Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was an English novelist. She is known for her famous English gothic novel Frankenstein. She also worked to promote and edit the works of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Romantic poet. Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was a political philosopher, and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist and philosopher.

Shelley was raised by her father as her mother dies instantly after giving her birth. Her father provided her with a rich informal education. He encouraged her to adhere to his own anarchist philosophies and political theories.

Early in her literary career, Marry Shelley was chiefly known for her struggles to promote and publish her husband’s works and her own novel Frankenstein. The novel accomplished instant success. Many scholars are much interested in her works, such as Valperga and Perkin Warbeck, The Last Man, Falkner, and Lodore. She has written in a wide variety of genres, such as historical fiction, apocalyptic novels, science fiction, and gothic literature.

Analyzing her works such as biographical article Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia and travel book Rambles in Germany and Italy shows that Mary Shelley has been a political radical throughout her life. In her works, Shelley argues that sympathy and cooperation practised, particularly by women in the household, are means of reforming society. This idea of Shelley was a challenge to the Romantic ethos based on individualism that her husband advocates. It was also against her father’s Enlightenment political theories.

A Short Biography of Mary Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born on 30th August 1797 in London, England, to William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Her father was a political and philosophical writer while her mother was a feminist. Her mother has authored the book The Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her mother died soon after giving her birth. She has been raised by her father. Shelley also has an older half-sister named Fanny Imlay. Imlay was an illegitimate daughter of Wollstonecraft. 

Shelley’s father married Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801. The dynamics of the family changed as Mary brought her two children. Shelley’s relationship with her stepmother was never stable. Though her stepmother decided to send her daughter Jane to school, she thinks there is no need for Shelley to get an education. 

When Shelley was not grown up, Goodwin’s house was visited by a number of different guests. These guests include William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Though Shelley did not receive a formal education, she extensively used the large library of her father. She was often found reading beside the grave of her mother. Marry would like to go in daydreaming, a way to escape from her challenging home.

In 1812, Shelley visited Scotland and stayed with her father’s acquaintance William Baxter and his family. Over there, she saw a domestic peace that she has never experienced before. In the following year, she again visited Baxter’s home.

In 1814, Mary got into a relationship with a famous romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy Shelley was a student of her father. He was already married when Mary, and he escaped from England. The stepsister of Mary, Jane, also accompanied them. Mary’s father cut her connection with her and did not speak to her for some time.

Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley travelled across Europe for some time. They faced financial struggles and lost their first child in 1815. Mary Shelley gave birth to a baby girl who could only live for a few days. The couple then shifted to Switzerland in the following year. They were together with Jane Clairmont, John Polidori, and Lord Byron.

All of them would entertain themselves by reading. Lord Byron suggested that everyone should write their own gothic stories and Mary Shelley started writing her most famous novel, Frankenstein.

Marry’s half-sister Fanny committed suicide in 1815. Shelley’s first wife also appeared for some time. In 1816, Mary and Shelley finally married. In 1817, Mary published a travelogue History of Six Weeks’ Tour about their escape to Europe. In 1818, she published her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus anonymously. Since Percy Shelley has penned the introduction, most people thought that he had written it. The novel appeared to great success, and the couple shifted to Italy. 

Even though Mary Shelly appears to be a devoted wife, her married life was full of struggles. They were ridiculed for adultery. They suffered the deaths of two more of their children. The only child who could make it to adulthood was Percy Florence, born in 1819. Her husband died in 1822 by drowning and rocked her life with the biggest tragedy.

Mary Shelley, a widow at age 24, worked hard to financially support herself and her son. She wrote a science fiction The Last Man in 1826 and Valperga. She also promoted the poetry of her husband and struggled to preserve his place in literary history.

On 1st February 1851, Mary Shelley died at the age of 53 due to brain cancer.

Mary Shelley’s Writing Style

Mary Shelley lived a literary life from her childhood. She has been encouraged by her father to learn by composing letters. She has been writing stories since childhood. All of her stories were lost when she escaped with Percy Shelley in 1814. Her surviving manuscripts are all dated after 1814. 

The first published literary work of Marry Shelley is considered as Mounseer Nongtongpaw, amusing verses written for the library of her father, William Godwin. However, in the most recent authoritative collection, the poem is now attributed to some other writer. Percy Shelley consistently encouraged Mary Shelley to write. She has attributed her literary career to her husband, saying that he has been inciting her to obtain a literary career. The following are the characters of her literary style.

