribution was reassessed and all those biographies written.

I hate the current fashion for rubberised covers of paperbacks. And I hate the Day-Glo pink on this one. It screams romance, girlie stuff. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was neither romantic nor girlie.

 

Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marcy Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. Published in paperback in 2016 by Corsair. 652pp. This book won the biography section of the National (USA) Book Critics Circle Award for 2015.

Related Posts

A post considering Fallen Women, to coincide with the Foundling Museum exhibition was posted in the Autumn.

In May I will be blogging about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden.

 

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