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This Week In History

February 1, 1851. Mary Shelley.

 

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, better known by her husband´s surname, Mary Shelley, was a British writer, mostly remembered for being the author of the Gothic novel Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818), which is actually considered to be the first modern science-fiction novel, starting the genre. She also published and promoted Percy Bysshe Shelley´s works, romantic poet and philosopher, as well as her husband.
Both her father and her mother were reputed philosophers and politicians, her mother being also a famous feminist activist that unfortunately died after giving birth of puerperal fever. She received from her father, William Godwin, an education that urged her to join liberal politics, and gave her to read her mother´s memoirs and books, that incremented Mary´s devotion to her.

Although her education was not formal, her father tutored her in a wide range of subjects. He took her to lectures of all types, and she had a governess and a daily tutor, an unusual and pretty advanced education for a girl of this time. She also read the books her father had written on Roman and Greek history for children. At the age of 15, her father described her as “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

In 1814, Mary started a sentimental relationship with one of her father´s political followers, Percy Blysshe Shelley, best known for his poem Ozymandias, who had been alienated by his aristocratic family because of his political revolutionary thoughts and was at that moment already married. They travelled together through Europe and lived briefly together in France. When they returned to England, Mary was already pregnant. During the two following years, Mary was frequently ill, their newborn daughter died, and she had to cope with the loss, the happiness of Percy for the birth of his son in his marriage and his constant outings with Claire Clairmont, her step-sister.

“Journal 6 December—Very Unwell. Shelley & Clary walk out, as usual, to heaps of places…A letter from Hookham to say that Harriet has been brought to bed of a son and heir. Shelley writes a number of circular letters on this event, which ought to be ushered in with ringing of bells, etc., for it is the son of his wife” (quoted in Spark, 39).

In January 1816, Mary gave birth to a second child, named William after her father. During the summer of that year, the couple spent some time with Lord Byron (that had a relationship with Claire at that time) and Claire at Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. At this time, Mary started to conceive her novel Frankenstein. They were finally married in late 1816, when Percy´s wife committed suicide.

The couple left England again and moved to Italy, living in Naples first and in Rome later, where their second and third sons died before her giving birth to their fourth child, the only one that would survive, Percy Florence. One year after Percy´s death, drowned during a tempest in the Bay of La Spezia, Mary Shelley returned to England, where she dedicated entirely to her writing and the education of her son. The last decade of her life was fraught with frequent illnesses, probably caused by a brain tumor, that would end her life at the age of 53, on February 1, 1851.

Until 1970, Mary Shelley was first and foremost known for her efforts to publish her husband´s works, as well as for her novel Frankenstein, which is still widely read and has inspired several adaptations both in theatre and films. More recently, historians have started to study in detail all of her achievements. Scholars have focused their interest in her literature, specially her novels, which include the historical novels Valperga (1823) and Perkin Warbeck (1830), the apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826) and her final two novels, Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837). Studies about her lesser known works reveal that Mary Shelley was throughout all her life a radical politician, as they argument that cooperation and piety, practiced by women within their families, are the only way to make a change in civil society.

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