by Beverley Townsend
Thirteen private letters written by Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, have recently been found at the Essex Records Office archives. The letters were written between 1831 and 1849 to family friends Horace Smith, a stockbroker and author and his daughter Eliza who Mary had become close to following the death of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. The letters cover many subjects including: Mary summoning a hairdresser at 3am so she could look her best for William IV’s coronation the following morning.
I read Frankenstein many years ago and became curious about the author.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in London 1797, the second daughter of famed educator, and writer Mary and the equally famous anarchist philosopher William Godwin. Her mother died ten days after her birth and her father, left to care for Mary and her older half-sister quickly married again. Under his tutelage, Mary received an excellent education, unusual for girls at the time.
She met Percy Bysshe Shelley a political radical and free-thinker like her father, when Percy and his first wife, Harriet, visited Godwin’s home and bookshop in London. Percy, unhappy in his marriage, began to visit Mary more frequently (and alone). In the summer of 1814 he and Mary (then only 16) fell in love. They eloped to France. Upon their return several weeks later, the young couple were dismayed to find that Godwin, whose views on free love apparently did not apply to his daughter, refused to see them. Despite disillusionment and tragedy, Percy was the love of her life. Percy, too, was more than satisfied with his new partner in these first years. Mary and Percy shared a love of languages and literature.
During May of 1816, the couple travelled to Lake Geneva to summer near the famous and scandalous poet, Lord Byron. One night, however, she had a “waking dream” then set herself to put the story on paper. In time it would be published as Frankenstein. Its success would endure long after the other writings produced that summer had faded.
Frankenstein is full of references to her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her major work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which discusses the lack of equal education for males and females. The inclusion of her mother’s ideas in her work is also related to the theme of creation/motherhood in the novel.
Returning to England in September of 1816, Mary and Percy were stunned by two family suicides in quick succession. On October 9th 1816, Mary’s older half-sister, Fanny Imlay, left the Godwin home and took her own life at a distant inn. On December 10th, Percy’s first wife drowned herself in London’s Hyde Park. Discarded and pregnant, she had not welcomed Percy’s invitation to join Mary and himself in their new household.
Over the following years, Mary’s household grew to include her own children by Percy, who moved his ménage from place to place first in England and then in Italy. Mary suffered the death of her infant daughter Clara outside Venice, after which her young son Will died too, in Rome, as Percy moved the household yet again. By now Mary had resigned herself to her husband’s self-centered restlessness and his romantic enthusiasms for other women. The birth of her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, consoled her somewhat for her losses.
Eventually the group settled in Lerici, Italy but it was an ill-fated choice. It was from here, in July 1822, that Percy sailed up the Adriatic Sea coast to Livorno to plan the founding of a journal with a group of friends. Caught in a storm on his return, he drowned at sea on July 8, 1822, aged 29. Mary was tireless in promoting her late husband’s work, including editing and annotating unpublished material.
She wrote a few more novels, including Valperga, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, and Falkner. Critics say these works do not begin to approach the power of Frankenstein; however, The Last Man, a pioneering science fiction novel of the human apocalypse in the distant future, is sometimes considered her best work, as is Maria, a novel published posthumously. Matilda is a short novel which was not published until the 1950’s.
Mary Shelley died of brain cancer in 1851, aged 53, in London and was interred at St. Peter’s Churchyard in Bournemouth. At the time of her death, she had become a recognized novelist.
To see the Mary Shelley letters which are housed at the Essex Records Office visit: seax.essexcc.gov.uk and search reference d/drh c102