[The following is an updated reprint of a column which originally appeared in the September 22, 2005, issue of Hellnotes.]
Frankenstein is, without a doubt, one of the major classics of horror. This novel has inspired countless other novels and dozens of stage adaptations and films. Even nearly 200 years after it was published, it continues to find new readers. Not bad for a book written by an 18-year-old.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born on August 30, 1797, in London, England. Her parents were William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary’s father was a novelist and a social theorist, whose 1793 book Enquiry Concerning Political Justice propelled him to fame. Her mother was a pioneer in women’s liberation and wrote the book Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Probably because Mary’s mother died 11 days after she was born (due to complications from childbirth), Mary became extremely attached to her father, and her father favored her over her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, who was three years older. In 1801, Mary’s father met Mary Jane Clairmont, who had two children, and they married later that year. Mary’s relationship with her step-mother was strained because of the woman’s resentment of the intense affection between father and daughter and of the special attention the girl received from other people.
Because of her step-mother’s resentment, Mary never received a formal education. She learned to read from family members. She had access to her father’s excellent library, and her self-education was furthered by listening in on intellectual conversations her father had with various visitors, including listening to Samuel Taylor Coleridge read his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
In November 1812, when Mary returned to London from a stay in Scotland, she met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley, who were frequent visitors to her father’s house. Percy was highly educated and had published two novels before he was 17. Mary and Percy soon began a love affair, and in 1814, they traveled together in Europe.
In 1816, the family moved to Switzerland, where Mary and Percy met and befriended Lord Byron. One rainy evening in June 1816, during a summer of violent thunderstorms in the Geneva area, Mary, Percy, Byron, and others gathered at a villa on Lake Geneva and read aloud German ghost stories, one of which was about the reanimation of a stolen corpse head. Byron suggested they each write a horror story. Mary started on Frankenstein, which she continued working on in London when they moved back shortly thereafter.
In 1816, both Fanny and Harriett committed suicide. In December of that year, Mary and Percy married. Together they had four children, from 1815 to 1819, three of whom died in childhood (after her first baby died in 1815, Mary had a dream about a baby being brought back to life). Many critics have pointed out the connection between all these deaths and the themes of creation and death in Frankenstein.
Mary’s first published book was a travelogue with the imposing title History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: With Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (1817). She later published another, better received travel book, Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844).
On April 17, 1817, Mary finished writing Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (in Greek mythology, Prometheus was a cousin of Zeus, who is said to have fashioned the first man from clay, after which the goddess Athena breathed life into the figure). Despite Percy’s efforts, the book did not easily find a publisher. A not-quite-reputable house, Lackington and Hughes, published the book anonymously on March 11, 1818.
Despite receiving mixed reviews, Frankenstein launched Mary on her literary career. But Death was not finished with her. Her fifth pregnancy, in 1822, ended in miscarriage and nearly resulted in her death. Later that year, Percy drowned in a storm at sea. Mary continued writing, though she produced little else as remarkable as Frankenstein. The remainder of her life was just as unremarkable. With an allowance from Percy’s father and her income from writing, Mary and her remaining child, Percy Florence Shelley, lived quietly.
Mary wrote several other novels, most of them romances: Matilda (written in 1819 but not published until 1959), Valperga; or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, a Romance (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner: A Novel (1837). She wrote another fantastic novel, The Last Man (1826), which tells of the sole survivor of a world-wide plague in the twenty-first century.
Mary also penned a number of short stories, using fantastic themes in just a few of them. In “Valerius: The Reanimated Roman” (1819) and “Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman” (1826), the title characters are brought back to life in contemporary times. “The Mortal Immortal: A Tale” (1833) tells the story of a 323-year-old man who had taken an elixir of immortality. In “Transformation” (1831), the protagonist and a misshapen dwarf exchange bodies. The heroine in “The Dream” (1832) employs a superstitious religious ritual to determine her future love.
Many of her stories were written for women’s annuals, such as The Keepsake. These luxurious publications were brought out every year just in time for holiday gift-giving and were popular in nineteenth-century Britain. They featured sentimental fiction, poetry, and engraved illustrations. Though the writing was generally considered second-rate by critics, the annuals were important in the development of the short story in the nineteenth century.
In 1831, Mary published a second edition of Frankenstein, for which she wrote a new introduction. This edition made significant changes to the earlier work; for instance, making the story more socially presentable by changing Victor Frankenstein’s love interest, Elizabeth, from his first cousin to a non-relative.
Frankenstein was first published in the United States in 1833 by Carey, Lea & Blanchard of Philadelphia. The first foreign-language edition was a French translation that appeared in 1821. No other foreign-language editions were published until the twentieth century.
Mary also wrote a couple of plays, essays, and biographical sketches. In addition, she edited Percy’s works.
Mary died of a brain tumor on February 1, 1851, in London.
Frankenstein is widely available in numerous editions, and the other novels are easily found. The Mortal Immortal: The Complete Supernatural Short Fiction of Mary Shelley (Tachyon Publications) contains all five of her horror stories.