Autobiographical Elements in Mary Shelley’s Novels

The novels or some particular section of novels of Marry Shelley are sometimes interpreted as autobiographical. Some critics have pointed out that in her works, there is a motif of father-daughter that recurred in her novels. This motif is clear evidence of her autobiographical style.

For example, her novel Mathilda published in 1820, is often read as autobiographical. The three central characters of the novel represent Marry Shelley, William Godwin, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley herself said that she moulded the characters of her novel The Last Man on her Italian circle. Lord Byron is shown as Lord Raymond, who fights for Greek and then dies in Constantinople. She portrays Percy Byron Shelley as the utopian Adrian, Earl of Windsor, as he leads his followers to search for natural paradise and dies by drowning.

However, some critics also restrict reading the novels of Marry Shelley as autobiographical. Even William Goodwin comments that her daughter’s characters are types.

Novelistic Genres

The technique of many different novelist genres has been employed by Marry Shelley. The three vivid novelistic genres she wrote in are Godwinian novels, Gothic novels, and Walter’s Scott’s new historical novel. The Godwinian novels were made popular in the 1790s by Godwin Celeb Williams. These novels employed the Rouseeauvian confessional form in order to explore the conflicting relation between society and self. Shelley’s novel Frankenstein contains many elements of Godwin’s novels.

But Mary Shelley also criticizes the Enlightenment ideals promoted by Godwin in his works. She employed the philosophical form of the Godwinian novel in The Last man to highlight the meaninglessness of the world. While the earlier novel of Godwin portrayed the ideas of how rational humans can improve society, Shelley novels Frankenstein and The Last Man shows how humans lack control over history.

Shelley also uses historical genre in her novels. She employed this genre to emphasize on gender relations. For example, her novel Valperga is the feminist description of the masculinist genre of Walter Scott. Shelley uses the female narrative to put forward her questions on the political and theological record. She introduces those women in her novels that are not in the historical record. The male protagonist that she showed in her novels is greedy for power and conquest and put them in opposition to the female alternative that shows sensibility and reason.

For example, in her novel, Perkin Warbeck, and historical novel, the character of Lady Gordon symbolizes the value of friendship, equality, and domesticity.  Through Lady Gordon, Shelley bids a female alternative to the male power politics that destroys their characters. The novel not only provides masculine historical narratives, but it also provides a more inclusive historical narrative.

Feminism in Mary Shelley’s Works

In the 1970s, feminist literary criticism comes into practice. The works of Marry, Particularly Frankenstein, attracted many feminist critics. A critic Ellen Moers commented that Frankenstein had been greatly influenced by Marry Shelley’s loss of a baby. She says that the novel contains a “birth myth,” in which Shelley projects her guilt as her birth causes the death of her mother and her failure as a mother. Another scholar argues that Frankenstein shows the concept of what happens when a man tries to give birth without any woman. Therefore, the novel is concerned with the unnatural modes of production and reproduction.

The feminist critics also emphasize on how the female authorship is represented in the novels of Shelley. A critic Mellor mentions that Marry Shelley employed the Gothic genre to repress females’ sexual desire and attempts to repress her own speech in Frankenstein. It is also argued that Mary Shelley did not want to endorse her authorial persona.

The writings of Marry Shelley focus on the family role in society and the role of women in that family. She advocates and celebrates the womanly affections and compassion that is mainly associated with family and also suggests that society will fail without a family.

Mary Shelley advocated the ethic of cooperation, self-sacrifice, and mutual dependence. For example, her novel Lodore is an account of the fortune of Lord Lodore’s wife and daughter. Lord Lodore dies in a duel at the end of the first volume and leaves behind a trail of financial, legal, and familial obstacles for his wife and daughter. The novel deals with ideological and political issues such as the education and role of women in society. The novel is separated from the patriarchal culture that pressurizes women to depend on male members. 

Another novel that deals with feminism is Falkner; it is the only novel in which the values of female triumph over the destructive and violent masculinity.

Enlightenment and Romantic Ideals in Mary Shelley’s Works

The masterpiece of Marry Shelley Frankenstein contains a mixture of alienating and instinctual subject matter with the thought-provoking and notional themes. Instead of dealing with the twist and turns of the events, the novel primarily deals with the moral and mental struggle of the protagonist. Shelley saturates the text with her own romanticism that criticizes the egotism and individualism of traditional romanticism.

Victor Frankenstein symbolizes Satan in Prometheus and Paradise Lost. He creates life by rebelling against traditions and tries to shape his own destiny. These traits are not portrayed as something positive.

