"A Brief Biography of Mary Shelley" by Kristen Warder

On August 30th, 1797, Mary Godwin was born to the famous philosopher William Godwin,, who was hailed as the age of reason's chief apostle and who wrote the extremely well received article "An Enquiry into Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness," and the women's rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the groundbreaking text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1-4). Eleven days later, on September 10th, Mary Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever caused by complications in childbirth, as the placenta did not descend after the baby was born (16-7). Thus, the newborn Mary and her three year old half-sister Fanny were left in the care of the grief-stricken William Godwin (17). Within a year of Mary Wollstonecraft's death, however, Godwin began searching for a new partner and found one in his next door neighbour Mary Jane Clairmont, who had two children of her own: Charles aged seven and the willful Jane aged four (19-21). Thus, on December 21st, 1801, Godwin and Mary Jane Clairmont were married, and in 1802 they had their own son. Mr. and Mrs. Godwin named their new-born son William, the name that Godwin had once anticipated calling Mary, before she was born a girl (21-4).

The marriage of Godwin and Mary Jane Clairmont had serious consequences for young Mary, as the Clairmonts moved in with the Godwins and Mary was constantly subjected to the company of her step-sister Jane and her step-mother Mary, both of whom young Mary was afraid. Indeed, Jane is reported to have had volatile moods and to have been wild in her youth, while Mary Jane Godwin is reported to have possessed a hot temper and to have perpetually favoured her own children while picking on the shy, solemn Mary (22-4). Thus, Eileen Bigland reports that by the time Mary was eight years old, she was solitary, withdrawn, and had developed that "persecution mania" that was to haunt her for her entire life (24). Indeed, Mary yearned for love, but instead she was crammed with learning from her father, and because she was smarter than Mrs. Godwin's children, Mrs. Godwin persecuted her and told her that she was sly, slow, stupid, useless, and selfish (27). This verbal abuse had such a profound effect on Mary that by 1811 the nerves in one of Mary's arms were bothering her (27). Consequently, she went to Dundee, Scotland in June 1812 to stay with William Baxter. In Scotland, Mary regained both her physical and mental health and lived happily until May 1814, at which time Godwin ordered his seventeen year old girl to return home in order that she begin to earn her own living (35).<?P>

Once home, through her father whom Shelley idolized, Mary met the married Percy Shelley and was immediately attracted to him (38). Mary and Percy soon fell so deeply and hopelessly in love that not only would they spend hours talking and philosophizing together in the evening, but they would also take their books and meet at Mary Wollstonecraft's grave in the afternoon (38). On July 6th, 1814, only a month or two after Mary and Percy had met, Shelley gave Godwin twelve hundred pounds and asked Godwin to consent to his running away with Mary (41). Godwin took Shelley's money but vehemently forbade Shelley to continue seeing Mary. Thus, on July 27th, Mary, Percy, and Mary's step-sister Jane ran away to Switzerland together (43) On August 30th, Mary celebrated her seventeenth birthday (43).

Once in Switzerland, the erratic and mentally unstable Jane decided to change her name to Claire and attempted to get even more attention by throwing an attack of the "horrors," in which she claimed that a pillow on her bed had been moved to the chair by no evident human power when she had turned her head (55). Percy describes Claire in terms similar to those in which Mary later describes the daemon in Frankenstein:

Jane was there; her countenance was distorted most unnaturally by horrible dismay- it beamed with a whiteness that seemed almost like light; her lips and cheeks were of one deadly hue; the skin of her face and forehead was drawn into innumerable wrinkles.... her eyes were wide and staring, drawn almost from the sockets by the convulsion of the muscles; the eyelids were forced in, and the eyeballs, without any relief, seemed as if they had been newly inserted, in a ghastly sport, in the sockets of a lifeless head. (55)
Although Shelley sat up through the night with Claire to calm her, when dawn came Claire went into violent convulsions and "shrieked and writhed on the floor" (56).

Shelley seemed to like the element of the fantastic about Jane, however, and thus spent much time with her in Switzerland (56). Indeed, Mary saw very little of Percy when they were in Switzerland, for she was sick during her first days of pregnancy and Percy would go out gallavanting with Claire every day (56). Thus, Mary came to depend very heavily on Thomas Hogg, who would often visit her in the daytime when Percy and Claire had deserted her (60). Indeed, during her stay in Switzerland, Mary became very depressed because she felt abandoned daily, she was sick, and she was unmarried (56-60). Her depression was made worse after Percy's wife Harriet had his son Charles Bysshe on November 30th, because this boy was Shelley's rightful heir, while the baby that Mary was carrying was an "illegitimate nobody" (61). Because Shelley was out every day, because the relentless creditors were pursuing him, and because Shelley had to leave again to evade his creditors, Mary became both nervously and physically sick (64). Possibly as a result, on February 22nd, 1815, Mary gave birth to a premature girl who was only at the beginning of the third trimester, and thus not expected to live. Twelve days later, on March 6th, Mary woke up to find her unnamed child dead beside her (66). This threw Mary into a new state of intense depression.

