For this last Femme Fatale Friday of October, and in celebration of Gothic Week 2021, I have chosen to discuss Mary Shelley! Mary Shelley was the daughter of the great feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft and the writer William Godwin. Mary would lead a rebellious life, making her a perfect choice for Femme Fatale Friday. She would have a famous love story with Percy Shelley, and would of course write Frankenstein!
When Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was a teenager her father became acquainted with Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy had long been a fan of both of Mary’s parents and their work. Percy had also been leading a life based on principles her learned from their writings! Mary had only ever known her mother through her writing, since she had died giving birth to her. Mary had spent her childhood in the home of her father and step-mother.
Percy Shelley became immediately enamored with Mary, even though he was already married. He had entered into an impetuous and ill-advised marriage due to Romantic sensibilities, and wanting to help out a girl who was rather poorer than himself. He quickly had tired of his wife, and had not been in much contact with her, even though they did have children (she was in fact pregnant when he met Mary). There is a very popular belief that Mary actually lost her virginity to Percy on her mother’s grave! This macabre story has some possible validity in the fact that she often spent much time at her mother’s grave, and we know that they first declared their love there (through their writings). It is not crazy to think that they consummated that very love right then and there! How fitting is that for a woman considered the original Goth! Even though he was already married, Mary was the one who Percy knew would be his perfect match, and the two told her father of their love for one another.
Much to their chagrin, Godwin did not accept their love. He was aghast that Percy had abandoned his wife, and now wanted to take up with Godwin’s daughter. Shelley explained to Godwin that he believed love could exist and be true without marriage. After all was that not the very principle that Godwin himself had written about many a time! Godwin, like most fathers, wanted his daughter to live a life different from him and her mother had. He tried to prevent Mary and Percy from being together.
This only led to Shelley and Mary running away together, and eloping (even though they could not yet officially marry). They did not run away alone though, as Mary brought with her Claire Clairmont, her step-sister! Claire would become an important figure in some of the events of their relationship, most importantly it was Claire that inspired them to go to Geneva in the summer of 1816. It was that summer that would birth the idea, and beginnings, of Frankenstein!
In the early years of their relationship, Mary and Percy lived by their own bohemian rules. She gave birth to at least one child that died, and others that lived only a couple of years. They would end up having one son that survived to adulthood, and he was who Mary doted on, and devoted herself to after Percy’s death.
During the summer of 1816 Claire heard that her lover George Gordon, Lord Byron, was spending time in Geneva. She asked Percy and Mary to accompany her there. So the group of three went to meet with Byron and John Polidori, Byron’s doctor friend who was also a member of the group that summer. Claire was there, in part, to tell Byron she was carrying his child!
As the summer progressed the group would have many adventures. Including Polidori developing feelings for Mary (at least by some accounts) and Percy seeming totally fine with the love of his life bedding other people. It was a main tenet of his life philosophy that they were allowed to bed who they liked, as long as they came back to one another at the end of the night (so to speak)! Mary was all for living a rebellious and bohemian life, however, she did not want to bed anyone else. She rebuffed the advances of other men, even if Shelley was all about free love.
The most important thing to come out of that summer was the writings. Polidori wrote his novella The Vampyre, and Mary began work on Frankenstein. Initially most people believed that Byron had written Polidori’s work, since the main character was based on Byron, and that Percy had written Mary’s work. In fact both writers had to work hard to get recognition for their own works! Mary would go on to become a household name, and recognized as one of the greatest horror writers ever.
Mary and Shelley would finally be able to marry after his first wife committed suicide! Yes, that is correct, the great lovers built their relationship and marriage on the bones of his first wife. The woman killed herself because of Percy abandoning her. It must also be mentioned that Mary’s half sister also committed suicide (some say she also was in love with Shelley, and was upset he loved her sister instead). I think Mary felt guilt over this, and even maybe thought that the death of some of her children was a curse based on how Percy and her began. Her only child to live to adulthood was a son born after they had finally legally married!
She would be widowed very young when Byron died in a boating accident. She would devote the rest of her life to their son and her writing. She famously said that she would never remarry, and that “Mary Shelley will be the name on my epithet.” It is even said that she kept his heart as a keepsake after his death, and once again this is a very fitting thing for a horror novelist! I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about this amazing woman. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Mary and Percy. I found the image on https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/12/the-strange-and-twisted-life-of-frankenstein.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Gothic (1986)
- Mary Shelley (2017)