Mary Shelley advocates the ideas of Enlightenment and asserts that people can improve society by exercising power responsibly. However, she also fears that exercising power irresponsibly can also cause chaos. The works of Marry Shelley mainly criticize the thinkers of the 18th century. For example, Frankenstein read books that are associated with radical ideals. However, the information he gained from these books is useless. The works of Shelley appear to be less optimistic than that of Wollstonecraft and Godwin. She also demonstrates her lack of faith in Godwin’s theory that humanity could be perfected. 

Mary Shelley offers disenchanted arguments of the age of revolution in Frankenstein. She totally rejects the progressive ideal of her own time. She was not only against enlightenment political ideals; she was against the romantic notion that imagination is providing an alternative for mankind’s suffering.  

Political Ideas in Mary Shelley’s Works

The works of Shelley contain political ideas. She is considered as the lifelong reformer who was deeply engaged in the feminist and liberal concerns of the day. She has been electrified by the Liberal uprising in Spain in 1820that forced the king for the constitution. Moreover, in 1823, she wrote articles that dealt with the politics of the time. She supported the Whig party

Some critics have mentioned the Lodore, and Falkner shows the increasing conservatism in the later works of Marry Shelley. A critic has mentioned that Marry Shelley wrote Falkner in order to resolve her opposed response to Godwin’s mixture of social decorum and libertarian radicalism. The critic agreed that she had based her political theory on a metaphor of a loving and peaceful bourgeois family. Therefore, she tacitly permitted a conservative vision of the steady evolutionary reform. This conservative vision lets the woman participate in the public sphere; however, it also inherited the inequalities in the middle-class family.

However, this view has been challenged in the last decade. For example, a critic, Bennett claims that the works of Marry Shelley have a consistent commitment to political reform and romantic ideals. Jane Blumberg argues that it is not easy to divide Shelley’s literary career into conservative and radical halves. She does not completely advocate the radicalism of her husband. The early works of Shelley are considered a challenge to the radicalism of Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Godwin. Shelley’s constant concern for domesticity is seen in the thoughtless rejection of family by William Godwin.

Short Stories of Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley frequently wrote short stories in the 1820s and 1830s for annuals and gift books. These stories were aimed at the middle-class woman. The works of Marry Shelley in this genre are described as “wordy and Pedestrian” and “hack writer.” Mary Shelley published 16 stories in the most successful annual The Keepsake. 

The stories of Marry Shelley are set in a location that is far remote from 19th century Britain. They are set in the reign of Henry IV and in Greece.

Shelley appears to be interested in the insubstantiality of individual identity. She often depicted her characters in the stories in a way, the role of a person can be changed with the upheaval of internal emotion, and by some supernatural events that reflect the internal rupture. Shelley tied female identity to a short life value of a woman in the marriage market while male identity in her stories is sustained or transformed through money.

Even though Marry Shelley had written twenty- one story, she was primarily a novelist.

Travelogues of Mary Shelley

After fleeing to France in 1814, Marry Shelley and Perch Bysshe Shelley started a joint journal which was published in 1817. The title of the Journal is History of Six Week’s Tour. The journal contains the poem “Mont Blanc” by Percy Shelley and four letters, two from each that is based on their journey to Geneva in 1816.

This work deals with youthful love and political idealism. The book follows the example of Mary Wollstonecraft and other writers who write travelogues. It deals with the reformist and philosophical perspective of history rather than being a conventional travelogue. It is based on the ear and politics of France and its effects.

Rambles in Germany and Italy was the last full-length book of Marry Shelley published in the form of letters in 1844. The book is an account of her travels with her son Percy Florence and his university friends. Mary Shelley follows the tradition of writing letters like her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. He mapped her political and personal landscape through sympathy and sensibility.

Shelley asserts that in order to build civil society and increase knowledge, building sympathetic characters between people is very significant. She mentions that

“knowledge, to enlighten and free the mind from clinging deadening prejudices—a wider circle of sympathy with our fellow-creatures;—these are the uses of travel.”

Shelley used her travelogues to explore the role of a mother and widow through observations of culture, scenery, and people from a political point of view. She also reflects the revolutionary nationalism in Italy. In her book, Shelley makes a democratic case against the class distinction, monarchy, slavery, and war.

Biographies of Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley wrote many biographies of the well-known Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese men between 1832 and 1839. She also wrote the biographies of a few women for Dionysius Lardner’s Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men.

These biographies formed a part of Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopedia. It was among the best series that deals with the middle-class demand for self-education.

Works Of Mary Shelley