On January 24th, 1816, however, Mary gave birth to a healthy son William, who was an extremely happy child (74). Only a few months after William was born, Claire convinced Mary and Shelley to accompany her to the lake of Geneva where Lord Byron was seeking sanctuary. Although Claire did not reveal her real motives for wanting to go to Geneva, she later revealed that she had asked Shelley and Mary to accompany her to Geneva because she had had a liaison with Lord Byron, was pregnant with his child, and wanted to force him to make a settlement on her (82, 91). Without first knowing this, on May 3rd, Mary, Claire, Shelley, and young William left for Geneva, where Byron and Shelley met and became good friends (80). Byron and Shelley spent much time together discussing magic, superstition, and supernatural subjects (84). Thus, one evening in July, Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, and Byron's doctor Dr. Polidori resolved that they would each write their own ghost story (84). Mary had trouble beginning her story, until Byron and Percy argued one evening about whether or not the principle of life could ever be discovered, and concluded that galvanic methods might be able to restore life to a corpse (84). Soon after, Mary began Frankenstein. Mary, Percy, Claire, and William then left Switzerland for Bath on August 29th, 1816 (85).

When Mary and Shelley returned to Bath, Shelley ran around London trying to raise more money for his mentor Godwin, and Mary pursued her Classical studies (94). A few months after they had returned to England, on October 11th, 1816, Mary's half-sister Fanny was found dead after she had committed suicide by overdosing on laudanum (94). There were many reasons that led Fanny to kill herself: she was jealous of Mary and Percy, Claire was pregnant and had been living in Switzerland with Mary and Percy, her real mother Mary Wollstonecraft was dead, and she had just found out that William Godwin was not her biological father (95). Another death occurred when just over two months later, Percy's wife Harriet was found drowned in the Serpentine (99). This allowed Percy and Mary to get married before their next baby was born. Thus, they married on December 30, 1816, and Mary gave birth to a baby girl Clara on September 2, 1817 (103, 112). Unfortunately, baby Clara became ill and died on September 26th, 1818, just after she turned one year old (123-5). As a result, Mary went into another severe depression. The death of Clara affected Mary much more seriously than did her miscarriage three years earlier, although she made attempts to combat her grief (125). While Mary was melancholy, grief-stricken, and lonely, she wrote Godwin a letter telling her about her deceased baby, and he was extremely unsympathetic to her pain (125). As a result, Mary began to retreat into herself and ceased talking even to Percy (125).

The one joy remaining in Mary's life was her son William. However, when Mary, Percy, and William were living in Naples, they were warned by their friend Dr. Bell to remove both Percy and William from the Roman heat as soon as possible because they both would most likely not be able to endure it (133). Mary and Percy did not leave because they refused to believe that William was frail after he had recovered so well from a sickness in May (133). Thus, when William fell ill on June 2nd, both Percy and Mary were shocked to hear that William was desperately sick (134). In fact, his fever had so progressed that William had not the strength to recover. He died five days later on June 7th, at the age of three and a half (134). Although Mary was crushed by the loss of her young son and became even more emotionally removed from Percy, even more unbearably, she was pregnant at the time and felt that she could not give birth to another child only to lose it later (134). Luckily this did not happen. She gave birth to Percy Florence on November 12th, 1819, and he was Mary's only surviving child (142).

Tragedy struck three years later, however. First, Mary almost died after a bad miscarriage on June 6th, 1822. Then, almost immediately afterwards, on July 8th, Shelley set out in a storm on his boat the "Don Juan" and drowned. Many people think that the boat was boarded by money-seeking pirates, who believed Byron to be on board (194). On July 15th, the three corpses of Percy, Edward Williams, and Charles Vivian floated ashore (198), Interestingly, Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, and Edward John Trelawney burnt Percy's body atop a funeral pyre in Italy, with a copy of John Keats' last book (200).

After Shelley died, Mary moved back to London (214). As she had never fully believed in her own writing, she was surprised to find that she had become a literary celebrity (214). She soon began writing her novel The Last Man, but as she was emotionally exhausted at the age of twenty-five most of her later works were not very accomplished (201). She did not become financially independent until Sir Timothy Shelley died in April 1844, and her son Percy inherited his father's legacies. By January 1851, paralysis had attacked her and she found herself extremely helpless, until she died on February 1st, 1851, at the age of fifty-three.

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